A WMD Free-Zone in the Middle East is Idealistic

Despite that the prospect of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Middle East has gained broad international support, progress on the ground has been elusive, and gradually the lack of progress threatens to eclipse the support for the treaty and measures to strengthen it. Since the 1995 NPT Review Conference calling for a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East no tangible progress has been achieved.  Debatably the only exception has been the adoption of a a 64-point action plan for disarmament and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and an implementation plan for the 1995 resolution on the Middle East.  This development was  made during the 2010 NPT Review Conference.  However,  plans to follow up these meetings in 2012 by assembling a UN sponsored conference to be attended by all regional states was delayed indefinitely, this was largely due to unforeseen political transformations in the region: the Arab Spring of 2011, and the ongoing uprising in Syria. Since then the Syrian government has used chemical weapons (sarin) on its own people, and Egypt is in political and social turmoil after its first presidential poll in May 2012. This only makes the prospect of a formal conference to be attended by all regional states in Helskinki this year very unlikely.

Also, Israel needs convincing to commit otherwise calls towards a WMD Free-Zone is futile – and this seems unlikely. Most crucially, Israel dispute that a free zone cannot proceed in isolation from an Arab-Israeli peace process. They believe that arms control is not a solution unless durable peace is existent among all members which at the moment is far from visible. This is in contrast to Arab states who hold that peace cannot be achieved amid a nuclear-armed Israel therefore peace would only follow with the establishment of NWFZ. This is a major strategic and tactical divergence that will continue to hinder progress as long as the thinking remains polarised. Israel definitely won’t rethink this view given that its not seen as a legitimate entity by many, and is anxious about its very existence in the region. Also, more importantly, Israel’s long-standing policy of opacity (has never given any details about its nuclear activities domestically and internationally) disables them from fully committing and integrating itself within these arrangements. Furthermore, Israel has a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East therefore why would it get rid of its nuclear arsenal which is a source of national pride and security.

This explains why a WMD Free-Zone is unfortunately idealistic and a lost cause

Nuclear Terrorism – the greatest threat to international security?

Nuclear terrorism poses a great threat to international security in the post-Cold War era. Though a host of political commentators maintain that the prospect of nuclear terrorism is implausible, until the idealistic goal of ‘global zero’ is met and nuclear weapons are abolished the threat of nuclear terrorism will exist regardless of its improbability. This fear is elucidated in the USA’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review stating that “today’s most immediate and extreme danger is nuclear terrorism… We must assume they would use such weapons if they managed to obtain them”. This adoption of the precautionary principle in assuming that terrorists have the capacity to overcome practical, strategic and even moral obstacles to deliver a nuclear bomb is indicative of the risk society we live in.

It has been widely remarked amongst academics that the probability of nuclear terrorism transpiring has been amplified by the advent of ‘new terrorism’. According to a host of critics, terrorism in today’s world is ‘new’ because it has no cogent political motives, instead it has become synonymous with religious extremism and militant Islam which rationalizes destruction, vengeance, and punishment as instruments to achieve an improved world. This transformation in the nature of terrorism is most often cited by the attacks of 9/11, and invariably the threat of nuclear terrorism is filtered through this experience. Therefore, although the concept of ‘new terrorism’ is highly contestable it has affected the way we perceive the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Most importantly nuclear terrorists would render traditional ideas of deterrence obsolete because non-state actors have no territory or property to protect. This explains why the international community cannot afford to neglect the threat of nuclear terrorism regardless of whether terrorists have shown little movement in acquiring a nuclear bomb or conceptual disputes that“terrorists want a lot of people listening, not a lot of people dead.

Hypothetically, how would a terrorist organisation go about acquiring a nuclear bomb?

Firstly there are anxieties that non-state actors could devise a rudimentary bomb by manufacturing a “gun-assembly” nuclear explosive device as used in Hiroshima. The technology is over 60 years old and the majority of non-nuclear mechanisms are obtainable in everyday international commerce. However, despite this it is still broadly assumed to pose insurmountable difficulties for non-state actors:

  1. Documented thefts of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) have totalled at approximately 16 pounds, yet 25-40 kilograms of HEU is required to fashion an elementary bomb, therefore multiple covert purchases of HEU would be required.
  2. The terrorist organisation would have to hire a group of highly skilled scientists and technicians
  3. It would have to guarantee the loyalty of its members
  4. Locate a secure area to covertly produce a weapon
  5. Ensure that the materials and equipment are smuggled across state borders and delivered on site covertly
  6. Attain the extensive technical blueprints
  7. Make certain the safety and stability of nuclear device all whilst evading increasingly sophisticated intelligence activities that polices nuclear terrorism and monitors fissile material.

Arguably the most likely avenue terrorists could exploit, relative to building a bomb, is by stealing a nuclear weapon in less secure nuclear nations. Predominantly, there are suspicions regarding “loose nukes” in Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the proliferation of nuclear weapons has increased the likelihood of terrorists being able to obtain a nuclear weapon. Sagan argues that some new nuclear states lack the organizational and financial resources to implement mechanisms that ensure the safety of its nuclear weapons. Particularly Pakistan is a volatile mixture of religious fundamentalism and domestic instability making them a vulnerable nation to terrorist infiltration. Furthermore, given the vastness of international trade coupled with the current limitations of radiation detection systems to identify fissile material masked by led casing the chances of terrorists delivering a nuclear device via smuggling operations is increased.

