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The Long Journey Toward A WMD-Free Middle East
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Patricia Lewis and William C. Potter

One of the most sought-after prizes in international disarmament and nonproliferation diplomacy is a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In such a conflict-ridden area with a history of mistrust and animosity where chemical weapons were used in the past, the prospect of renewed WMD use is all too possible.[1] For these reasons, a WMD-free zone in the Middle East is not only an aspirational goal, but a matter of practical urgency.

The idea of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East is not a new one and, indeed, was proposed in April 1962 by a group of highly respected Israeli intellectuals, the Committee for the Denuclearization of the Middle East. In 1974, Egypt and Iran also embraced the concept as national policy and raised the issue in the UN General Assembly. Periodically since 1980, it has been possible to reach consensus on the resolution that international peace and security in the region would be enhanced greatly if all states in the Middle East agreed not to produce, test, acquire, or station nuclear weapons on their territories. Yet, notwithstanding the recurrent support for the measure at the General Assembly, until 1995, very little came to pass, ­leading many analysts and diplomats to question if all states in the region genuinely were interested in a zone free of nuclear weapons.

In 1990, at the initiative of Egypt, the concept of a Middle East zone was expanded to include all weapons of mass destruction. This more comprehensive approach, which was pursued in tandem with that of a nuclear-weapon-free zone, envisaged the possibility that a bargain could be struck in which Israel agreed to abandon, in a verifiable manner, its unacknowledged but widely assumed nuclear weapons capability while all states in the region agreed to give up or forgo any offensive chemical and biological weapons capabilities and join relevant global treaties and agreements such as the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention. Although this approach made sense theoretically, it thus far has failed to produce any tangible product. There had been some hope that the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) talks[2] might lead to a negotiated zone of one form or another, but these talks collapsed in 1995, due in part to disagreements between Egypt and Israel over when and how to address the zone in the context of sequencing the steps in the wider peace process.

That year also marked the occasion of a month-long negotiation at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review and Extension Conference. A key component of a package that made possible the indefinite extension of the treaty was adoption of the Resolution on the Middle East, co-sponsored by Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This resolution was carefully crafted and called on all states in the Middle East to “take practical steps in appropriate forums aimed at making progress towards, inter alia, the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems, and to refrain from taking any measures that preclude the achievement of this objective.” The 1995 resolution also called on all NPT parties, and in particular the nuclear-weapon states, to “extend their cooperation and to exert their utmost efforts with a view to ensuring the early establishment by regional parties of a Middle East zone free of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.” From this point on, for all practical purposes the concepts of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East and a WMD-free zone in the region became conflated in NPT parlance.

Although it would have been impossible to have reached the decision to extend the NPT indefinitely without the 1995 resolution, no progress was made toward the implementation of the resolution until the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Indeed, Egypt’s frustration over the lack of headway in implementing the resolution and skepticism about the commitment to the resolution by its three nuclear-weapon-state sponsors contributed to the collapse of the 2005 NPT Review Conference. A desire to avoid repeating the experiences of 2005 was instrumental in inducing parties at the 2010 conference to forge consensus on several modest steps to begin the implementation of the 1995 resolution.

More specifically, the 2010 NPT Review Conference final document called on the UN secretary-general and the three co-sponsors of the 1995 resolution, in consultation with regional states, to convene a conference in 2012, to be attended by all states in the Middle East, “on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the states of the region, and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon states.”

In addition, the UN secretary-general, along with the three co-sponsors and in consultation with the states of the region, is charged with appointing a facilitator who will “have a mandate to support implementation of the 1995 Resolution by conducting consultations and undertaking preparations for the convening of the 2012 conference.” The facilitator is tasked with assisting “in implementing follow-on steps agreed at the 2012 conference” and “to report to the NPT 2015 Review Conference and its Preparatory Committee meetings.” In addition, the final document says that a “host government for the 2012 conference will also be designated.”

As with all successful negotiations, the final document from the 2010 conference required compromises by all key parties, including Egypt, Iran, and the United States.[3] Not surprisingly, Israel, which was not directly involved in the negotiations as it is not an NPT member, took exception to what was said and not said in the document. In particular, it objected to being named explicitly (albeit in the same mild fashion that was adopted at the 2000 NPT Review Conference) when there was no mention of India and Pakistan, the two other countries that never have joined the NPT. It also strongly objected to the failure of the document to take note of, much less condemn, Iran’s noncompliance with its NPT obligations, a step that would have been opposed by Iran and thus might have blocked consensus on the final ­document.

