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The role of safeguards in a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East

Safeguards measures play a vital role in international efforts to monitor technologies related to reprocessing and enrichment of nuclear materials. In the context of the proposed nuclear weapon-free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, the safeguards experience of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provides a useful model for verification of sensitive nuclear facilities.


Existing nuclear weapon-free zones

NWFZs have already been established in Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, South East Asia, Africa and Central Asia, with a view to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in international security and preventing the emergence of new nuclear-weapon states. These established NWFZs are of particular relevance to an examination of the material obligations to be included in the verification regime of a future NWFZ in the Middle East.

The idea of a NWFZ in the Middle East was first proposed in 1962. In practice, progress has been impeded by the divergent views of the Arab states and Israel. The 2010 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) agreed that the United Nations Secretary-General, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States should convene a conference in 2012, to be attended by all states in the Middle East, on establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction, in keeping with the mandate of the resolution on the Middle East adopted by the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. However, in November 2012 the USA unilaterally announced that it would not be convened due to the situation prevailing in the region.


Diverging views on a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East

All states of the Middle East region except for Israel are parties to the NPT and have undertaken to accept comprehensive IAEA safeguards. Arab states of the Middle East maintain that the establishment of a NWFZ would contribute to the conclusion of a peace settlement in the region.

However, Israel takes the view that a Middle East NWFZ, as well as other regional security issues, cannot be addressed in isolation from the establishment of a lasting peace and stable regional security conditions. These issues, according to Israel, should be addressed within the framework of a regional multilateral security and confidence-building process.


The importance of verification in creating confidence

Effective verification is an important measure of arms control agreements that aims at creating confidence between states. In the Middle East, with a legacy of fear and mistrust, the creation of such confidence would require verification arrangements that are far-reaching and comprehensive. NWFZs are of relevance not only to the parties directly involved, but also to states bordering the region and to the wider international community.

This underscores the need for a verification regime that creates the necessary confidence among the parties to the NWFZ agreement and in the international community at large. Verification arrangements under existing NWFZ agreements, which provide for international inspection through the IAEA and for regional structures that may be invoked in specified circumstances, can be replicated in a NWFZ in the Middle East in order to help meet both regional and global concerns.


Safeguards for reprocessing and enrichment plants

In a NWFZ in the Middle East, each state party would be required to conclude and bring into force a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) with the IAEA. In a non-nuclear-weapon state with a CSA in force with the IAEA pursuant to a NWFZ agreement and the NPT, any undeclared reprocessing or enrichment would constitute a clear violation of the provisions of the CSA.

Technologies that enable the enrichment of uranium and the separation of plutonium are regarded as sensitive because they can be used to make both fuel for nuclear power reactors and the generation of electricity, and nuclear weapons. Hence, verification of these nuclear fuel cycle activities is essential in order to ensure their exclusively peaceful use.

The cost and effort required in the application of IAEA safeguards at declared reprocessing plants can vary from almost no cost for decommissioned or abandoned facilities to continuous inspection costing tens of millions of dollars. Reprocessing operations normally involve the release of gaseous fission products into the atmosphere and the release of particulates, some of which are deposited at significant distances from the facility. Three sets of measures can be used to detect clandestine plants: enhanced information analysis, complementary access and environmental sampling.

The safeguards approach for an enrichment plant will also depend on the operational status of the facility. The methods used to detect undeclared enrichment plants are essentially the same as for undeclared reprocessing. Enrichment operations normally result in the release of aerosols—especially at locations where connections to the process piping are made, but also through the plant ventilation system. These aerosols may not travel very far, and thus environmental sampling is only likely to be effective close to such facilities.

The difficulty in finding emissions from clandestine enrichment plants is further compounded by advances in enrichment technology that greatly reduce the size of plants and reduce their electrical power requirements.


Learning from existing safeguards systems

Verification measures applied in a Middle East NWFZ would benefit from a system that parallels the existing strengthened IAEA safeguards system based on CSAs supplemented by an Additional Protocol. Such measures are designed to track all nuclear material in use in a state taking account of current and future technological developments, which may help increase the level of assurance of non-proliferation provided by safeguards practices. In addition, they provide increased assurances with respect to the detection of undeclared facilities and fissile material.

In order to provide states party to a NWFZ in the Middle East with a level of assurance analogous to the assurance provided by the IAEA under comprehensive safeguards agreements, the verification system would have to apply to the entire nuclear fuel cycle in those states and should be geared to the detection of undeclared production facilities and nuclear material, through the supplementary verification tools provided by an Additional Protocol.

Furthermore, a Middle East NWFZ would need to address the dismantlement of Israel’s nuclear weapon capabilities under international verification. Compliance by states with CSAs will also need to be assessed. The process for establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East will not be easy, but the experience of other regions with such zones suggests that political will and leadership are crucial.

If further proliferation is to be prevented in the Middle East, and regional security enhanced, now is the time to convene the conference mandated by the 2010 NPT Review Conference.



Tariq Rauf is the Director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme.