Building on the Iran Deal: Steps Toward a Middle Eastern Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone

The July 14 agreement between Iran and the six-country group known as the P5+1 established a set of important limitations and related transparency measures on Iran’s nuclear activities.

Approved unanimously by the UN Security Council on July 20, the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aims “to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful” and thus to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation. To this end, it imposes limits for a decade or more on Iran’s use of the key technologies required to make highly enriched uranium (HEU) and to separate plutonium, the fissile materials that are the critical ingredients in nuclear weapons.

Other states in the Middle East, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are planning to establish their own nuclear power programs during the period that the Iran deal is expected to be in force. This has led to concerns about how Iran and other countries in the region will act when restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program end. To address such concerns, this article proposes that the P5+1 and the states of the Middle East use the next decade to agree on region-wide restraints based on the key obligations of the Iran deal as steps toward establishing a Middle Eastern nuclear-weapon-free zone, preferably as part of a regional zone free of all weapons of mass destruction (WMD).1 These measures would ban the separation of plutonium, limit the level of uranium enrichment, place enrichment plants under multinational control, and cap and reduce Israel’s existing stocks of fissile materials available for use in nuclear weapons, in time eliminating its arsenal through a step-by-step process.

These are intermediate steps to a nuclear-weapon-free zone that would establish strong, new technical and political barriers to any future attempts by countries in the region to seek a nuclear weapons capability. Although different Middle Eastern states may favor different sequencing of these and other steps, all of the intermediate steps presented below have nonproliferation and disarmament value in their own right. Individually and in groups, states in the region should be encouraged to adopt these steps as way stations toward the larger goal of a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East. They also should be pursued globally as steps toward global nuclear disarmament, especially by the five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), who all have nuclear weapons and with Germany make up the P5+1.

As in the Iran deal, verification arrangements will be important. Covert proliferation has a long history in the Middle East, starting with Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960s and continuing with the violations by Iraq, Libya, and Syria of their commitments under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and most recently the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program. Given this history and the deep mutual suspicions of countries in the region, a robust regional safeguards, monitoring, and verification regime may add to the confidence provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear safeguards system.

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“Building on the Iran Deal: Steps Toward a Middle Eastern Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone,” Arms Control Today, Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, and Frank von Hippel. Published by Arms Control Today (12/2015).