At the time of this writing, 14 months have passed since the 2010 NPT Review Conference, and neither a facilitator nor a host government for the 2012 Middle East conference has been appointed. During the summer of 2011, however, the three co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East held a series of consultations with states from the region in their respective capitals, and the UN secretary-general and the co-sponsors also had consultations with states in New York. These recent developments have led some to anticipate that it may be possible to decide on a facilitator and host country before the end of the fall. Regrettably, background documentation for the conference has yet to begin, and at least one of the three sponsors of the 1995 Middle East resolution appears to have advised the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization not to proceed quickly in that direction. These delays are most unfortunate and do not augur well for the convening of a conference in 2012. They also tend to reinforce a form of “sophisticated cynicism” in which all efforts to roll back weapons programs are viewed as naive and hopeless. This outlook, in turn, leads to a sense of fatalism among many supporters of a zone. Such attitudes also have discouraged scholars from pursuing research on the issue and foundations from supporting serious efforts in pursuit of a zone.[4] Further complicating the process, at least in the short term, is the Arab Spring of 2011 and the accompanying political turmoil throughout the region, which clearly was not anticipated by the negotiators of the 2010 final document when they selected 2012 as the date for the conference.

The Larger Process

Nuclear-weapon-free zones predate the NPT and arguably represent one of the few disarmament and nonproliferation approaches that have shown considerable progress in recent years. The concept of such zones can be traced back to the mid-1950s, and its origin usually is associated with a Polish plan to make a portion of Central Europe nuclear-weapon free.[5] Although this regional initiative was never realized, in relatively short order a number of nuclear-weapon-free zones were negotiated. They included the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco among Latin American and Caribbean states—the first nuclear-­weapon-free zone that is a populated area. These zones, in turn, gave rise to those in the South Pacific (the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga), Africa (the 1996 Treaty of Pelindaba), Southeast Asia (the 1995 Bangkok Treaty), and Central Asia (the 2006 Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty).[6] In addition to these treaties that remain in force, an agreement on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was negotiated in 1992, but was ­subsequently ­abrogated.

The NPT also foresaw the possibility that more states might choose to pursue regional arrangements to supplement their more global treaty commitments, and Article VII affirms “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.” Similarly, the 1995 NPT ­Review and Extension Conference Decision on Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament expressed the “conviction that the establishment of internationally recognized nuclear-weapon-free zones, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at among the States of the region concerned, enhances global and regional peace and security,” a view that was reiterated at the 2000 and 2010 review conferences.

Nuclear-weapon-free zones historically have been viewed as effective means to perform a variety of disarmament and nonproliferation tasks. These include enabling states in a region to take the initiative to exclude nuclear weapons from their territories, to establish greater transparency and verification measures, to prevent nuclear weapons tests from being conducted in a region, to foster confidence among the countries of a region that neighbors are not engaged in nuclear weapons activities, to build and maintain nonproliferation norms, and to promote broader regional cooperation, including but not limited to the area of peaceful use of nuclear energy.[7] Although treaties in a number of regions have been successful in accomplishing these objectives, their full potential has not always been realized due to a number of barriers within and external to the region.[8]

Perhaps the most pronounced internal barrier is the presence of ongoing hostility and conflict among states within the region. Some observers have maintained that nuclear-weapon-free zones cannot be established in regions such as the Middle East and South Asia, which are characterized by enduring and bitter rivalries, including those of a nuclear nature. A possible counterexample, however, is the successful conclusion of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which covers a region that at the time of negotiation was ridden with conflict and included nuclear archrivals Argentina and Brazil. Although the intensity of conflict was much lower in Latin America than in the Middle East and South Asia and did not involve religious issues, a process of democratization in which governments abandoned military dictatorships might have been necessary before Argentina and Brazil were able to perceive significant common interests in forgoing their military nuclear aspirations and redirecting their resources to emphasize economic development and greater engagement in the international marketplace. Indeed, during the negotiation of the Pelindaba Treaty, several of the participating African states were embroiled in full-scale hostilities, but that did not prevent the conclusion of the continental nuclear-weapon-free zone. Other internal barriers to the creation of these zones that have been noted by some analysts include domestic instability among key regional states, the possession of nuclear weapons on the part of states in the prospective zone, and the absence of regional forums at which to initiate discussions leading to more formal negotiations on a zone.

One also can point to a variety of external barriers. They include the policies of nuclear-weapon states, which may discourage them from concluding legally binding protocols to provide negative security assurances, that is, pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons, to some states in a region or to preclude the future possibility of deployment or transit of nuclear weapons in certain regions. In fact, although all five of the NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states have formally endorsed the principle of nuclear-weapon-free zones, in practice, they rarely have found a zone that they like. As a result, even when they do not actively oppose the creation of a zone, they typically have been slow to conclude the relevant protocols.

