The first two Nuclear Weapons Free Zones - in Antarctica and Latin America - were established before the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was negotiated. But the proposal of a number of nuclear weapons-free zones around the world came as a result of Article VII of the NPT - which was concluded in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. It established the "right of any group of states to conclude regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories" - derived from Article 52 of the United Nations Charter allowing the "existence of regional arrangements or agencies."

The final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference underscores the importance of establishing nuclear weapons-free zones in general and of establishing a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone (MENWFZ) in particular. In fact, the 1995 decision to renew the NPT indefinitely was based on a number of conditions including the pursuit of a MENWFZ. Also, in 2010, the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) adopted a resolution welcoming initiatives to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (MEWMDFZ).

The indefinite postponing of the proposed 2012 Helsinki conference indicates a failure of efforts to bring Middle Eastern states to the table. It failed mainly because of Israel's refusal to participate, which may have resulted from inflexible conditions placed on the conference. More likely, it was because the Israeli government still fails to see the advantages of such a zone for its own security and for the peace process as a whole.

There are still nearly two years until the planned 2015 NPT Review Conference, during which efforts to hold the Helsinki conference should continue. However, it must adopt a different approach in order to be successful. This approach must be both realistic and daring. It needs to demonstrate to Israel and all parties that its options are becoming very limited. At this point in history, the only option Israel has to ensure its own security and the security of the Middle East and, indeed, to contribute to world security, is to engage in the process of establishing an MENWFZ. It must also recognize that peace in the Middle East should not be a precondition for creating this zone but a part of it.

As several states in the Middle East are believed to have stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, it is also important to extend the concept of a nuclear weapons-free zone to include all WMD (which the 2010 NPT Review Conference also endorsed).

The most important aspects in the process of achieving such a zone would be Israel agreeing to abandon its clandestine nuclear weapons program, as well as all states in the region agreeing to join the chemical and biological weapons conventions. This would be a huge step toward confidence-building, which is one major obstacle in the way of achieving any kind of progress on peace and security in the region.

One aspect hampering the confidence in the region is Israel's ambiguous communication and the "open secret" of its nuclear arsenal. This undermines confidence in the region and also destroys the chance of peace. More dangerously, Israel could be pulling the region into a crazy arms race. Israel is a strong negotiator at the table and by changing its strategic point of view, it could impose the necessary exclusions and conditions to protect its security and existence.

The specific clauses Russia chose to exclude when ratifying the Treaty of Pelindaba (African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty) could provide an excellent model for Israel: "The cases of invasion or any other armed attack on the Russian Federation, on its territory, armed forces or allies, carried out or sustained by a non-nuclear-weapons state party to the treaty in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon state." The United States had also previously applied some of these exemptions to all negative security assurances.

The Greatest Threat of Nuclear Proliferation in the World Today

If there has been any doubt among the international community about whether the Middle East presents the greatest threat of nuclear and weapons of mass destruction proliferation in the world today, the chemical weapons that surfaced in Syria lately should remove all illusions and confirm the urgent need for a MENWFZ.

Politically, the Middle East is in total chaos, and socially and economically it is also in deep crisis. When semi-rational politicians and army chiefs were in charge, there was relative stability. But with radicalism taking over in most parts of the region, the world needs to think differently and admit that nuclear arsenals will not protect anybody anymore.

On the strategic front, many suspect and fear that Iran aspires to regional leadership in the Middle East, and it is just a matter of time before it will achieve this goal when it goes nuclear. It is the natural reaction of Sunni states to try to stop that strategic move by acquiring nuclear weapons, which exacerbates the already terrifying instability in the Middle East. Israel's position is a direct invitation to the Arab countries to enter a nuclear arms race. But has Israel's nuclear capability ever deterred the real threats to its security, such as suicide bombings or rockets from Southern Lebanon? No. Yet it has not joined efforts to negotiate a nuclear weapons-free zone.

As U.S. President Barack Obama noted in March 2012, "[it] will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region [the Middle East] for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon ... so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe ... The dangers of Iran getting nuclear weapons that then leads to a free-for-all in the Middle East is something that I think would be very dangerous for the world."

