“For 50 years, the Arms Control Association has educated citizens around the world to help create broad support for U.S.-led arms control and nonproliferation achievements.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
Iran and a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Middle East
Share this

Alireza Nader

A nuclear-weapon-free zone for the Middle East was first proposed by Iran in 1974.[1] Iran’s last reigning monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, championed the idea of such a zone, perhaps as a way to enhance Iran’s leadership role in the region despite his own nuclear ambitions. The Islamic Republic of Iran, which replaced the monarchy in 1979, is believed to be pursuing a nuclear weapons capability despite intense international diplomatic and economic pressure. Nevertheless, Iranian leaders, who claim that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, have been enthusiastic about the planned 2012 conference on establishing a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The conference could serve Iran’s geopolitical interests by providing an opportunity to exploit Arab divisions and shift the focus away from Iran toward Israel’s nuclear arsenal, thereby undermining U.S. efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

Iran’s Nuclear Pursuit

Iran’s pursuit of a potential nuclear weapons capability is rooted in a deep sense of insecurity. In the three decades since its revolution, Iran has survived internal and external threats and conflict ranging from anti-revolutionary insurgencies to the Iran-Iraq War. It views the United States as the central threat to its continued existence and as the greatest obstacle to its regional ambitions. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) were seen by Iranian leaders as a prelude to regime change in their own country. Protests following the 2009 presidential election have heightened Iranian fears of a “velvet revolution” designed to overthrow the regime. Tehran’s efforts to develop a possible nuclear weapons capability should therefore be viewed through the prism of its rivalry with the United States.

Iranian foreign policy may appear ideological at times, but it is driven by perceived interests and cost-benefit calculations. Iran’s nuclear policy and potential nuclear posture are shaped by internal and external factors (factional political competition and the threat from the United States) rather than purely ideological motives, namely a supposed desire to “destroy” Israel. Hence, Iran’s objective may be to reach a virtual nuclear weapons stage in which it possesses the capability to assemble the weapons if need be. A virtual nuclear posture could be much more beneficial than an ambiguous posture, in which Iran assembles weapons but does not admit to having them, much like Israel, or a declared posture, in which Iran assembles nuclear weapons and tests them. A virtual nuclear Iran could offer Iran deterrence against the United States while preventing its total isolation in the Middle East and beyond.[2]

Hostility Toward Israel

Arab hostility toward Iran is a key factor in Tehran’s calculations, including on its nuclear program. The Islamic revolution of 1979 and the new regime’s efforts to “export” the revolution to Arab countries heightened Arab fears of an assertive and ideologically driven Shia Iran. Arab suspicions of Iran have been exacerbated by the victory of pro-Iranian Shia parties in Iraq and by Iran’s continuing nuclear program. Saudi Arabia and the smaller states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in particular, wish to blunt Iranian influence across the region.

The upheavals of the Arab Spring have sharpened the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia fears Iranian ascendance as Tehran attempts to exploit the Arab uprisings and the overthrow of pro-U.S. regimes for its own benefit. From the Saudi and U.S. perspectives, Arab unity is essential to containing Iran and stopping its nuclear program. Iran, which styles itself as the leader of the Muslim world, would see its power and influence wane in the face of a uniformly hostile Arab world.

Tehran’s vehement opposition to Israel has alleviated some of the pressures it faces from Arab countries. Arabs tend to view Israel more negatively than they view Iran. In addition, Arab populations, as opposed to the conservative anti-Iranian Arab regimes, appear to view the Iranian nuclear program as the lesser threat to regional security when compared to Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians.[3] Iran’s image as the force of resistance against Israel may justify some of its more assertive behavior in the eyes of Arab public opinion.

