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The recent conflict that broke out between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip after the October 7 attack of Hamas on Israeli territories has claimed more than 30000 Palestinian and 1139 Israeli lives. The conflict seems to be confined to an isolated geographic zone, but it has the potential to expand both vertically and horizontally. Israel reportedly became a Nuclear weapon power by 1967, but since then, they have maintained the policy of Nuclear opacity.

Meanwhile, during this ongoing conflict, Israel’s minister for Heritage, Amihai Eliyahu, a member of the far-right party, said: “ that one of Israel’s options in the war against Hamas could be to drop a nuclear bomb on the Gaza Strip.” Iran, on the other hand, is also an ambitious state vouching for nuclear weapons capability. It is also evident from history that some Middle Eastern states like Iraq and Libya have hedged for Nuclear weapons capability but were not successful in doing so.

Major powers like the U.S. and China could play a potential role in establishing a framework that would eventually lead to the permanent abolishment of Nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

Establishing a weapons-of-mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East (WMDFZ-ME) is easier said than done because of the mistrust that persists between regional countries. The region is home to some of the oldest and long-standing disputes. The standout conflict among them is between Israel and Palestine, which will remain at the heart of any disarmament effort that will take place.

Israel’s rationale for acquiring nuclear weapon capability was its conventional asymmetry vis-à-vis neighboring Arab countries. The regional dynamics have evolved so much that now countries like Saudi Arabia are talking about normalizing their relations with Israel. The countries that are part of the Abraham Accords have already normalized their relations with Israel, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

Egypt and Jordan accepted Israel’s right to exist as a state in the 80s and 90s. Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo Accords in 1993 and recognized each other legitimacy and right to exist. The US played a monumental role in creating a conducive environment for both the parties of the Oslo Accords to acknowledge each other authority over respective territories to end the years-long hostilities. How successful were those accords? It is debatable, but it was a substantial ice-breaking moment in the history of the Israel-Palestine issue.

The 1995 review and extension conference of the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty adopted a resolution on the Middle East. The Arab states and Iran overwhelmingly supported the UN resolution on establishing a Middle East zone free from weapons of mass destruction. The only impediment in the process of nuclear disarmament from the Middle East is Israel, which backs off from all the discussions held by the UN-mandated conference on the establishment of (WMDFZ-ME).

The US claims to be the flag bearer of the rule-based international order, but when it comes to the Israel-Palestine issue and, for instance, the establishment of (WMDFZ-ME), the US has an apparent tilt towards Israel.

The world expects the same from the U.S. for Palestinians as they did for Israelis in the shape of brokering Oslo Accords and Abraham Accords. The U.S. spearheaded those diplomatic efforts to increase the acceptance of Israel among Muslim nations.

The U.S. must put pressure on Israel to actively take part in the negotiations of the UN-mandated conference on the establishment of (WMDFZ-ME) for its own sake as a fair and just power broker of the world.

Besides the Israel-Palestine issue, the broader Middle East is one of the most conflict-ridden regions of the world. The presence of Non-State actors like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda makes the region volatile in terms of Nuclear safety and security. The Islamic State, at its peak, controlled territories equivalent to the whole of Switzerland and Denmark. The terrorist group was able to develop the first non-state actor’s chemical weapons program secretly, tried to acquire radioactive materials, and operated the largest smuggling network in the region, including routes for weapons transfers.

The ongoing instability in Syria and Yemen poses more severe challenges to the security of nuclear power plants. For the record, the Yemeni Houthis, from 2015 to 2021, fired 430 ballistic missiles and launched 851 drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Yemeni Houthis successfully conducted a drone strike on the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, and threatened to conduct further attacks on the UAE nuclear power plants. Countries with civil nuclear power plants must adopt extra measures to secure their reactors from theft and sabotage in such a volatile region.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), in his recent interview with Fox News correspondent, said that we would be obliged to develop a nuclear weapon capability if Iran is successful in developing nuclear weapons capability. These overt threats of nuclearization are the results of the Trump administration’s short-sighted decision to unilaterally pull away from the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015, commonly referred to as JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

Iran, no doubt, is the second state after Israel, which has an active nuclear weapon program and is vouching for nuclear weapon capability. NTI (Nuclear Threat Index), in its 2023 report, claims that Iran has enriched its Uranium stockpiles by up to 60%, close to weapons-grade material. Secondly, Iran has enough of the Uranium stockpile to build 3 nuclear bombs roughly.

It is pertinent to note that Iran’s nuclear weapon program is concerning and will cause further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region, as apparent by the Saudi Crown Prince’s statement.

But it would be an injustice to solely hold Iran responsible for the Nuclearization of the Middle East. Iran signed the JCPOA with P5+1 to get relief from economic sanctions and, in return, allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its facilities. Iran is also willing to negotiate and support the UN-mandated conference on establishing (WMDFZ-ME).

The onus of disarmament now lies on Israel. Their historical argument of having conventional asymmetry vis-à-vis Arabs is no longer valid because the majority of Arab states have normalized their relations with Israel, and some are in the process of normalization. The only exception is war-torn Arab countries like Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, which are no match to Israel both militarily and economically.

It is evident from the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas that even after seven months of continued pounding of the Gaza strip from the air and now with the ground invasion going in full swing, the Arab armies have not even maneuvered close to the Israeli borders. Then why does Israel need nuclear weapons? This is the question that the civilized world must ask Israel repeatedly.

Publication Link: https://stratheia.com/weapons-of-mass-destruction-free-zone-in-the-middle-east/

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