Nuclear Weapons

Prospects for a Middle East Regional Safeguards Organization

02.25.14 | 17 min read | Text by Dr. Sara Z. Kutchesfahani

Recent efforts to convene a conference on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) have stalled, reflecting the political difficulties in working towards that goal in the region. Pursuing a regional safeguards organization for nuclear energy programs in the Middle East could be an easier diplomatic and strategic alternative, given the growing energy demands by some of the countries in the region. In addition, if established, the institutions and fora for nuclear discussions could facilitate the eventual establishment of a Middle East zone free of WMDs.  For example, the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) performed a crucial function in helping Argentina and Brazil verify one another’s non-nuclear weapon status and enact policies to officially renounce any interest in nuclear weapons. Given the resurgent interest in the pursuit of nuclear energy in the Middle East coupled with concerns of a nuclear-armed Iran, the phased establishment of a regional organization similar to ABACC could (1) prevent further nuclear proliferation in the region and (2) pave the way for the establishment of a Middle East zone free of WMDs.

ABACC is a relatively unknown non-proliferation success story within the foreign policy and international security expert community. Currently, this community is concerned about the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran, especially since fears abound that should Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program become fully realized, it is quite possible that a nuclear cascade in the Middle East would ensue. Important lessons learned from the creation and subsequent implementation of ABACC – notably (1) the importance of sustained dialogue, (2) confidence and trust building, and (3) political leadership/political will – could be useful to assist in the creation of a regional safeguards organization for nuclear energy programs in the Middle East.

ABACC was established under an agreement reached between Argentina and Brazil to ensure the exclusively peaceful uses of nuclear energy in 1991. It is the world’s only bi-national safeguards agency responsible for verifying that the nuclear materials existing in both countries are being used exclusively for peaceful purposes. It is vested with the power to designate inspectors, carry out and evaluate inspections, and take legal action. It is made up of an equal number of representatives from Argentina and Brazil. Today, nuclear physicists from both countries continue to conduct mutual inspections at nuclear facilities on a cross-national basis through ABACC. These inspectors render their services to ABACC only during the periods encompassed by the missions for which they are appointed. Brazilian inspectors verify the Argentine facilities, and Argentine inspectors verify the Brazilian facilities. The inspections include verification of inventories of nuclear materials, unannounced and short-notice inspections, and inspections carried out along with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It is important to stress that their work is undertaken with the full support of both governments.

Skeptics may argue that ABACC might not be the best model to use as a comparison for the Middle East region for three important reasons. First, tensions are high and deep-rooted feelings of suspicion and mistrust are currently rampant in the region. Second, existing indigenous nuclear capabilities are very limited in the region. Third, within the states across the region, sustained dialogue is overshadowed by veiled threats, confidence and trust building measures are simply not an option, and due to the inherent distrust, the political will is certainly not there. However, the lessons learned from the creation and subsequent sustained success of ABACC provide a starting point for assessing a regional safeguards organization for nuclear energy programs in the Middle East.

Options for a Regional Safeguards Organization in the Middle East

No two regions in the world can be deemed geographically or culturally alike. Equally, no two regions can be expected to have identical characteristics politically, militarily, or economically. Therefore, if a mutual inspections and safeguards verification system works well in one region, there is no guarantee that it will work just as well in another region. The Middle East has more dissimilarities than similarities with the Southern Cone. In the Southern Cone, there is a shared culture, shared religion, shared history, shared interests, and in all but one country, a shared language. In the Middle East, however, there are extensive ethnic divides including: Persians, Jews, Kurds, Druze, Turkic, Azeri, Baloch, Arabs, and others. The region has seen armed conflicts amongst various groups and there are long standing divisions between Shiites and Sunnis and tensions among other religious lines. Arguably, one of the only things the people of the Middle East share with one another is the geographical location. Cultures, languages, religions, and interests in the region are as widespread and disparate as the peoples’ political beliefs.