Although not a barrier per se, the effectiveness of existing zones has been impeded at times by the tendency of some parties to zone treaties to act contrary to the treaty’s provisions. This phenomenon has been especially prevalent in recent years with respect to the issue of nuclear trade with countries lacking comprehensive safeguards or, in the case of the Central Asian treaty, the IAEA additional protocol.[9] Disregard for compliance with any provision of the treaty undermines the legitimacy of all provisions of the treaty.

Lessons From Existing Zones[10]

Although nuclear-weapon-free zones share some basic characteristics[11], each zone typically has a number of distinctive features. These features reflect circumstances and concerns specific to the region, as well as the time period during which the treaties were negotiated. The Tlatelolco treaty, for example, reflects a permissive attitude toward “peaceful nuclear explosives”; the Rarotonga treaty precludes nuclear testing and the dumping of radioactive waste at sea; the Korean denuclearization agreement includes the prohibition of uranium enrichment and plutonium separation; the Pelindaba treaty introduces the concept of a ban on attacks against nuclear installations, which already exists in a 1988 bilateral agreement between India and Pakistan; and the Central Asian treaty emphasizes the need for environmental remediation related to prior nuclear activities on the territory of member states and requires members to adhere to an additional protocol.[12] This evolutionary process, in which new zones typically add to and often improve on prior zones, suggests that notwithstanding major internal and external barriers, it may be possible to negotiate additional zones. Possible lessons to be derived from the experience of prior zones include:

Promote Greater Cooperation and Information Sharing. Members of nuclear-weapon-free zones would benefit if there were more regular interaction among zones, including the exchange of information and coordination regarding issues of mutual interest (e.g., verification and compliance, disaster preparedness, peaceful nuclear use, and the promotion of nuclear disarmament measures in international forums such as the NPT review process and the First Committee of the UN General Assembly). A step in this direction was the convening of the Second Conference of States Parties and Signatories to Treaties That Establish Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones and Mongolia at the United Nations immediately preceding the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Si Vis Pacem, Para Pacem (If you want peace, prepare for peace). Most prior nuclear-weapon-free zones were regarded as quixotic at one time or another and were opposed by key states in the region or by one or more nuclear-weapon states. States in a region that are interested in the creation of a zone should persevere and take preliminary steps in what may be thought of as the prenegotiation phase of the development of a zone to begin to address many of the problems that will need to be solved if and when the political climate permits the initiation of actual negotiations.[13]

Utilize Regional Organizations If Present. Prior to the start of formal negotiations, one should exploit the presence of existing regional organizations as a forum for discussions of the scope and content of a zone. In the absence of an existing regional forum, a group of interested states in the region or conceivably an expert group convened under the auspices of the United Nations may be able to begin a dialogue to advance the deliberative process. The UN Department of Disarmament Affairs, with technical support from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and financial assistance from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, convened a multiyear group of experts from Central Asia to facilitate the negotiation of the Central Asian treaty.

Treat Domestic and International Political Change as Opportunities. Major internal and external political changes often provide catalysts or triggers that can be used to promote policy innovation, including the pursuit of nuclear-weapon-free zones. This phenomenon was present in Argentina and Brazil with the demise of military governments and a reorientation to internationalizing the countries’ economies beginning in 1967 and can be associated with the increased international opposition to French nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1980s and the demise of apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990s. In principle, the tumultuous events in the Middle East in 2011 may also provide opportunities for new thinking about regional cooperation, although the uncertainty they generate also may reinforce caution on the part of some states.

Do Not Wait for Holdout States. As Michael Hamel-Green urges, “[T]he existence of holdout states within a region should not delay efforts by other regional states to pursue discussions and dialogue on [nuclear-weapon-free zone] and [WMD-free zone] concepts in regional, international and other forums.”[14] The Tlatelolco treaty is a particularly good case in point and was constructed in a creative fashion that enabled the treaty to enter into force for many countries in Latin America, even as others delayed for many years.

Promote Greater Engagement by Civil Society. To date, civil society has been much less effective in instigating headway on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation issues than in the sphere of conventional arms such as landmines, small arms and light weapons, and cluster munitions. In principle, however, this need not remain the case, and there is an important role for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to play in conducting research and providing innovative but practical policy recommendations to national governments in the sphere of nuclear-weapon-free zones.