In 2008, former U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George P. Shultz, along with former U.S. secretary of defense William Perry and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn collaborated on an op-ed titled "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," published in the Wall Street Journal, which challenged the accepted perception of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War era. They stated the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) - peace being maintained because a nuclear war would guarantee the total annihilation of both attacker and attacked - was quickly becoming obsolete. They argued that MAD may have made sense during the Cold War when America and Russia were the key nuclear states, but isolated regimes and obscure organizations that are trying to acquire "nuclear know-how" and nuclear material couldn't be expected to adhere to the same logic as the two superpowers. The four men - all previously devotees of the MAD theory - contended the only way to make the world a safer place in the present day is to reduce the number of nuclear warheads globally, and one day aim for a world free of nuclear weapons.

No state can rely on nuclear bombs for security. It is well documented that small states are not deterred from fighting large nuclear weapons states and large states are even less deterred from fighting small nuclear weapons states. Nuclear weapons did not prevent an armed conflict between India and Pakistan.

The Nuclear Arms Race

The immediate focus of the international community on preventing Iran from acquiring the ability to build nuclear weapons has taken attention away from the fact that it has stimulated a regional race for nuclear technology to counter this apparent threat from Iran that the world has so-far failed to stop. A zone banning nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles would be an answer to the Iranian nuclear program that is threatening to ignite regional proliferation of WMD and engulf the Middle East in chaos and war.

In addition to its history of conflict, the Middle East faces the unique challenge of asymmetry of power because Israel has a monopoly on nuclear weapons. A similar nuclear asymmetry previously characterized Africa, but then-South African President F.W. de Klerk closed down the South African nuclear weapons program prior to the end of apartheid and the dismantlement resulted in the Treaty of Pelindaba. De Klerk said to Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND) global coordinator Alyn Ware that "the nuclear weapons were held by South Africa during the Cold War and the threat of Soviet expansion in Africa. When the Soviet Union ceased to exist, there was no reason for South Africa to hold onto nuclear weapons."

Several states in the region have the potential to both achieve nuclear capabilities and become targets at the same time. If Iran obtains nuclear weapons capabilities, it could become a target for Israel and the U.S.

A recent Israeli study warned that if Egypt or Saudi Arabia procures nuclear weapons, this could lead to decreased Jewish migration to Israel and a lower rate of investment. In that sense, all states in the region would be losers. However, if Israel agrees to openly declare its nuclear program and make its deterrence goals explicit, all states can benefit from a nuclear weapons-free zone. This also gives Israel an incentive to abandon its plans for nuclear weapons rather than moving toward a dangerous and costly arms race.

According to reports in the media, this race has already started: In February 2012, the London Times quoted a "senior Saudi official" as saying that Riyadh would launch a "twin-track nuclear weapons program" should Tehran realize its ambition of obtaining a nuclear weapon. In July 2012, the UAE began building a maiden nuclear power plant and signed an agreement with Australia for the supply of uranium. In January 2013, Turkish President Abdullah Gül called for a comprehensive solution to Iran's nuclear program and said: "Turkey will not accept a neighboring country possessing weapons not possessed by Turkey herself." Algeria has one of the most advanced nuclear science programs in the Arab world and is considering the role that nuclear power might play in its domestic energy mix. As of June 2011, Egypt's transitional government was planning to invite international companies to bid to build their reactor project at El- Dabaa. In April 2013, Egypt withdrew from the sessions of the preparatory committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference in Geneva, stating it was dissatisfied with the level of seriousness being shown in dealing with the issue in the Middle East.

Today, with the turn that the Syrian civil war has taken and the growing probability of fragmentation in the region, these states only have further justification to pursue their nuclear ambitions.

Lack of Stability and Fragmentation of the Region: The New Map

With every passing minute, numerous new elements are increasing the urgency of the quest for a MEWMDFZ.

