A recent UN General Assembly resolution renews attention on the need to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. The resolution calls on Israel to open its nuclear program for inspection, and to back a high-level conference to ban nuclear weapons from the Middle East that was recently canceled.
The U.N. resolution, approved by a vote of 174-6 with 6 abstentions, calls on Israel to join the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) “without further delay” and open its nuclear facilities for inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Joining Israel in the negative vote were the United States, Canada, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.
The planned conference on this issue, to take place in Helsinki in mid-December, was going to be attended by all Arab nations and Iran. The United States, however, announced in November 23 that it wouldn’t take place, citing political instability in the region, as well as Iran’s policy on non proliferation of nuclear weapons. Although the resolutions adopted by the U.N. General Assembly are non-binding, they carry political weight and reflect world opinion on an issue.
The NPT is a landmark international treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and technology, as well as promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and, ultimately, to lead to complete disarmament. It was opened for signature in 1968 but only entered into force in 1970. In May 1995, it was extended indefinitely.
Until now, 190 parties have joined the Treaty, including the known five nuclear-weapon states: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China, which are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Confirmation of the Treaty’s significance is that more countries have ratified the NPT than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement in history.
Four non-parties to the treaty are known or are widely believed to possess nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. India, Pakistan and North Korea have openly tested and declared that they have nuclear weapons. Israel, however, has had a “policy of opacity” regarding its nuclear weapons program. North Korea acceded to the treaty in 1985. It never came into compliance with it, and withdrew in 2003.
Both Iran and Israel are key players in efforts to have a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. Iran launched its nuclear program in the 1950s with the help of the United States as part of the Atoms for Peace program. The cooperation of the US and Western European governments with Iran’s nuclear program continued until 1979, when the Iranian Revolution toppled the Shah of Iran.
Iran has had a contentious relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In November 2011, the agency’s Board of Governors rebuked Iran after an IAEA report indicated that Iran had undertaken research aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability. Iran rejected the conclusions of the report and accused the IAEA of pro-Western bias, indicating also that it would reduce its cooperation with that agency.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged continued dialogue between both parties.
Although estimates of the size of Israel’s nuclear arsenal vary between 75 and 400 nuclear warheads, it is believed that the country has the ability to deliver them by intercontinental ballistic missile, aircraft and submarine. Alone or with other nations, Israel has used diplomatic and military efforts to prevent other countries in the Middle East from developing nuclear weapons.
However, short of a military attack on Iran, it is believed that that country may eventually be able to develop them, thus adding to the instability of an already instable region of the world. As things stand now, it is crucial to pursue an open and verifiable policy on nuclear weapons, where cooperation of both Iran and Israel is crucial for peace in that region, and in the world.