The test launch of Iran's Shahab missile in 2011

The test launch of Iran's Shahab missile in 2011 AP Photo/ISNA, Ruhollah Vahdati

How to Save the Middle East from Nuclear War

No region is in greater need of banning nuclear weapons than the conflict-cursed Middle East. Here’s my plan to get it started. By Prince Turki Al Faisal

My proposal for a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East seeks to inject much-needed energy into resolving a crucial issue that affects us all, but none more than the peoples of the Middle East themselves. The international community has often clung to policies that fail to tackle the obstacles to action. While my proposals stretch the boundaries of conventional thinking, they predictably will invite objections. They should be given a fair hearing. Otherwise, we are all heading to a new and more dangerous Middle East containing many nuclear-armed states in which the risk of nuclear war will be greatly magnified.

No region in the world is in greater need of becoming such a zone than the conflict-cursed Middle East. This region is in the midst of a drastic transformation. One of its states (Israel) is a de facto nuclear weapon state and another one (Iran) is progressing toward becoming one. Both countries have lied about their intentions in this regard. Israel publicly stated that it would not introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, yet it is believed to posses over 200 warheads with the required delivery systems. Iran has publicly stated that it seeks the peaceful development of nuclear power, yet it continues to raise enrichment levels in its centrifuges while increasing their number and preventing International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from inspecting suspected sites. Given the importance of this issue in this region and the current political changes taking place there, I have written a fuller Harvard paper that addresses the issue of establishing a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, or WMDFZ.

The Arab States, including Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, have embraced establishing such a zone in the Middle East. It is the official nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament policy of all Arab States. However, Israel has not made any public commitment in support of the zone, despite claims to endorse the idea. Iran, while paying lip service to the idea, appears more committed to pursuing enrichment of uranium and other suspicious activities that raise doubts about its commitment to this objective, which will compel other countries in the area to pursue policies that could lead to untold and possibly tragic consequences. Indeed, the best way toward peace in our region is for all nations -- but most importantly Iran and Israel -- to support the establishment of a WMDFZ.

Ironically, it was Iran, with Egypt, that introduced the idea of a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, in 1974. In fact, quite often, from the early 1970s until now, Iran joined with other nations to work through the United Nations to attempt to gain support for what was then called a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.

And yet, despite all these efforts, our region can hardly be called free of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, the Middle East is the most militarized region in the world today, largely due to the many conflicts that still rage in the area. While soldiers, tanks and planes have been growing in number for some time, the Iraq-Iran War from 1980 to 1988, and the Gulf War of 1991, and the current conflicts from Libya to Syria increase the danger of proliferation of WMD’s in the region, as well as ballistic missiles capable of carrying them.

Saudi Arabia firmly believes that it is in every nation’s interest, including Israel’s and Iran’s, not to possess nuclear weapons. This is why, through various initiatives, we are sending messages to Iran that it is their right, as it is any nation’s right and as we ourselves are doing, to develop a civilian nuclear program -- but that trying to parlay that program into nuclear weapons is a dead end. Wiser choices will result in wider riches. A WMD-free zone is the best means to get Iran and Israel to give up nuclear weapons.

Alas, the way in which the world community has so far dealt with nuclear non-proliferation is actually an incentive for countries in the area to proliferate. When Pakistan and India detonated their bombs they were met with sanctions. Yet, soon, both countries were not only relieved of these sanctions but both of them have been presented with lucrative nuclear deals that enhance their nuclear capabilities rather than curtail them. India has garnered American, French and Russian agreements to build reactors and acquire technical know how. Pakistan is receiving unknown levels of support from China.

In the end, these challenges can be met by the same principle that recognized the reality of Israel’s nuclear weapons and guided the IAEA to investigate and then announce the truth behind Iran’s nuclear program. Of all the efforts in any upcoming conference that could be taken up for the sake of peace and security in the region and the world, I suggest that the global community, represented by the U.N. Security Council, take on the issue under Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter and declare that the five permanent members guarantee the members of the zone a nuclear security umbrella as well as militarily sanction any country deemed to be developing WMDs.  

This declaration will not immediately establish the WMDFZ. A period of five-to-ten years should be agreed to by all members of the zone to resolve all problems between them that may impede the zone’s establishment. This declaration of intent will hopefully be sufficient to incentivize Israel to accept the hand of peace extended to it since 2002 by the Arab Peace Initiative. Iran will be equally incentivized to come clean on its secretive and suspicion-arousing program. On the other hand, failing to create the Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction will  encourage all countries in the area to undertake what may prove to be a fateful decision that will expand nuclear proliferation rather than confirm security and peace.