The renewal of the Sunni-Shi'a conflict should not distract the world's attention from the much bigger game being played out in Syria, which poses a significant risk of changing the entire geopolitical structure in the Levant. The ongoing civil war in Syria has unleashed new sectarian, social and political dynamics in the region, along with a political vacuum that will have troubling consequences. Furthermore, fears are growing over the proliferation and use of Syria's sizable stockpile of chemical weapons.

The Syrian conflict is a serious threat to the regional balance of power largely because superpowers in the region are considering the victories and defeats between the regime and the opposition as their own gains and losses - affecting their own strength and position in the region. If Syria eventually becomes fragmented, it will pull the whole region along with it, and it will not be simple to redefine the Arab world and the Middle East. Whether Syria faces an ongoing military deadlock, the collapse of the Assad regime or a civil war followed by fragmentation, inclinations are emerging that will have a serious impact on relationships among the states of the region.

Outlines of the changing picture are already perceivable, and as the challenges of stabilizing Syria grow, so grows the risk of further regional destabilization. Any consensus on how to end the conflict will depend on the extent of the threats to the security and stability of its neighbors, and this creates an opportunity to explore a new approach to regional security.

That approach needs to take into consideration the growing presence of radicalism in the region - which can get out of hand at any time - as well as the ambiguous and changing relationship between the U.S. and political Islam. The rise of Islamic political parties to power following the 2011 revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya has given them unprecedented autonomy, and the recent events in Egypt show that the U.S. can quickly lose control over heterogeneous movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The U.S. had to give full command to the military and "allow" a coup d'état to restore some kind of order.

The shift of power in the region resulting from the sectarian conflict between the Sunni world (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt) and Iran's Hizbullah movement and the Assad regime can be seen in the growing tensions between Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is also spilling over into the delicate equilibrium in Lebanon, alongside the growth of Sunni Arab extremism.

The changing internal situation in Syria is putting a new set of plans into motion, which involve aggression against Israel. Israel needs to admit that using occupied territories as "buffer zones" is no longer an option when it comes to nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, for its own security there is an urgent need to think differently and plan strategies in a new way.

The Syrian conflict has the potential to become the epicenter of a regional war but could also be the epicenter of peace if plans to tackle the situation are well thought out and approached with the will to seize the opportunity. The unique issues that make negotiating a MEWMDFZ so tremendously complex are the same issues that require serious rethinking and agreement on the part of all parties involved.

Unlike other nuclear weapons-free zones, the geographic scope of the MENWFZ is probably the main obstacle as its borders are not clearly defined.

Previous geographic delineations did not include all Arab states. It has been considered recently that including some of these missing states along with Turkey and Pakistan is necessary. However, this would increase the complexity of treaty negotiations because they would have to deal with nuclear weapons in Pakistan and, in Turkey's case, its NATO security obligations.

It is certain that the creation of an MEWMDFZ is a very complex process. It may take years, but the next two years leading to the 2015 NPT Review Conference is enough time to think of the imminent dangers threatening the region.

How to Proceed

Components required for progress toward establishing an MEWMDFZ include:

* An action plan that would go beyond the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and incorporate at least some elements of an incipient regional security regime;
* A more holistic approach - success depends on a multidimensional perspective that brings together the energies and insights of a range of state and civil societies in the Middle East and particularly in Israel;
* The creation of a Middle East common market (or a Mediterranean one, as some European factors have been promoting), which would directly benefit business organizations and in the process transform business activity into a vehicle for peace; and
* Pressure from influential players, notably the U.S. and other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the European Union and middle powers on all regional states to engage in the WMDFZ negotiating process.

Final Thoughts

We are starting to see signs of progress. In May 2013, the London Times reported:

Israel is preparing to agree [to] a defense cooperation deal with Turkey and three Arab states aimed at setting up an early warning system to detect Iranian ballistic missiles. The proposal, referred to by the diplomats involved as "4+1", may eventually lead to technicians from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan working alongside Israelis in joint command-and-control centers.

The game has changed from the days of bilateral peace talks in the 1980s. Today there are potential Israeli partners but those opportunities must be seized. By using its power and demonstrating good faith and entering into these talks, Israel can try to secure a more promising future and potentially stop the Middle East nuclear arms race in its tracks.