New York consultation on prospects for a Middle East WMD-free Zone

On 23 July 2004, Pugwash Meeting no. 296-2 was held in New York City.

12th Pugwash Workshop on the Middle East: Prospects for a WMD-free Zone

Report by Adam Judelson

On June 23, 2004, Pugwash held a meeting at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC on the issue of the Middle East and Weapons of Mass Destruction (Pugwash meeting no. 296).  Given the inability to attend of participants from Iran’s Mission to the United Nations, because of US government travel restrictions, Pugwash criticized strongly these travel restrictions that have  been an unnecessary obstacle to dialogue and free exchange of ideas.

Pugwash felt it important to hold a follow-on meeting in New York that could more fully explore Iran’s position on these issues and the prospects for moving towards a Middle East free of weapons of mass  destruction. The July 23 meeting was held at the offices of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York,  and Pugwash is grateful to Priscilla Lewis and the staff of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for its hospitality and cooperation.

A total of 22 participants from four countries attended the meeting, which consisted of a single panel session and discussion. The panel addressed regional threat perceptions, nuclear energy production, and international concerns over existing and future nuclear weapons in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region.

Regional themes

Discussants argued that the best approach to Middle East disarmament and nonproliferation is through
incremental steps, rather than through comprehensive frameworks. Attaining the signatures and ratification of countries in the region of the NPT, the Additional Protocol and other treaties forbidding WMDs must
be considered as a fundamental goal. WMD procurement, as a general rule, is counterproductive and destabilizing for states in Middle East. As a matter of deterrence, conventional forces have
amply kept the peace, whereas nuclear weapons draw considerable negative international attention not conducive to economic progress and social development and most importantly to peace.

Regarding the future of the nonproliferation regime, the situations of the various Middle Eastern States
provide different models by which to evaluate how best to strengthen non-proliferation strategies.
The fact that Israel already has a nuclear weapons capability only complicates the future and represents a
formidable obstacle to disarmament in the region

With Iraq and Libya no longer poised on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons,
Iran is now a central issue confronting the IAEA and the United Nations in terms of the viability of the NPT.
With Iran asserting its right to pursue a civilian nuclear program, in conformity with the NPT,
the issue becomes one of how to ensure that this civilian nuclear capability does stays clearly
separated from a military nuclear capability.

Iranian policies

Iranians strongly believe in their right to acquire and develop nuclear technologies. Despite Iran’s extensive oil and natural gas reserves and production capabilities, the Iranian leadership asserts that nuclear power holds great promise. While it is true that, in terms of energy yield, “one pound of uranium has as much energy as three million pounds of coal,” this incredible generating power comes with serious drawbacks:
nuclear power plants are expensive, radioactive waste is difficult to dispose of safely, and working on such plants without total disclosure attracts extremely negative international attention. Despite these disadvantages, Iran seems bent on pressing ahead to complete its nuclear reactors at Bushehr.
Despite strong pleadings from the international community, Iran plans to continue Bushehr, because,
as one participant noted, “Iran won’t be pushed around.”

At the forefront of international concerns is the belief that Iran’s nuclear facilities may be intended for weapons purposes rather than for energy production. Some participants disagreed with these perceptions,
arguing that Iran’s nuclear aspirations include only visions of efficient energy production capabilities.
In addition to a desire for nuclear energy, motivations for proceeding with the Bushehr reactor also stem from an Iranian aversion to being submissive to external pressures (particularly Western ones).
Iranians purport to be ready to comply with all international demands regarding nuclear weapons, but refuse to derail their energy production efforts.

In defense of Iran’s alleged peaceful motivations, some discussants noted that the bomb would actually be counter-productive for Iran’s security. Informal polls taken show that many Iranians believe that nuclear weapons have no strategic value for Iran’s security. In a country where 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, and where priority needs to be given to development, jobs, and economic stability, the domestic and external costs associated with pursuing nuclear weapons would undermine Iran’s future. In this regard, what Iran needs most is stability and a fuller integration into the international community.

Weapons-grade enrichment

Discussion shifted back and forth between national prestige and energy as the main motivations for Iran’s nuclear program, and both need to be taken into account in determining how to deal with Iran’s nuclear policy.