Moving Forward

Probably the most significant driver for the WMD-free zone in the Middle East is the growing awareness that a conflict in the region could involve the use of nuclear weapons. Although not a new consideration, it has gained increased currency due to nuclear brinkmanship by Iran, the perception that Israel’s powerful allies accept its nuclear weapons as a permanent feature of the Middle Eastern terrain, increased interest in and access to civil nuclear technology by other states in the region, and occasional, veiled threats by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states that should Iran develop nuclear weapons, it would not long remain the only nuclear weapons newcomer to the region. These developments may not in themselves represent the preconditions for negotiation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone, but they should prompt a radical rethinking of nuclear policy in the Middle East.

Although the potential for a deal on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East certainly exists, it is unclear what form that deal could take. Although more relevant research on the topic has been done than is generally realized, it remains the case that this information is not widely known, and more serious work is required. In particular, there is a need for studies that take account of the experience of other regional arms control processes such as the extant nuclear-weapon-free zones and the Helsinki Process, which attempted to improve relations during the Cold War between the East and West. More research also is needed regarding the specific characteristics of the Middle East, including recent developments, for the purpose of delineating the content and possible scope of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East and the modalities for deliberations on these in advance of formal negotiations. It is likely that a future zone will need to include many of the following elements:

• prohibitions consistent with the NPT, such as Articles II and III, which prescribe obligations to be undertaken by nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states with respect to the transfer of nuclear weapons and fissionable material and the acceptance of IAEA safeguards.

• prohibition of the stationing of any nuclear explosive device on the territory of the parties to the treaty.

• prohibition of nuclear explosive testing in the territories of the parties and of participation in such tests by any state anywhere.

• prohibition of the dumping of radioactive waste in the territorial sea, land, rivers, or inland waters covered by the zone.

• declaration of any existing nuclear weapons capabilities, be they intact weapons or their component parts, prior to the entry into force of the treaty.

• dismantlement and destruction of existing nuclear weapons capabilities, facilities, and devices under international verification mechanisms.

• prohibition of armed attack on civil nuclear facilities in the Middle East.

• declaration of all nuclear facilities and their placement under IAEA safeguards.

• conclusion by parties of a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, as well as an additional protocol.

• regional means of verification and monitoring compliance.

Confidence in the ability to verify the provisions of the zone will be a major requirement for its successful negotiation and implementation. Verification and compliance measures could be carried out by a new standing institution, by existing international verification instruments with added reporting requirements, or by a combination of the two approaches. Yet, the most unique and contentious aspect of a nuclear-weapon-free zone for the Middle East is that of declaring past and present nuclear weapons capabilities and then ­dismantling them.

Transparency in military nuclear capabilities is conspicuous by its absence in the region. There never has been a formal clarification of Israel’s nuclear status[15]; Iran and Syria have been found in noncompliance with their safeguards obligations at the IAEA, and the issue of their undeclared nuclear activities has been referred to the UN Security Council. If states do begin to negotiate a nuclear-weapon-free zone, at the very least there has to be a mechanism for enhancing transparency. One approach would be a declaration of intent to declare past programs. Such a declaration would be timed to immediately precede entry into force. Borrowing from the South African experience, prior to entry into force one might arrange for the dismantlement of military capabilities under the supervision of a team of international inspectors.

The Role of the Conference

As of mid-2011, it is impossible to anticipate with any confidence if or when the NPT-mandated conference on the Middle East will be convened or what it realistically could be expected to accomplish if it actually took place. That being said, one can anticipate a number of developments.

1. Regardless of when or where the conference is held, a great deal of work will need to be done in advance of the meeting if it is to yield any substantively meaningful deliberations and kick off a follow-on process. A necessary first step is to appoint a facilitator, who must have the time and the authority to undertake consultations in preparation for the conference on issues such as working methods for the conference, decision-making procedures, the agenda, participants, and substance. It is of the utmost importance to agree on and name the facilitator as soon as possible so that the groundwork can be laid.

2. Whenever the conference is held, there will be a need for background documentation, and it is desirable for international organizations to begin now to prepare such material. Experts at international organizations, in NGOs, and in academia also can play a useful role in identifying means to overcome differences among the prospective members of the zone, as well as charting alternative proposals for elements of the zone, including its scope and verification measures, the basic obligations of member states, and the sequence by which commitments would be fulfilled.