The Phased Adaptive Approach to BMD in Europe at a glance

Phased Adaptive Approach (PAA) to BMD in Europe announced by Obama in 2009 replaces the old strategy devised by George Bush in 2007 coined the Third Site and is designed to adapt to evolving threats

  • Phase 1 (2011) involved sea-based deployments using short-range Aegis missile defence technology on ships to protect South Eastern Europe from the immediate Iranian threat
  • Phase 2  (2015) will see interceptors taken onto land in Romania
  • Phase 3 (2018) will extend and modernise arrangements to able to protect the whole of Europe by notably positioning Aegis missile defence systems in Poland

The US Ballistic Missile Defence Review (BMDR) in 2010 declared that the Phased Adaptive Approach to BMD in Europe will become the model for US BMD policy in other regions, particularly concerning the Middle East and East Asia

Discussion Points:

  • The conventional understanding holds that under Obama BMD has been re-modelled and de-emphasised as a policy option, yet the PAA to US BMD policy has the potential to be far more extensive than previous plans.
  • Will the PAA produce the conditions for nuclear weapons disarmament in Europe?
  • The Iranian  nuclear threat to US assets and its European allies is not emerging as previously anticipated. Most paramount is that Iran is still undecided about getting nuclear weapons. Therefore is it necessary?
  • As posted previously BMD is arguably weakening international security by increasing suspicions within Russia and China.  Though the US claims that major powers are no longer adversaries in the post-Cold War era as they face the same emerging threats – notably nuclear proliferation to so-called ‘rogue’ states; Russia and China view the US expansion of BMD through traditional power politics therefore they are cautious and wary of hidden US intentions.  Consequently, this may reduce there willingness to engage in credible progress towards disarmament given that the entire agenda hinges on mutual trust and confidence.
  • Also adopting Waltz’s position (as discussed below) will states even use nuclear weapons? thus rendering BMD out of touch
  • BMD technology is largely unproven and is therefore unable to justify its 8 billion dollar annual budget

Does BMD weaken international security?


Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) is fuelling fears and triggering reactions that serve to actually decrease US security. Particularly it is unravelling and deteriorating decades of incremental steps towards better relations between ex-Cold War rivals. Its expansion, notably the Phased Adaptive Approach to BMD in Europe will further reduce the willingness to engage in bilateral disarmament.  Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has made it clear that the US BMD programme represented a major barrier to better relations. Also, Obama’s rejection of Moscow’s attempt to link New START to the limitation of US BMD activity signals that it is hindering relations. This subverts Obama’s aim to use the cancelation of the Third Site BMD proposal in 2009 as a catalyst for new START with Russia, suggesting a focus on bilateral arms reductions and diplomatic help from Russia to deter Iran from its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Also, China might be provoked into taking measures which could alter its nuclear policy of minimum deterrence to guarantee it can overwhelm any BMD systems employed. The worst-case and most unlikely scenario suggested by a host of critics is that it could cause a newly ignited arms race that would ruin the existing arrangement of arms control. Therefore instead of BMD rendering nuclear weapons redundant it will actually serve to increase the importance of nuclear weapons, because other states will seek to modernise and expand their nuclear arsenals to overcome BMD systems. Ivanov argues that effective diplomatic and political mechanisms that build trust, stability and predictability of state behaviour to ensure that no state feels threatened is central to anti-nuclear order. Missile defence systems destabilize processes that aim to achieve these ends because it’s causing increasing suspicion and wariness.


The ‘Nuclear Taboo’ in Brief

The ‘Nuclear Taboo’ is the concept that nuclear weapons have become severely de legitimized and stigmatized, rendering them unthinkable policy options. Hence, this de-facto prohibition of the use of nuclear weapons created through the standardization and perpetuation of anti-nuclear discourses (public opinion polls, state rhetoric, international organizations etc.) has diminished the possibility of nuclear warfare between states. Also, since 1945 incremental restrictions have been placed on nuclear weapons circumscribing the freedom to use them (multilateral and bilateral arms control agreements, nuclear weapons free zones). Finally, states are implicated by the long-standing principles of the proportional use of force in conflict, and the stigma attached to killing non-combatants and civilians. 

Through the Eyes of Kenneth Waltz – Why Nuclear Weapons Have Not Been Used and Why This Will Continue


When asking the question ‘Why haven’t nuclear weapons been used since 1945?’ the conventional wisdom is that, quite simply, no state exhibit any temptations to start war because “states have no desire for self-destruction”. This is why, according to Waltz, since the advent of nuclear weapons we have witnessed unparalleled levels of ‘peace’ in modern history, defined as the absence of interstate war among major states. Delving into this idea further, as a Realist theorist Waltz believes that ‘self help’ is the chief way states survive in an inherently anarchical international system, and this is achieved through the enhancement of their own national security in terms of military build-up. On this basis, the creation of nuclear weapons provided states with the ultimate ‘deterrent’ for state security given their capacity to inflict mass devastation. ‘Deterrence’ is defined as when a state can dissuade an opposing state from launching a first strike because it has an assured ability to retaliate with great devastation. Therefore states with nuclear weapons have no need to  fight for the sake of their security, removing a central causality of interstate war in the 19th and early 20th century. Also, every state actor whether being the US or North Korea understand and perform cost-benefit calculations, and fundamental national interests precede all other considerations made by the state. Therefore as mentioned earlier no leader bent on maintaining power would risk escalating or initiating nuclear war because it could lead to the obliteration of the state. Opposing critics, notably Sagan, accuses Waltz for assuming a high level of state rationality because it’s useful not because it’s scientifically tested, hence he argues that it is dangerous to express faith in all states to abide to a principle of nuclear non-use . Waltz contests this by asserting that stigmatising states as irrational and disposed to using a nuclear bomb are ethnocentric and arguably premeditated. For example, fabricating divisions between ‘irrational’ and ‘rational’ states allows Israel and the US to dispute that Iran is incapable of applying deterrence for strategic purposes. Therefore, we should trust that all states acquiring nuclear weapons will use them for defensive purposes and will carry on a historical trend of the non-use of nuclear weapons.