The idea of creating a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East is not new and dates back to the 1970s. Nevertheless, the security landscape in the Middle East today has led many analysts to take a fresh look at the concept. To most, the potential arms race in the Middle East threatens the prospects for stability and long-term balance of power in the region. Israel, Iran, and Egypt appear to be among the key players in determining the success or failure of this type of thinking over the next decades. Decades of tension between regional states has contributed to mutual misperception of security challenges and a possible drive towards nuclear weapons proliferation. One such country in the region that has the capacity to produce nuclear weapons is Iran.
Iran’s nuclear issue remains a key factor in the current and future security configuration in the Middle East—as it could trigger an accelerated nuclearization of the region. This is a challenge to the security of the Middle East and beyond. The United States, Russia and key states in the Middle East region (Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Israel) are among the actors directly exposed to the security implications of the nuclear case. Given the challenging position of the United States, Israel, and the Gulf Arab states on Iran’s nuclear program, the fundamental question is how the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) will affect the security of the Middle East and the response of these countries towards it.
Due to the long history of WMD proliferation in the region, there is suspicion that key Middle Eastern countries have the desire to build or acquire nuclear weapons. Indeed, there are international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and the extent to which it can be diverted towards weaponization. While the sole nuclear weapons state in the region, Israel, contributes to the imbalance in the region and a major reason for broader impetus for nuclear proliferation. Iran’s nuclear program and regional influence can change the security order of the Middle East either towards collective security or trigger regional proliferation. Therefore, this paper will begin by addressing Israel’s nuclear weapons and then proceed to shed light on Iran’s nuclear program with a final look at the impact of the JCPOA on regional security.
Israel’s nuclear program
Israel is the only nuclear weapons state in the Middle East. Clarification of Israel’s nuclear policies and capabilities is difficult due to its policy of ambiguity. Since 1963 Israel’s official position is that it “will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East”.[i]This has been broadly interpreted to mean that Israel will not test or publicly declare the existence of its nuclear weapons.[ii]Israel remains one of the few countries in the world not adhering to major WMD disarmament conventions, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In April 2010, the country reaffirmed its policy of deliberate ambiguity regarding its nuclear arsenal. Then Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, stated, “This policy will continue and no pressure from any country will make it change”.[iii] During the same year, then Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, indicated that the international community should not expect Israel to join the NPT anytime soon. Israel signed the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996 but has not ratified the treaty. It is one of the designated Annex II states that must ratify the treaty before it can enter into force. Israel opposes a fissile material cut-off treaty on the basis that it would undermine Israel’s official position of ambiguity on nuclear weapons. Like the rest of the nuclear weapon states, it has not signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).[iv] As a step towards nuclear nonproliferation in the region, Israel would need to provide transparency for its covert nuclear weapons program, be encouraged to join the NPT and allow IAEA inspectors to visit all of its nuclear sites. However, with the US and other Western countries all turning a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear arsenal and providing advanced military capabilities, it appears unlikely that Israel will join any multilateral disarmament treaties in the short term. In 2016, the US and Israeli governments signed their third 10-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on military aid for 2019 until 2028. Under the terms of the MOU, the US pledged to provide—subject to Congressional appropriation—another $49 billion in military aid to Israel.
While Israel has supported the vision of a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, it has been reluctant to negotiate establishing such a zone, asserting that comprehensive peace in the region is a precondition to enter negotiations.[v] Following the 2020 Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab countries (UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan), there is a possibility that Israel could be more likely to be involved in the zone negotiations. Arab countries, including those who have moved ahead with normalization of relations with Israel, continue to support the establishment of a WMD Free Zone that would require Israel to ultimately dismantle its nuclear arsenal.[vi]
Iran’s nuclear program
Iran’s advanced nuclear program has also alarmed the regional and international community as it could be diverted towards nuclear weapons. While Iran maintains that its nuclear program is purely peaceful, it does have the capability to build a nuclear weapon and therefore is seen as a possible threat to nuclear non-proliferation. Having the capability to build a nuclear weapon does not equate to having one, or even necessarily moving further toward one. The breakout time, which is an artificial concept, might be a useful yardstick for measuring the distance between a country’s civilian and potential military nuclear capabilities, but it should not be a casus belli. Neither US nor Israeli intelligence agencies observe evidence of an Iranian decision to build a bomb, and even if Tehran resolves to do so, it will likely need more than a year to accumulate enough fissile material for a warhead, attach it to a delivery system and conduct a test.[vii] For its part, Iran has made it clear that it has no intention, at least for now, to enrich uranium to 90 per cent purity even if the JCPOA talks fail. Iran’s nuclear latency would clearly carry risks, but so, too, would pre-emptive strikes, which could well provoke a wider escalation.[viii] Other countries of concern in the region are Saudi Arabia and UAE. Both having started expanding their nuclear programs.