In order to ensure that Iranian enrichment capabilities do not exceed those needed for civilian power purposes, there have been international proposals that Iran purchase its reactor fuel from Russia. Iranian officials have rejected such proposals, saying they do not want to be subjected to potentially inflated prices and the uncertainties of a single, external source of supply. There have also been calls that Iran implement “proliferation resistant technologies.” For example, there is the once-through fuel cycle, which lowers the amount of highly enriched plutonium produced during energy production by eliminating the reprocessing component of the fuel cycle. Since Bushehr already makes use of low enriched uranium (under 20%), adding another technical proliferation barrier could make Iran’s nuclear activities even safer while preserving energy production possibilities.

Providing the means whereby Iran could pursue these more proliferation-resistant technologies would help demonstrate whether the Tehran’s main objective is civilian nuclear power or the ability to develop nuclear weapons. On the one hand, Tehran has indicated a willingness to send its spent fuel to Russia, and thus Iran remains frustrated that its civilian reactor project has garnered so much criticism, especially when Iran is a party to the NPT and has signed (but not ratified) the Additional Protocol. On the other hand, the fact remains that, once operational, Bushehr could produce an estimated 30 bombs worth of plutonium each year.


During the roundtable discussion, much criticism surfaced of Western policies and especially double-standards in dealing with Israeli nuclear weapons on the one hand and the prospect of additional nuclear weapons states in the region on the other. Participants criticized US policies that are seen as imbalanced in terms of sanctions vs. incentives; i.e., that sanctions are imposed on countries like Iran that may be moving toward acquiring nuclear weapons, when no such sanctions are levied on Israel, which already has them. Moreover, many in the world feel that the US and other nuclear weapons states are not moving expeditiously enough to fulfill their NPT obligations to greatly reduce their own nuclear weapons arsenals.

This last contention was disputed by some, who pointed to the agreement in 2002 by Presidents Bush and Putin to reduce their respective nuclear arsenals by two-thirds, down to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads each, by 2013. This effort, received in the United States with bipartisan support, will certainly prove, it was argued, to be a positive thrust toward nonproliferation objectives.

Whether or not one believes that the major nuclear weapons states are fulfilling their NPT obligations to greatly diminish the role of nuclear weapons in their defense policies, it was pointed out other countries will find it difficult to take significant first steps towards a Middle East free of WMD’s so long as Israel maintains its current nuclear arsenal. Not surprisingly, the issue of Israeli ‘exceptionalism’ dominated much of the discussion. Participants argued that “If Israel does not have to disarm, why should Iran? Or any country in the Middle East?” Should Arab states and Iran rethink their participation in international treaties to which Israel is not a full party? Regarding the issue of threat perceptions, some participants claimed that the security environment for which Israel acquired such weapons no longer exists. The so-called existential threat to Israel is a myth, many argued.

Others countered that the existential existence of Israel is still challenged by many in the Islamic world, despite a great reduction in the conventional military threat faced by Israel from earlier decades. Islamic extremists in a number of political and terrorist organizations throughout the region continue to challenge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in the Middle East, and many of these organizations receive substantial support from countries in the region. Of course, it can be debated whether Israel’s nuclear deterrent has any utility in protecting Israel from these extremists; indeed, many argue that Israel’s nuclear weapons are counter-productive, as they provide a ready pretext for others in the region to acquire such weapons.

Complicating all discussions of how to reach the goal of a WMD-free Middle East is the conundrum of whether peace in the region first requires progress on WMD, or whether a resolution of outstanding issues between Israel, her Arab neighbors, and Iran is the prerequisite for progress on eliminating weapons of mass destruction.

One suggestion proposed for resolving this conundrum was to extend the nuclear umbrella (presumably that of the US) to all states in the region as a means of reducing the incentives of any one state for either keeping or acquiring nuclear weapons. Others dismissed this proposal, arguing that extending the nuclear umbrella to the Middle East would contradict the very goal of establishing a region free of weapons of mass destruction.

