The Middle Eastern Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) – Nuclear Verification

| July 16, 2012

This publication is based on a presentation at the “Verification in the 21st Century – Technological, Political and Institutional Challenges and Opportunities”, 17 – 20 June 2012, Wilton Park, UK.

Establishing a WMDFZ in the Middle East has been as elusive over the years as it has been emphasized. A WMDFZ would also be the first of its kind to be created. Coupled with the complexities of the Middle East region, it necessitates a comprehensive WMD approach. Even for Nuclear Weapons Free Zones (NWFZ), there is no one single model. Each existing treaty had introduced elements, including creative legal arrangements, and unique features depending on the specificities of each zone. The case for the Middle East will be more complex, since it covers all weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles. Elements of the verifications process can be sketched out. For instance, with regard to the biological weapons and delivery vehicles, experiences can be drawn from the implementation of the UNSC resolutions on Iraq. Questions concerning verifying delivery vehicles can also be gleaned from arms control agreements between Russia and the US. At the same time, there are also challenges. The verification cultures and approaches of the OPCW and the IAEA differ from each other. The implementation of the Treaty will require costly, time consuming and verification intensive dismantlement of current WMD capabilities. Support of the nuclear weapon states and their commitment to backing features of the zone will also need to be addressed.

To address the creation of a WMDFZ in the Middle East, a large number of factors – political, technical, verifications – as well as a comprehensive nature of cooperation would be needed. Extrapolating one aspect of such a zone on how it would work is therefore not prescriptive in bringing about a WMDFZ. But there is nonetheless value in looking at specific aspects that may deepen understanding and create better clarity on how it should be shaped. Some nuclear aspects to be addressed within a MEWMDFZ Treaty are raised below.

1.Nuclear Verification Standard

IAEA Safeguards verification standards form the basis for all the five NWFZ. The IAEA Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) with the Additional Protocol (AP) could serve as the verification basis for a WMDFZ. However, provisions for the irreversible and verifiable dismantlement of existing nuclear weapons programs need to be included. This would also mean that nuclear material accountancy records and reports and information on the design of facilities would differ from those of the CSA as its provisions would be insufficient to address for instance historical production of nuclear material and dismantlement. Likewise, confidentiality undertakings would need to be more rigorous, given the proliferation sensitive information involved.

2.Dismantlement of nuclear weapons programs

Dismantlement would involve being carried out in a verifiable and irreversible manner to meet the requirements set out in the IAEA’s CSA and AP that ensures that the IAEA is able to draw broader assurances regarding not only the non-diversion of declared nuclear material, but also on the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in the State, as well as to meet Articles II and III of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Pelindaba Treaty that sets out Africa’s NWFZ, refers to IAEA verified dismantlement and destruction of nuclear explosive devices manufactured by South Africa prior to the entry into force of the said Treaty. The dismantlement was done unilaterally by South Africa, but the IAEA verified it only after the former’s NPT safeguards agreement entered into force[1]. It is worth noting that the referencing to the IAEA’s role did not only include verification of the inventory of nuclear material originating from the nuclear weapons program, but also confirming the historical production of nuclear material for the program as well. IAEA verification also extended to the dismantlement of nuclear weapons related infrastructure. Some dual use equipment was also subject to long term monitoring by the IAEA. For its part, South Africa implemented a policy of transparency by granting additional access to relevant sites, equipment, and people upon request by the IAEA. These transparency visits continued several years afterwards as an additional measure to build confidence.

In the case of the IAEA verifying the dismantlement of the Iraqi nuclear program[2], the mandate of the IAEA was based on the resolutions of the UN Security Council. Verification of the voluntary dismantlement of the nuclear program of Libya was based on the NPT safeguards agreement and additional protocol[3]. In all of the above cases, the expertise required, the sensitivity of information and material being handled, and prevention of proliferation, necessitated the IAEA teams being augmented by experts from the nuclear weapons states. A similar ingredient should be considered for an eventual WMDFZ verifications process. This should be viewed from the perspective of logic instead of political debate.