Security framework for the Middle East
Since the end of the Second World War, there have been multiple attempts to develop a regional security framework in the Middle East—but so far it has not been successful. There is, however, renewed hope that there is a new window of opportunity for regional countries to forge closer relations, build trust and form the basis for regional security cooperation. One possible contribution to the trust building is the successful revival of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal or JCPOA signed between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, – plus Germany). The JCPOA has come under major strain following US withdrawal from the accord in 2018 by the decision of former US President Donald Trump. His administration then went on to impose the most comprehensive sanctions on Iran through what became known as Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy. The withdrawal and imposition of sanctions have been a turning point for the importance of multilateralism and effectiveness of diplomacy. But the change of governments in the United States and Iran in 2021 has created a possibility to save the nuclear deal. The governments of President Biden and Iran’s new President Ebrahim Raisi have begun new negotiations that continue to this day and have publicly announced that they have made meaningful progress. In fact, President Raisi promised in his first televised interview in September 2021 that nuclear talks would continue under his government and that “result-oriented” talks would be held to lift the sanctions.[ix]
The JCPOA seeks to reduce Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, place intrusive inspections and monitoring of all nuclear facilities and make sure Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful. In return, the world powers agree to lift nuclear-related sanctions on Iran and allow the country to continue research and development on peaceful nuclear technologies. The United States is also calling for strong International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) oversight measures that are indefinite and can ensure Iran’s adherence. In contrast, the JCPOA requires suspension and lifting of US, European Union (EU) and United Nations Security Council nuclear sanctions against Iran. Taken together, additional restrictions and transparency measures will provide the international community with a powerful set of tools to promptly detect and deter an Iranian attempt to pursue nuclear weapons well beyond the time-based limitations placed on its nuclear program.[x]
Despite a promising start, the nuclear deal remains controversial in Tehran and Washington, as well as in several Middle Eastern countries. The leaders of Middle East countries are considering how they can ensure their security in the coming years. Their concern is in three areas:
First, Middle East leaders say the nuclear deal does not prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Key restrictions on enriched uranium and plutonium production will expire after 10 and 15 years, allowing Iran to expand its nuclear capabilities. While proponents of the deal argue that under the agreement Iran’s paths to nuclear weapons will be closed—opponents are not convinced that the measures under the deal would be sufficient to deter Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The most vocal of opponents include key regional rivals of Tehran, namely Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel.[xi] Advanced centrifuges and missile delivery systems could also affect the Middle East security framework. Therefore, if the JCPOA is not revived, other countries in the region may consider nuclear weapons proliferation as the only path towards maintaining their security.
Second, key regional rivals of Iran believe that this agreement will not prevent Iran’s destabilizing regional actions. Some of Iran’s neighbors accuse Tehran of interfering in their internal affairs, using proxy forces such as Hezbollah and theHouthi movementto advance their political and ideological goals. Iran is also accused of directly intervening in the Syrian and Yemeni civil war, and generally creating instability and weakening rival governments. There are also concerns over the fact that the JCPOA would open the floodgates for Iran to receive billions of dollars in previously frozen assets and renewed economic activities. In their view, the strengthening of Iran’s economy will contribute to the country further expanding its regional influence and clout at the expense of other countries.[xii]
On the one hand, the nuclear issue has been a cover for Iran’s regional enemies to contain Iran. At present, the most important concerns of Israel seem to be Hezbollah and Iran, while the main concerns of Saudi Arabia are Yemen and Iran’s support for the Houthis. On the other hand, a regional security structure is a major contributor to building lasting peace in the region and the JCPOA is a step in the right direction (in removing the concerns over Iran’s nuclear program). Iran and its opponents may have differing views on issues that go beyond the nuclear file, but it is in everyone’s interest to address them in a specific framework through negotiation and cooperation.[xiii]
Third, the agreement is part of a shift in regional security that is unfavorable to the US’s traditional allies such as Sunni Arab countries and Israel. These states fear that the revival of the JCPOA could lead to the US recognizing Iran’s role in the region and take a more nuanced approach to its traditional allies. In addition, the JCPOA and engagement with Iran can be a major turning point for the US to reduce its military presence in the region at the expense of the perceived security of its allies.[xiv]
There is, however, a recent shift in regional attitudes toward the JCPOA that underscores a recognition that whatever its perceived flaws in 2015, the downsides of its collapse are even more troubling. Arab Gulf states and Israel have myriad areas of disagreement with Iran beyond the non-proliferation file, but purely coercive strategies and zero-sum attitudes have mitigated none of these, while the nuclear threat has only mounted. A growing number of Israeli national security experts now view the US withdrawal from the JCPOA as a strategic mistake. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi support the deal’s restoration as a basis for wider economic and political engagement. These changes of heart may not help revive the deal, but they certainly point to what would be lost with failure.[xv] The JCPOA can prevent more Middle Eastern countries from possessing nuclear weapons and lead the region to lasting security and peace. But developing a regional security system requires years of hard work, and there is no guarantee that it will succeed.