Yet, issues such as the verification procedures and the structure of various regional nuclear non-proliferation agreements exhibit similarities. The scope of these provisions, however, is usually a reflection upon the expectations and intentions of the parties involved. In the case of ABACC, there was shared and mutual interest from both Argentina and Brazil to create a mutual inspections and safeguards verification system, which developed over time. Even though the nuclear rapprochement of both countries can be traced back to the late 1960s/early 1970s, the idea of both countries participating in bilateral inspections was unfathomable back then. It took years of sustained dialogue, trust building, creation of democracies, and, perhaps most importantly, having political leaders that shared the political will to turn these desires into actual policy. Furthermore, the willingness to promote a collaborative nuclear partnership did not come from both countries at the same time. In fact, it was Argentina that proposed a partnership; Argentina’s earliest official statement on nuclear cooperation was prepared in 1978 by the Foreign Ministry’s policy planning staff, which led to the May 1980 joint nuclear accord. Five years after the 1980 joint nuclear accord was signed – by which time, both countries had become democracies (Argentina in 1983; Brazil in 1985) – both the Argentine and Brazilian governments agreed to create the Joint Working Group on Nuclear Affairs (JWG) to discuss nuclear issues, which, by 1988, had been institutionalized as the Permanent Committee on Nuclear Affairs (PCNA).1  The PCNA not only furthered nuclear negotiations, but also facilitated the presidential and technical nuclear installation visits – important confidence and trust building steps that led to the creation of ABACC.

It is not clear to what extent the countries in the Middle East could develop a shared and mutual interest to create a regional safeguards organization in the way that Argentina and Brazil did. The last minute cancellation of the December 2012 conference on a Middle East zone free of WMDs would indicate that neither the timing nor the political will exists at the present moment (no official reason was given for the cancellation). However, the region’s resurgent interest in the pursuit of nuclear energy in the Middle East could motivate such an arrangement. In December 2006, the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – announced their intention to explore a joint nuclear development program.2 In November 2012, the GCC announced that its member states would set up a center to monitor nuclear radiation and to act as a platform to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and avoid radiation hazards.3 If realized, it could form a regional organization similar to ABACC with the following three phase process: (1) the establishment of the GCC’s joint nuclear development program including the formation of an institution similar to ABACC with an inspection mandate, (2) extending the institutional arrangement in the region, and (3) bringing in the outliers: Iran and Israel.

The first phase would include the establishment of the GCC’s joint nuclear development program, which would manage the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It is not clear (a) how long it would take for such an ambition to be realized, or (b) how feasible this might be given that none of the council’s member states has a significant nuclear infrastructure. All member states lack power and research reactors, and none of the member states has all the necessary components of the nuclear fuel cycle. In addition, most of the GCC members lack trained personnel, a nuclear regulatory structure, and a record of transparency and non-proliferation credentials.4  While the program was announced in December 2009, it remains in the early planning stages as the GCC member states commissioned a study to assess the feasibility of developing a joint nuclear energy program. IAEA officials are involved with the feasibility study and it has been reported that the GCC members would like the agency to have continued involvement in and regulation over the project.5 

Since the commissioning of the feasibility study, some of the GCC members have made efforts to set up a nuclear infrastructure with technical help from the United States and other countries. For example, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain signed memorandums of understanding (MOU) on nuclear energy cooperation with the United States in 2008.6 Kuwait signed an MOU with the United States on nuclear safeguards and other non-proliferation topics in June 2010.7 These efforts may help the GCC countries establish a nuclear infrastructure so that the joint nuclear development program can be realized.

The next phase in the process would be to extend this program to energy-hungry countries in the region, including Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen. One option might be to build joint power stations with the assistance of third parties between bordering GCC states and the energy-hungry states, like Oman and Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. In the case of ABACC, Argentina and Brazil independently pursued an autonomous nuclear fuel cycle. Their first nuclear accord – the May 1980 agreement – helped to establish a common nuclear policy, which was defined as “cooperation in the use of nuclear energy” and the “development and application of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.” This accord called for bilateral technical collaboration and joint ventures for the production of reactor components and fuel elements, with the aim of minimizing dependence on western supplier countries.8 It was not, however, an arms control agreement, but a call for technical-scientific collaboration in nuclear research. Even though the agreement did not offer an inspection regime, it offered verbal assurances and some limited technical cooperation between their respective atomic energy authorities. It was through this agreement that both sides took the first tentative steps towards a preliminary mutual inspection and verification regime since it was the first of many joint nuclear cooperation agreements. As a result of the agreement, Argentina leased uranium concentrate to Brazil and sold zircalloy tubing for nuclear fuel elements. In exchange, Brazil supplied Argentina with a portion of the pressure vessel for its Atucha II nuclear power generator. Even though the agreement did not put an end to the nuclear technology race, it was the first major step towards a comprehensive nuclear regime based on proliferation restraint and mutual safeguards. The GCC countries extending their shared nuclear program resources to the energy-hungry countries in the region would therefore mark an important second phase.