3.Dealing with nuclear propulsion

Iran has recently announced that it is considering nuclear propulsion for submarines[4]. This is a complicated issue, since the non-nuclear-weapon states are allowed to remove from safeguards nuclear material intended for non-proscribed military use, under arrangements to be agreed with the IAEA[5].

The issue is further complicated with the fact that some naval reactors operate with high enriched uranium (HEU) fuel, so there is the possibility that HEU production could continue for this purpose. It would be an advantage in terms of verification efforts and confidence building that the states concerned would forgo HEU production.

An additional problem for verification arises because states with naval reactors could regard the design of the fuel, and factors such as time intervals between refueling, as military sensitive and hence classified. While concern about security could be understandable, it is essential to develop appropriate verification arrangements so that naval programs don’t present an opportunity for diversion.  Diversion is not an issue just for HEU fuel, since LEU could be used as feedstock for high enrichment in an undeclared facility. For the time being, only Brazil has fuel cycle facilities related to the naval program, but they are not exempted from the IAEA safeguards.

Because of issues of confidentiality, verification for naval programs will require novel approaches. However, the AP has provisions for a managed access and one has developed approaches and verification methods in the Trilateral Initiative between the US, Russia and the IAEA. Such examples could be useful for verifying fissile material of sensitive composition, shape, and mass.

4.Delivery vehicles

Another area to be addressed in a WMDFZ are the related delivery vehicles used for WMDs. Internationally, there are a few treaties that deal with this issue, but with limited enforcement mechanisms. The original focus of the Missile Technology Control Regime  (MTCR) on missiles for nuclear weapons delivery was extended to cover the proliferation of missiles for the delivery of all types of weapons of mass destruction, i.e., nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The MCTR places particular focus on rockets and unmanned aerial vehicles capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kg to a range of at least 300 km and on equipment, software, and technology for such systems.

Looking at its application in the Middle East, UN Security Council resolutions passed during the UNSCOM/UNMOVIC era in Iraq contained definitions as well as types of delivery vehicles banned in Iraq. For instances, ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometers and related major parts, and repair and production facilities were proscribed. The case of Iraq had the mix of necessary ingredients of political will, resolutions, as well as monitoring required to enforce resolutions. A WMDFZ would likely involve all parties in the region to be party to its formation, implementation, and enforcement. At the same time, new definitions will be needed to cover all the cases and types of the WMD, along with a host of other questions.  What should be the annual conclusion for the delivery vehicles? What does it mean, and who makes the conclusions? Would there be recourse and what would they look like for rule breakers?

5.Verification organizations

Clearly, regional, as well as multilateral support would be required to uphold a WMDFZ treaty. This goes into all sorts of details that range from verification activities to dispute mechanisms to financing the dismantlement of current weapons of mass destruction related capabilities. Related safety and security measures would also need to be addressed within the treaty.

In addressing a regional approach in the Middle East, the basic contours of regional functionality, such as cooperation, mutual recognition, and its operational effectiveness, would determine its long-term workability. And at the multilateral levels, what role area, scope, and at what stage would and should international organizations play a role?

For NWFZs, there are a few regional mechanisms to look at. The Pelindaba Treaty created a mechanism for compliance through the establishment of the African Commission on Nuclear Energy, or AFCONE, but it is not yet fully operational. In Southeast Asia, the Bangkok Treaty does not have a permanent Secretariat. Instead it operates under the rotating secretariat/chairmanship of ASEAN.

Other models that involve regional nuclear material verification are Europe’s EURATOM and Brazil and Argentina’s ABACC. However, their models cannot be applied directly, since they are not crafted to confirm the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities – for the case of EURATOM since it involves nuclear weapon states on its territories and for the case of ABACC, that it was primarily a bilateral treaty of confidence building.

At the same time, while not entirely transferable, the EURATOM and ABACC case does hold potential lessons for interim steps that build confidence in the nuclear areas for the Middle East. One could think of Joint Ventures, creation of centers of excellence or even organizations similar to the EURATOM Supply Agency, or the Joint Research Centers of the European Commission.