The current Vienna negotiations to salvage the Iran nuclear deal coupled with the change in US and Iranian governments have opened the possibility for greater cooperation between Iran and the West on addressing the nuclear file and also to discuss broader security matters facing the region. There is an understanding that while the JCPOA would reduce tensions in the region in the short-term and address Iran’s nuclear issue—there is a need for a broader regional security framework. Such a collective security apparatus would address not only nuclear non-proliferation concerns but also other security concerns, such as violent conflicts raging in the region, Iranian and Saudi Arabian rivalry, in addition to environmental and energy security. Such a forum would be essential to achieving lasting stability and peace in the region. Although such a framework is unlikely to be achieved in the current context, especially as the wars in Syria and Yemen continue, major world powers such as the United States, Russia and the European Union must help their allies in the region achieve this goal. The United Nations can also play an important role in this.
*Aref Bijan is a PhD Candidate in Regional Studies of the State University of Saint Petersburg, Russia
[i] Arms control and proliferation profile: Israel, Arms Control Association, July 2018
[ii] Nuclear Disarmament: Israel, Nuclear Threat Initiative, September 2015
[iii] “Israel to keep nuclear policy of deliberate ambiguity”, Global Security Newswire, 7 April 2010
[iv] Claire Mills, “Nuclear weapons at a glance: Israel”, House of Commons Library research service, Number 9075, 9 December 2020, https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-9075/CBP-9075.pdf
[v] “Israel Says Won’t Attend WMD-Free Middle East Meeting,” Global Security Newswire, 20 September 2012, www.nti.org; Elaine M. Grossman, “U.S., Russia Clash over Mideast WMD Talks Delay,” Global Security Newswire; “Mideast Nuclear Talks Called Off,” Associated Press, 12 November 2012; 14 November 2012, www.nti.org; Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats, Second Edition (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 267.
[vi] Clive Williams (29 Jun 2021). Nuclear Double Standards in the Middle East. Australian Institute of International Affairs, available at: https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/nuclear-double-standards-in-the-middle-east/
[vii] Crisis group (17 January 2022). The Iran Nuclear Deal at Six: Now or Never. available at: https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iran/230-iran-nuclear-deal-six-now-never
[viii] “Iran atomic chief claims country won’t enrich uranium over 60% if nuclear talks fail”, Times of Israel, 25 December 2021.
[ix] Saeed Jafari (2021). What is the president’s plan for nuclear talks?. Available at: https://per.euronews.com/2021/09/06/what-is-the-plan-of-ibrahim-raeisi-iran-president-for-the-nuclear-talks
[x] Restrictions on Iran’s Nuclear Program: Beyond 15 Years (2015). Arms Control Association, Volume 7, Issue 9, August 25, available at: https://www.armscontrol.org/issue-briefs/2015-08/restrictions-iran%E2%80%99s-nuclear-program-beyond-15-years
[xi] Robert Einhorn and Richard Nephew ( May 31, 2016 ). The Iran nuclear deal: Prelude to proliferation in the Middle East?. Brookings, available at: https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-iran-nuclear-deal-prelude-to-proliferation-in-the-middle-east/
[xiii] Xiaoning Huang (July 2016). The Iranian Nuclear Issue and Regional Security: Dilemmas, Responses and The Future. Department of Political Affairs, Middle East and West Asia Division, available at: https://hr.un.org/sites/hr.un.org/files/The%20Iranian%20Nuclear%20Issue%20and%20Regional%20Security.pdf
[xiv] Robert Einhorn and Richard Nephew ( May 31, 2016 ). The Iran nuclear deal: Prelude to proliferation in the Middle East?. Brookings, available at: https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-iran-nuclear-deal-prelude-to-proliferation-in-the-middle-east/
[xv] See, for example, Raviv Drucker, “No one had thought about how we would stop Iran after the withdrawal from the deal”, Haaretz, 9 November 2021; and “‘The Iran deal was a mistake. Withdrawing from it was even worse’”, Haaretz, 21 November 2021. See also Jacob Magid, “He led IDF intel gathering on Iran, was ignored and fears Israel is now paying price”, Times of Israel, 30 November 2021.