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Middle East Nuke-Free Zone Meeting Focuses on Israel

(Nov. 22) - Syrian Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Bassam al-Sabbagh, shown on Monday prior to the start of an IAEA forum on the potential creation of a Middle Eastern nuclear weapon-free zone. Al-Sabbagh at the conference described Israel's nuclear capacity as a "grave and continuous threat" to neighboring states (AP Photo/Ronald Zak). (Nov. 22) - Syrian Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Bassam al-Sabbagh, shown on Monday prior to the start of an IAEA forum on the potential creation of a Middle Eastern nuclear weapon-free zone. Al-Sabbagh at the conference described Israel's nuclear capacity as a "grave and continuous threat" to neighboring states (AP Photo/Ronald Zak).

Israel has been the focus of statements this week at a closed-door meeting on establishing a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, according to news reports (see GSN, Nov. 21).

Jerusalem is widely assumed to hold the region's sole nuclear arsenal, but the nation maintains a longstanding policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of its atomic weapons.

"Israeli nuclear capabilities pose a grave and continuous threat to others in the region," Syrian delegate Bassam al-Sabbagh was quoted as saying on Monday during the first day of the meeting in Vienna, Austria.

The two-day event was intended to explore lessons learned from other global zones that prohibit nuclear weapons, and to focus on potentially applying a similar arrangement in the Middle East. It comes ahead of a planned major 2012 conference aimed at taking concrete steps toward establishing such a zone in the region.

All Middle Eastern states but Iran were represented at this week's meeting, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported. Tehran boycotted the event in the wake of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on its contested nuclear activities (see related GSN story, today; Deutsche Presse-Agentur/Monsters and Critics, Nov. 21).

One source told the Associated Press that talks on Monday were "much less confrontational, much less hostile" than at previous IAEA meetings that addressed the region.

Arab states have long called for Jerusalem to become a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty member state -- a move that would likely require Israel to declare and then eliminate its atomic arsenal -- and to authorize IAEA officials to monitor the nation's nuclear operations.

There is little chance that Israel would take such measures. The Israeli government also says regional peace must be secured ahead of any serious consideration of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East (George Jahn, Associated Press I/Boston.com, Nov. 21).

That position received support on Tuesday from Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, AP reported.

"While nuclear weapon-free zones improve the security of the entire international community, they do not exist in isolation from other security factors," the three nations said in a statement to the Vienna meeting, which is attended by delegates from close to 100 countries. Such sectors need to have "the states in the region united in their aspiration to provide for strengthened regional stability and security," the statement adds.

Arab states believe the peace issue can be distinct from the matter of banning nuclear weapons from the Middle East (George Jahn, Associated Press II/Google News, Nov. 22).

Another major question addressed on Monday was whether Israel must become an NPT member country before the regional zone can be established, according to AP. Officials from Argentina and South Africa, which were involved in creating nuclear weapon-free zones in Latin America and Africa, said history has shown that talks on the sector could begin even while the treaty issue remains unresolved (Jahn, Associated Press I).

"In South Africa there were (nuclear weapons) when we started the process in 1964," DPA quoted South African diplomat Abdul Minty as saying (Deutsche Presse-Agentur).

Diplomats on Tuesday noted the moderate tone of the meeting but cautioned against undue optimism about the immediate likelihood of prohibiting nuclear weapons from the region, Reuters reported.

There was no apparent change in the established positions of Israel and its Arab neighbors on the issues tied to the matter.

"That the meeting took place and that there is no blood on the carpet is good news," according to one Western diplomat.

"I think this was a small positive step but there is a very very, long way ahead," said Norwegian Ambassador Jan Petersen, who served as chairman of the session (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters, Nov. 22).

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