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A Model for a Nuclear-Free Middle East

by William Lambers on Dec 29, 2003

William Lambers

Saddam Hussein's regime is gone. An Iraqi nuclear weapons program is no longer to be feared. Libya has just relinquished its weapons of mass destruction programs. These recent developments no doubt bring comfort to some.

But we can't rest easy. The dangers of nuclear weaponry still exist in the Middle East. Israel has nuclear weapons, and its rival Iran is suspected of developing them. Other Middle Eastern nations may resort to nuclear weapons as a response to Israel's and Iran's possession of them.

The Middle East can avoid the vicious cycle of nuclear proliferation, as one past example suggests. More than 40 years ago, the nations of Latin America also faced the threat of nuclear weapons in their region. In September 1962, Brazil called for a Latin American nuclear weapon-free zone. Just one month later, the Soviets placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The resulting Cuban missile crisis almost led to a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States.

The Soviet missiles were eventually removed, but the fear of nuclear war lingered. Latin American leaders urgently sought to prevent nations in their region from developing nuclear weapons or, like Cuba, hosting those of a superpower. As Mexico's state secretary for the foreign ministry, Alfonso García Robles, stated: "We want to eliminate even the slightest possibility that the scarce resources that we have might be wasted in a ruinous and manifestly absurd nuclear armaments race."

Bold action had to be taken to eliminate the nuclear threat before it was too late. With the Treaty of Tlatelolco in 1967, that goal was accomplished. Latin America is now a nuclear weapon free zone. The Latin American blueprint for regional nuclear disarmament ought to serve as a model for the Middle East.

With nuclear weapons in the hands of some of its nations, the volatile Middle East is a ticking time bomb. Israel's nuclear weapons add incentive for other nations in the region to acquire the same capability. Iran has been scolded by the international community for failure to accurately report its use of nuclear technology over the last two decades. This lack of disclosure has fueled suspicions of a clandestine Iranian nuclear weapons program. Should Iran ever possess nuclear weapons, the future government of Iraq may be tempted to do so as well. Like Latin America in the 1960's, the nations of the Middle East should comprehend the threat of nuclear weapons and take action.

In the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, Latin American delegates went to work on a nuclear weapon-free zone treaty. Many obstacles stood in their way. Some nations disagreed on how or when the treaty should enter into force. When a treaty was ready for signature, not every nation in the region signed or ratified it.

Latin American diplomats also faced the difficulty of convincing the nuclear powers to adhere to the treaty protocols. These protocols prohibited the superpowers from testing, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against Latin American states. Initially, the United States and other nuclear powers (Britain, France, Soviet Union) were unwilling to become full parties to the treaty.

Latin American diplomats knew that such a treaty would take time to develop and implement. They were wise to get started in 1963. Patient diplomacy was required to bring all the parties to the treaty into agreement. Alfonso García Robles put it best when he said, "We shall make haste slowly, but we shall make haste." García Robles became a leader in the drafting and organization of the treaty. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982 for his efforts in making Latin America a nuclear weapon-free zone.

As was the case with Latin America, freeing the Middle East from nuclear weaponry will not come about easily. There will be obstacles, perhaps many more than those faced in Latin America. For instance, Iranian officials have openly called for Israel's destruction. That is not a good starting point for negotiations. Israel does support a Middle East nuclear weapon-free zone, but only at the late stages of an overall Middle East peace process. Israel sees nuclear disarmament not as a step toward regional peace, but rather as an after-effect. In the 1960's Latin Americans saw nuclear weapons as a hindrance to peace and security.

Latin American leaders, such as Alfonso García Robles, understood what dangers lay ahead from nuclear proliferation. The leaders of the Middle East today must show the same foresight. Should the Middle East fail to act on a nuclear weapon free zone treaty, a nuclear sword will hang over them and the world for decades to come.


William Lambers is an author and historian who partnered with the World Food Programme on the book “Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World” (2009).