The final phase would be to bring in the outliers in the region, notably Iran and Israel. This would undoubtedly be the hardest phase to conquer politically. It is no secret how the two governments publically perceive one another. However, contrary to the other Middle Eastern states, Israel and Iran are united by being the region’s only non-Arab governments although each has Arabs living in their countries. Yet, neither country share the same culture, language, history, identity, religion, or politics, so bringing them both into the regional safeguards organization for nuclear energy programs will be incredibly difficult. None of the three key lessons learned from the creation of ABACC can be applied to Iran and Israel. First, the concept of dialogue between these two states is shrouded in belligerent threats. Second, confidence and trust building measures are notably absent. Third, the political will of both countries is to continue to engage in war-mongering. Interestingly though, both countries are keen to participate in the eventual establishment of a Middle East zone free of WMDs, yet the inherent political differences across the countries in the region are creating a stumbling block. While the previous two phases are no easy feat- given the inherent lack of a significant nuclear infrastructure- if these technical barriers are overcome through the GCC’s vast amount of amalgamated financial resources, Iran and Israel may be able to set aside their political differences to participate in this regional organization.

Verification, Safeguards, and Enforcement

Having laid the groundwork for the three-phased approach in creating a regional safeguards organization for nuclear energy programs in the Middle East, it is important to address verification, safeguards, and enforcement issues. The overall set of verification provisions should enable the inspectors from the regional organization to have suitable access to carry out their job effectively during all types of inspections (i.e., ad hoc, routine, and challenge). During the first high-level technical visit of the Brazilian delegation to the Argentine unsafeguarded Pilcaniyeu pilot uranium enrichment facility in July 1987, the Brazilian delegation asked the Argentines many sensitive questions. To their surprise, the Argentines answered all their questions, showed them the entire facility, and provided information on top-secret sites. This was a very important step in confidence and trust building and accounts for ABACC’s continuing success. It is therefore important that members of a regional safeguards organization in the Middle East be fully transparent and provide regular and detailed information on the operations in their facilities.

Regarding the actual inspections themselves, in the case of ABACC, inspections are carried out by both the IAEA and ABACC (even though there is no obligation for both agencies to work together in any given inspection). The facilities and the material under safeguards are the same for both agencies. All inspections are previously coordinated by the agencies. Each one of the agencies has the right to trigger inspections (short notice and announced inspections) on its own while informing the other agency. The agencies share equipment such as cameras and counters. Even though the inspections are carried out jointly, the conclusions of the inspections are independent. Therefore, it would be expected that the regional safeguards organization in the Middle East would work in conjunction with the IAEA, similar to ABACC.

Finally, in relation to enforcement issues, the Middle East regional organization would need to have the authority and the capacity to effectively sanction the violators. In this regard, it is difficult to draw from the ABACC experience since both countries have been open and transparent with one another with no reported violations from either side. In fact, in the creation of ABACC, non-compliance was not discussed given that the two nations were embarking on confidence and trust building measures; if the issue of non-compliance were to be raised, it may have conveyed feelings of mistrust. Therefore, given the lack of trust that already exists across the countries in the Middle East, it would be pertinent to avoid discussing issues of non-compliance at an early stage and instead address them (if necessary), once effective confidence and trust building measures are in place. However, if there are issues of non-compliance that the regional organization is unable to overcome, the IAEA Board of Governors could discuss the issue with the Director General. If non-compliance persists, the issue can then be reported to the United Nations Security Council.