Iran’s support of the 2012 conference on a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone is therefore based on Tehran’s opposition to Israel as the “real” threat to regional peace and stability. Iranian leaders have continually criticized Israel for being the only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons. According to Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, “[T]he Zionist regime is the only obstacle to the creation of a Middle-East free from nuclear weapons.”[4] A 2012 conference that focuses on Israel would counter the U.S. strategy of containing Iran by deflecting Arab pressure from Iran toward Israel. The United States, naturally, opposes a 2012 conference that would have a strong focus on Israel.

Arab Divisions

Diverging Arab interests could split Arab unity on the WMD-free zone and serve Iran’s objectives. Egypt has been a strong advocate of a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East and could play a crucial role not only in the 2012 conference, but also in U.S. efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear drive. The fall of Hosni Mubarak has reinvigorated Egypt’s role as a leader of the Arab world; Egypt could be expected to pursue more independent foreign policies in the future. Egyptian revolutionaries, including the Muslim Brotherhood, do not appear as beholden to U.S. interests as the Mubarak regime. Egypt’s ties to and interests with Israel have especially come under greater scrutiny. A post-Mubarak Egypt could increasingly question Israel’s nuclear capability while making it a focus of discussions on the WMD-free zone.

Post-Mubarak Egypt also views Iran in a different light. Egyptian officials have discussed restoring diplomatic ties with Iran severed after the Islamic revolution. This does not necessarily indicate an Egyptian tilt toward Iran, but rather a rebalancing of Egyptian interests and priorities. Egypt may view Iran as a geopolitical rival, but it is not directly threatened by Iranian ambitions or military capabilities. Egypt’s greatest concern is Israel’s conventional and nuclear capabilities.

The GCC countries, on the other hand, do not feel directly threatened by Israel, but see Iran as an existential threat. Saudi Arabia and the GCC states have proposed a nuclear-weapon-free Persian Gulf zone that excludes Israel and focuses on Iran’s nuclear pursuit.

Perhaps it is too early to determine if the 2012 conference and its participants will seriously entertain the possibility of a nuclear-weapon-free zone or merely use the gathering as an Israel-bashing forum. The upheaval in the Arab world may prove to be a significant distraction for all concerned.[5] What is clear is that each state will bring its own narrow interests and agenda to the table.

Iran in particular will see the conference as a chance to resist U.S. diplomatic and economic pressures against its nuclear program. Its focus on Israel as the real culprit will win it some Arab sympathy, particularly among non-Gulf Arab countries such as Egypt. In addition, Iran’s possible goal of achieving a virtual nuclear weapons capability does not necessarily contradict its stated goal of a Middle Eastern nuclear-weapon-free zone. In Iran’s view, Israel is the only country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons, while Iran’s program has been “peaceful” or virtual.

Iran’s objective of sustaining opposition to Israel while pursuing its own nuclear weapons program is aided by Israel’s unwillingness to give up its nuclear arsenal before it has achieved peace with all Middle Eastern states. However, regional peace is highly unlikely as long as the United States and Iran compete for regional primacy and as Iran continues its quest for a nuclear weapons capability. A conference that does not solely focus on Israel, but also the Iranian nuclear program and the threats of proliferation in the Middle East, can help counter Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapons capability. ACT


Alireza Nader is an international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and co-author of Iran’s Nuclear Future: Critical U.S. Policy Choices (2011).



1. Egypt also sponsored the concept that year. See Rebecca Stevens and Amin Tarzi, “Egypt and the Middle East Resolution at the NPT 2000 Review Conference,” CNS Reports, April 24, 2000.

2. For more on Iran’s motivations and possible nuclear posture, see Lynn Davis et al., Iran’s Nuclear Future: Critical U.S. Policy Choices, RAND Corporation, June 2011.

3. James Zogby, “Arab Attitudes, 2011,” Arab American Institute Foundation, July 2011.

4. “Iran’s N. Confab Slams U.S. as World’s No. 1 Violator of NPT,” Fars News Agency, June 13, 2011.

5. Anne Penketh, “Unrest Complicates 2012 Middle East Meeting,” Arms Control Today, March 2011.