The recent announcement by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to explore development of nuclear energy sent a shudder through the nonproliferation community. The concern? Like Iran, these countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – could some- day use the peaceful atom to mount a nuclear weapons program.
As regional nuclear ambition – and apprehension – grows, it is none too soon to start thinking seriously about the merits of a bold, old idea: a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone (MENFZ). Participating nations could use this agreement not only to head off a nuclear arms race, but to address more fundamental political issues as well. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's advocacy for such a zone in his visit last year to the United States may have been a trial balloon or mere propaganda, but Arab states increasingly find the principle attractive.
Given current concerns about Iran, it is not without irony that it initiated the first MENFZ proposal, albeit in the different era of the US-backed shah. Iran and Egypt cosponsored a resolution that appeared on the UN General Assembly agenda on Dec. 9, 1974. It invited all nations in the Middle East to reciprocally agree not to produce or acquire nuclear weapons.
In the decades that followed, Cairo led the drumbeat for the MENFZ in the UN. Israel viewed it as an Arab ploy to embarrass the Jewish state. Initially, Jerusalem tried to use the initiative to garner Arab recognition. It asked its neighbors to sit down and negotiate. Arab states declined, arguing that Israel's political legitimacy had to be resolved first. In subsequent years, Jerusalem turned the tables. It said that denuclearization could not advance apart from the "peace process" and the end of the "active state of war."
What would it take to initiate such a zone today? The MENFZ requires resolution of at least four critical issues: geography, prohibitions, verification, and enforcement.
The zone would include the 22-nation Arab League plus Iran and Israel. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would eliminate all nuclear weapons, weapons-usable material, and weapons technology. Libya's denuclearization provides a template. The MENFZ would not bar nuclear power or other peaceful atomic activities – including fuel production.
However, a "joint" IAEA/host country team would bear managerial responsibility. Additional resident agency inspectors would oversee safety protocols while reserving the right to uncover all undeclared nuclear sites that they could terminate on proliferation grounds, or subject to safeguards. International inspectors also would safeguard dual-use technology. Violations, which the host country failed to promptly rectify, would result in meaningful sanctions – including military force if necessary – embodied in the zone treaty and endorsed by the UN Security Council. This would tether Tehran's nuclear ambition to a tripwire linked to material consequences.
Under the MENFZ, Israel would bear the largest sacrifice – the surrender of its nuclear weapons capacity. In the 1950s, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion initiated the program to compensate for the fledgling state's fragile conventional forces and the unwillingness of the West to forge a military alliance. Today, a different military balance characterizes the Middle East. Israel is the dominant regional conventional military power. Nuclear proliferation will put this superiority at risk. Then there is the possibility of Middle East terrorist access to poorly secured weapons materials or bombs.
Clearly, no Israeli nuclear deterrent will dissuade the suicidal nuclear terrorist.
To be sure, the zone must include compensatory measures for Israel's nuclear disarmament. The solution: Israel's admission into NATO with a substantial alliance troop presence on Israeli soil, coupled to a separate US guarantee.
Turkey provides precedent for non-European or North American membership in the alliance. NATO's involvement in Afghanistan marks the body's growing recognition that its vital security interests extend beyond the European theater. The risk that nuclear terror could hatch in the Middle East marks NATO's strategic interest to make the region nuclear-free.
Placing Israel under America's strategic nuclear retaliatory umbrella would provide it with necessary reassurance. NATO membership would offer it multiple advantages. For the first time in its history, Israel would be linked to a family of nations dedicated to its survival, an ambition that goes back to its earliest years. This alliance and American reassurance would ease the way for Israel to make the territorial concessions with Palestinians and Syrians that might help bring peace. And, for Iran and other regional nuclear aspirants, a nuclear-free zone would eliminate the prospect of a preemptive conventional or nuclear attack by a Jewish state that believes its very existence is at stake.
• Bennett Ramberg served in the State Department during President George H.W. Bush's administration. He is the author of three books on international security.