A fundamental difficulty of dealing with nuclear issues in the region is the very different nature of the states whose policies are key to advancing the cause of non-proliferation. While Israel is considered ‘exceptional’ for the free ride it enjoys on nuclear weapons issues, Iran in some ways is an ‘exceptional’ state as well for its support of groups that deny Israel’s right to exist. In addition, policymaking decisions in Iran are far less transparent than in many other countries, thus complicating international understanding of basic motivations. For all these reasons, Iran is treated differently from a Japan or Sweden when it asserts its right to full access to civilian nuclear power technologies.

Confidence building measures and future relations

Discussants did agree that confidence building measures must be undertaken by the United States and Iran to improve relations in an effort to avert a world with even a single additional nuclear weapons state. Suggestions for cooperative efforts between both states and non-governmental organizations included:

  1. Exchanging best practices on the protection of dangerous nuclear material;
  2. Cooperating on issues of common interest, particularly quelling terrorism, i.e. cooperating on border crossing and monitoring technologies;
  3. Scientist to scientist talks, similar to those between the US and Soviet Union up through the 1980s that helped lay the groundwork for cooperation rather than competition with the end of the Cold War;
  4. Opening emergency lines of communication, and establishing cooperative watch centers etc.;
  5. Encouraging NGOs to translate strategic analyses and literature into Arabic and Farsi to help span the cultural chasm that currently impedes full and open dialogue;
  6. Continuing efforts at track II dialogues that promote transparency and confidence-building.

Progress on creating a Middle East free from weapons of mass destruction will require patience and numerous incremental steps that, over time, can serve to establish a minimum level of confidence between the parties. In parallel with efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the promotion of regional security frameworks, the Middle East region could move away from the chilling prospect of future conflicts involving the use of nuclear weapons.

Participant List

Amb. Nobuyasu Abe (Japan), Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, United Nations, New York, NY, USA [formerly: Ambassador of Japan to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia].

Prof. Wa’el N. Al-Assad, Head of the Disarmament Department, The Arab League, Cairo, Egypt.

Dr. Jeffrey Boutwell, Executive Director, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, Washington, DC, USA; Member, Pugwash Executive Committee.

Dr. Thomas Cochran, Director, Nuclear Program, Natural Resources Defense Council, Washington, DC, USA.

Dr. Harold A. Feiveson, Senior Research Policy Scientist, Program on Science & Global Security, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA.

Dr. Rose Gottemoeller, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, USA.

Dr. Nasser Hadian, Assistant Professor of Law and Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran;
Visiting Fellow, Columbia University Middle East Institute, New York, NY, USA.

Ms. Ursula Jessee, Intern, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, New York, NY, USA.

Mr. Adam S. Judelson, Intern/Research Assistant, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs; International Security Studies Major, Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA.

Ms. Priscilla Lewis, Program Officer, Peace and Security, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, New York, NY, USA.

Dr. Saideh Lotfian, Associate Professor of Political Science (on leave), Faculty of Law and Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran; Visiting Iranian Fellow, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford., Member, Pugwash Council.

Amb. William Miller , Senior Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC, USA.

Prof. Maurizio Martellini, Secretary General, Landau Network-Centro Volta; Professor of Physics
University of Insubria, Como, Italy

Ms. Patricia Moore-Nicholas, Program Associate, International Peace and Security Program, Carnegie Corporation of New York, New York, USA.

Mr. Bahman Naimiarfa, First Counsellor, Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, Resident Representative of the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), New York, NY, USA

Prof. Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, Secretary-General, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs Professor of Mathematical Physics, University of Milan, Italy; Secretary General, Union of Italian Scientists for Disarmament (USPID); Director, Program on Disarmament and International Security, Landau Network – Centro Volta, Como, Italy.

Mr. Ahmad Sadeghi (Iran), Counsellor, Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, Resident Representative of the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), New York, NY, USA

Dr. and Capt. (ret.) Gary Sick, Adjunct Professor of International Affairs, Acting Director, Middle East Institute, Columbia University, New York, USA.

Dr. James Walsh, Executive Director, Project on Managing the Atom Email, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA.

Mr. Lawrence Woocher, Program Manager, Global Policy Programs, United Nations Association of the United States of America, New York, NY, USA.

Amb. and Dr. M. Javad Zarif (Iran), Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, New York, NY, USA

Dr. Mustafa Zahrani (Iran), Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, New York, NY, USA.