3. Ultimately, it may prove infeasible to convene the conference before the end of 2012. If a facilitator is appointed and that individual’s consultations make clear that there is a desire among the preponderance of relevant parties to postpone the conference, it could be rescheduled for 2013. However, any such decision would have to be communicated very carefully. The arguments for delay need to be weighed judiciously against the costs of postponement, which include potential damage to the NPT review process, especially in light of the critical role played by the Middle East recommendations in the negotiation of a successful outcome of the 2010 review conference. A number of delegations sought stronger disarmament provisions in the final document, but accepted the negotiated action plan in deference to Egypt (the chair of the Nonaligned Movement). Postponement of the conference is apt to be interpreted by some of these states as evidence of bad faith by Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States and may well lead to the unraveling of the document, in particular those provisions related to nuclear disarmament.

Many arguments have been advanced in support of a postponement of the 2012 conference. Some of them are serious, most are self-serving, and many are simply repackaged objections from the past that seek to take account of the rapidly changing dynamics in the region. They have in common a fear of the unknown, a skepticism that things can change for the better peacefully, and a view that it is naive to negotiate meaningful disarmament and nonproliferation measures in a region where conflict has long been the norm. These naysayers may prove to be correct, but it is certain that the Middle East will not be free of weapons of mass destruction until a serious and concerted effort is begun. Small, halting steps forward were taken in 2010 in the form of consensus recommendations to convene a conference in 2012. Failure to honor that mandate would squander an ­opportunity that may not reappear.

Patricia Lewis is deputy director of and a scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. William C. Potter is the Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar Professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute and director of the CNS.


1. Chemical weapons were used in the 1980s by Iraq in the Anfal campaign against the Kurds and in the Iran-Iraq War.

2. See, for example, Alison Kelly, “NPT: Back on Track,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2010; William Potter et al., “The 2010 NPT Review Conference: Deconstructing Consensus,” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), June 17, 2010, http://cns.miis.edu/­stories/pdfs/100617_npt_2010_summary.pdf.

3. The Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) effort was one of five region-wide ­working groups associated with the Madrid peace process that was active from 1992 to 1995. For a discussion of ACRS, see, for example, Emily B. Landau, “ACRS: What Worked, What Didn’t, and What Could Be Relevant for the Region Today,” Disarmament Forum, No. 2 (2008), pp. 1–20; Peter Jones, “Arms Control in the Middle East: Some Reflections on ACRS,” Security Dialogue, Vol. 28, No. 1 (1997).

4. This situation bears some resemblance to the state of affairs in the late 1980s and early 1990s with regard to the pursuit of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

5. The so-called Rapacki Plan, named after Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rapacki, came on the heels of a Soviet proposal at the United Nations in 1956 to limit nuclear arms on a regional basis. For a discussion of the evolution of the zone concept, see Jan Prawitz and James Leonard, A Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East (Geneva: UNIDIR, 1996), pp. 1–6. This publication remains a very valuable resource for current discussions of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East and contains many of the ideas that have been rediscovered by more recent studies.

6. The dates in parentheses refer to the signing of the treaties, not their entry into force. For a synopsis of the current status of nuclear-weapon-free zones, see Arms Control Association, “Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ) at a Glance,” www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/nwfz. For a more extended analysis, see CNS, “Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone (NWFZ) Clearinghouse,” http://cns.miis.edu/nwfz_clearinghouse.

7. Scott Parrish and Jean du Preez, “Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones: Still a Useful Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Tool?” Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, 2006.

8. For an extended discussion of these barriers, see Michael Hamel-Green, Regional Initiatives on Nuclear- and WMD-Free Zones: Cooperative Approaches to Arms Control and Non-proliferation (Geneva: UNIDIR, 2005), pp. 25–27.

9. The Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty is unambiguous about precluding nuclear trade with countries that do not have an additional protocol in place, but this provision appears to have been ignored when it comes to nuclear trade negotiations with India.

10. See Hamel-Green, Regional Initiatives on Nuclear- and WMD-Free Zones, pp. 27–32; CNS, “Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone (NWFZ) Clearinghouse,” sec. 10.

11. The common characteristics of nuclear-weapon-free zones are identified in a 1999 UN Disarmament Commission report, which also specifies guidelines for their creation. See UN General Assembly, “Report of the Disarmament Commission,” A/54/42, 1999, annex 1 (“Establishment of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones on the Basis of Arrangements Freely Arrived at Among the States of the Region Concerned”), www.un.org/disarmament/HomePage/DisarmamentCommission/UNDiscom.shtml.

12. A number of these features are noted in the discussion by Prawitz and Leonard of the evolving nature of nuclear-weapon-free zones. Prawitz and Leonard, A Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East, pp. 30–31.

13. Ibid., pp. 76–78.

14. Hamel-Green, Regional Initiatives on Nuclear- and WMD-Free Zones, p. 35.

15. Avner Cohen, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain With the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).

Posted: August 30, 2011