The recent announcement by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to explore development of nuclear energy sent a shudder through the nonproliferation community. The concern? Like Iran, these countries - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates - could someday use the peaceful atom to mount a nuclear weapons programme. As regional nuclear ambition — and apprehension — grows, it is none too soon to start thinking seriously about the merits of a bold, old idea: a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone (MENFZ). Participating nations could use this agreement not only to head off a nuclear arms race, but to address more fundamental political issues as well. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s advocacy for such a zone in his visit last year to the US may have been a trial balloon or mere propaganda, but Arab states increasingly find the principle attractive.

What would it take to initiate such a zone today? The MENFZ requires resolution of at least four critical issues: geography, prohibitions, verification, and enforcement. The zone would include the 22-nation Arab League plus Iran and Israel. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would eliminate all nuclear weapons, weapons-usable material, and weapons technology. Libya’s denuclearisation provides a template. The MENFZ would not bar nuclear power or other peaceful atomic activities - including fuel production. However, a “joint” IAEA/host country team would bear managerial responsibility. Additional resident agency inspectors would oversee safety protocols while reserving the right to uncover all undeclared nuclear sites that they could terminate on proliferation grounds, or subject to safeguards. International inspectors also would safeguard dual-use technology. Violations, which the host country failed to promptly rectify, would result in meaningful sanctions — including military force if necessary — embodied in the zone treaty and endorsed by the UN Security Council. This would tether Tehran’s nuclear ambition to a tripwire linked to material consequences. Under the MENFZ, Israel would bear the largest sacrifice - the surrender of its nuclear weapons capacity.

The zone must include compensatory measures for Israel’s nuclear disarmament. The solution: Israel’s admission into NATO with a substantial alliance troop presence on Israeli soil, coupled to a separate US guarantee.

Placing Israel under America’s strategic nuclear retaliatory umbrella would provide it with necessary reassurance. NATO membership would offer it multiple advantages. For the first time in its history, Israel would be linked to a family of nations dedicated to its survival, an ambition that goes back to its earliest years.

And, for Iran and other regional nuclear aspirants, a nuclear-free zone would eliminate the prospect of a preemptive conventional or nuclear attack by a Jewish state that believes its very existence is at stake. — The Christian Science Monitor