6.Dealing with non-compliance

The challenge of addressing non-compliance within the sub-text of a regional WMD free zone is much wider that deals not only with issues of effective verification and recourse to redress but also the political landscape of how things are done in the region. Again, looking at the case of NWFZs alone, the Pelindaba Treaty’s Annex on complaints procedure and the settlement of disputes in the case of nuclear ambiguity has a provision for members to request the Agency conduct an inspection, and the Commission can designate its representatives to accompany the Agency’s inspectorate team. Similar provisions to such recourse can also be found in the Bangkok Treaty. Provisions are good to have and should be included. Nonetheless, it is a separate issue whether and how its execution will take place. Despite the case of nuclear ambiguity in the recent case of Myanmar’s alleged nuclear activities, Southeast Asian countries have not enacted said proviso in the Bangkok Treaty, which it theoretically could, preferring instead to allow the IAEA time to seek eventual access and cooperation to resolve the issue.

At the IAEA itself, there are no specific criteria to establish non-compliance. Article XII.C of the IAEA Statute requires the Director General to transmit to the Board all specific “non-compliance” reports made by the inspectors of the safeguards department. It is the for the Board, which is a political body, to find whether or not the non-compliance reported by the Secretariat does indeed constitute non-compliance under Article XII.C of the Statute, and the provisions of the CSA and, if so, when this needs to be reported to the Security Council.

Again, the Statute does not spell out the criteria which the Board should use to draw such conclusion. One can even assume that the criteria the Board should use is not necessarily be the same as those used by the Secretariat in determining whether technical non-compliance needs to be reported.

One could argue that the Board’s discretionary approach to non-compliance findings is unsatisfactory. Hence there have been calls for a common understanding on the definition of non-compliance. However, it is unclear that reducing the Board’s discretion is necessary noting that it might be difficult to establish all diversion scenarios and security risks associated with them in advance; no one size fits all. Due to the consensus driven decision making in the IAEA, it is not very likely that that the Member States would agree to this. However, this is important for the drafters of the WMDFZ Parties to think about in handling issues of non-compliances.

7.Other aspects

The NWFZ treaties while having the objective of ensuring a zone free of nuclear weapons are also reflective of their concerns within the zone. For instance, the main concern of the partiesThe South Pacific nuclear-free zone (NFZ)was nuclear testing and potential impact on the environment of radioactive waste dumping. The Treaty includes also provisions for negative security assurances.

The Southeast Asian NWFZalso defines nuclear weapons as any explosive device that is capable of releasing nuclear energy in an uncontrolled manner. The Treaty clearly mentions that dumping any radioactive material or waste at sea or discharging it into the atmosphere within the zone is not allowed.

The African NWFZattacks on nuclear installations, as well as dumping of radioactive waste within the zone are also prohibited. The objective of the Pelindaba Treaty also includes promotion of peaceful nuclear activities in Africa.In addition each partycommits themselves to maintain the highest standards of security and effective physical protection of nuclear materials, facilities, and equipment.

The Central Asian NWFZ treatycalls for physical protection measures for nuclear material and nuclear facilities, at least as effective as those in the Convention for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the recommendations and guidelines developed by the IАЕА.


There will be many political and technical challenges on crafting the treaty. While there is a wealth of verification experiences and practices available from the international arena, the initiative, scope and content of the Treaty has to come from the region itself. Other parties can support these efforts building capacities for the states and organizations of the region so that they have the necessary resources to implement the Treaty. To this end, a conference on the Middle Eastern Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone is foreseen by the end of 2012. Technical preparatory work, which could further contribute to building of confidence, could support the process.


[1] A. von Baeckmann, G. Dillon, and D. Perricos, Nuclear verification in South Africa, IAEA Bulletin,1,  p. 42-48, 1995.

[2]United Nations Security Council, Resolution 687. 8 April 1991

[3] Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. GOV/2004/12, IAEA.

[4] PressTV, Iran to Build Nuclear-power Submarines: Commander, 12 June 2012.

[5]The Structure and Content of Agreements between the Agency and States Required in Connection with the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Paragraph 14, INFCIRC/153 (Corrected), IAEA.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Heinonen, Olli. “The Middle Eastern Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) – Nuclear Verification.” Paper, July 16, 2012. (presented at "Verification in the 21st Century – Technological, Political and Institutional Challenges and Opportunities", Wilton Park, United Kingdom).

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