Benefits and Limitations for a Regional Safeguards Organization in the Middle East

There would be many benefits to consider should the creation of a regional safeguards organization for nuclear energy programs in the Middle East be realized. Equally, however, there are important limitations to consider.


The first benefit would be the development of confidence and trust building, which would be an incremental step in easing suspicions and diffusing tensions in the region. In the case of ABACC, each of the ten nuclear cooperation agreements signed by Argentina and Brazil facilitated closer nuclear cooperation and instilled greater confidence between the two nations. Earlier declarations stressed the decision to increase reciprocal technical visits and consultations; today Argentina and Brazil continue to share information on nuclear technological developments, radiological security and protection. They also called for strengthening the coordination of policy positions before international fora to defend common interests and protect the region from the risk of nuclear weapons. The high-level reciprocal presidential and technical visits to unsafeguarded and sensitive nuclear facilities and the subsequent nuclear accords played a decisive role in assuring each other and the international community that their nuclear programs were of a peaceful nature. All the presidential visits were followed by visits of specialized technical personnel, which represented another step towards nuclear transparency and subsequent trust building.

The GCC countries could adopt nuclear cooperation agreements similar to Argentina and Brazil using the same common elements. The GCC, through INFCIRC/225 (which strengthens the security of nuclear materials through physical protection measures), could promote robust nuclear physical security measures at sites in the region as a step towards confidence and trust building.

A second benefit to consider includes the Middle Eastern countries’ greater involvement in the nuclear non-proliferation regime. In the case of Argentina and Brazil, both nations were initially hostile to the international nuclear non-proliferation regime; notably after the creation of ABACC, they both became fully integrated within the non-proliferation regime by signing various non-proliferation agreements. Soon after ABACC was created, Argentina, Brazil, and ABACC signed the Quadripartite Agreement with the IAEA to establish coordination between it and ABACC on full-scope safeguards (which means safeguards on all declared nuclear facilities and materials). Their bilateral cooperation and subsequent agreement with the IAEA made it possible for Argentina and Brazil to reconsider their opposition to existing nuclear non-proliferation treaties. By the end of the decade, both countries had ratified the Tlatelolco Treaty (the South American and Caribbean Nuclear Weapon Free Zone), the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and then became members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Even though Argentina always took the lead in signing these agreements first, Brazil eventually signed, indicating a willingness to continue their nuclear partnership.

Not all the countries in the Middle East are parties to various nuclear non-proliferation agreements, which is a similar situation that Argentina and Brazil found themselves in, prior to the creation of ABACC. Middle Eastern countries are all NPT signatories (with the exception of Israel), and they all have signed a full-scope safeguards agreement with the IAEA, except for Qatar. However, only a handful has either a modified Small Quantities Protocol (SQP) or an Additional Protocol (AP) in force.9 Based on the ABACC experience, it could be argued that once a regional safeguards organization has been created in the Middle East, all parties might become further integrated into the nuclear non-proliferation regime and potentially agree to a Middle East zone free of WMDs. However, neither Argentina nor Brazil has signed the AP, which calls into question their position within the nuclear non-proliferation regime (even though ABACC inspections cover what the AP stipulates, just without the IAEA). This begs the question whether the Middle Eastern states would sign an AP if such an organization were created. One way to alleviate this concern might be to ensure that the GCC members sign an AP before its joint nuclear program is developed, which might be difficult to achieve. Third party countries helping the GCC states with their nuclear infrastructure may be able to entice/influence the GCC states to sign an AP before construction of power plants begins. Then, insofar as Phase 2 is concerned, the energy-hungry countries can only receive help if they too have signed an AP.

The final benefit to the creation of a regional safeguards organization in the Middle East would include further cooperation in other areas, notably economic, technical, and energy provision. The next phase would be for the GCC to help the energy-hungry countries acquire energy through the joint nuclear energy program discussed above. In the case of ABACC, the nuclear agreements signed between Argentina and Brazil promoted the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and encouraged joint nuclear research and development plans.


Given the inherent political problems and internal barriers within the Middle Eastern countries, it is difficult to assess the feasibility of a “neighbors watching neighbors” organization being created and even sustained in the region. One of the most obvious internal barriers is the existence of conflict, distrust, deep-rooted enmity, and overt hostility in the region. Argentina and Brazil’s relationship was previously marked by a strong rivalry since they were the two major industrial, economic, and military powers in the Southern Cone. Their individual attempt to acquire the nuclear fuel cycle was viewed as yet another competition between the two longstanding rivals. However, unlike states in the Middle East, their relationship was a competitive rivalry, and not an enmity. There was no real cause for armed conflict between the two states; instead, they were both striving for technological and indigenous superiority. However, in the Middle East there are severe regional conflicts, with some countries not recognizing the existence of other countries, and some countries threatening to destroy other countries. This climate does not make the idea of a regional safeguards organization where trust is key to its success conceivable. It would, in fact, strongly suggest otherwise.

A further limitation to consider might be the existence of more nuclear fuel cycles in the region. Currently, there are fears that should Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program become fully realized, it is quite possible that a nuclear cascade in the Middle East would ensue. However, should the phased approach outlined be conceived, the GCC members states would not need an entire nuclear fuel cycle, thereby alleviating the fear of a greater number of nuclear fuel cycles in the region. Finally, the prospects of sensitive technology transfer from countries within the regional organization (e.g., Iran to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq) would also need to be considered.


The political and technical realities of the Middle East suggest that the likelihood of creating such a regional safeguards model is far from being accomplished, at least in the immediate future. That is not to say that this issue should not be addressed. Nonetheless, discussing a regional safeguards organization in the Middle East is to be encouraged because if it is created, it could very well lead to the overall goal of creating a further WMD-free zone in the world. ABACC is an underrated success story, but importantly, it took Argentina and Brazil a few decades before ABACC could be realized. Furthermore, once both countries became democracies, the transition to a nuclear rapprochement became a lot smoother. The Middle Eastern countries should consider starting the conversation about a joint nuclear technical program to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes given that the current approach of trying to convene a conference on a Middle East zone free WMDs has failed for four decades. Furthermore, there has yet to be a new initiative offered to this persistent problem, and, as such, creativity is required, whatever the obstacles it might face.

Dr. Sara Z. Kutchesfahani is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for International Trade & Security at the University of Georgia (CITS/UGA), where she works on nuclear security culture projects. In addition, she teaches a graduate class on “Nuclear History and Security Policy” at UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs. She came to the Center from the Nuclear Engineering and Nonproliferation Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where she was the only political science research associate among a pool of 440 at the laboratory. At LANL, her work focused on nuclear non-proliferation policy-related research projects, with an emphasis on international safeguards. From LANL, she also taught a graduate distance-learning education course, titled “Nuclear Safeguards & Security Policy,” at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, a premier science and engineering research university.

She has worked on nuclear non-proliferation policy issues for most of the past decade holding research positions at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (London), the European Union Institute for Security Studies (Paris), and the RAND Corporation (Washington). She holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from University College London. She is the author of the recently published book: Politics and the Bomb: The Role of Experts in the Creation of Cooperative Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreements (Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2013).

Sara Z. Kutchesfahani, Politics and The Bomb: The Role of Experts in the Creation of Cooperative Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreements (Routledge: Taylor & Francis, 2013).
International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Nuclear Programmes in the Middle East: In the Shadow of Iran,” 2008: 11.
“GCC to set up platform for peaceful nuclear energy,” Arab News, 11 November 2012, Peter Mulvany, “GCC review peaceful nuclear development,” Middle East Confidential, 12 November 2012.
IISS Report, 2008: 35.
Richard Weitz, “Gulf Cooperation Council Moves Forward with Nuclear Energy Plans,” WMD Insights, April 2007.
In addition, in April 2008, the UAE published a white paper on its development of nuclear energy, signed a 123 Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation with the United States in May 2009, which commits the UAE to obtain nuclear fuel from “reliable and responsible” suppliers rather than pursue indigenous uranium enrichment and reprocessing. In December 2009, the UAE signed an agreement with South Korea to design, build, and help operate four civilian power plants in the UAE. UAE White Paper: “Policy of the United Arab Emirates on the Evaluation and Potential Development of Peaceful Nuclear Energy,” April 2008:; UAE Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation (123 Agreement), May 21, 2009:
Cooperation areas include in nuclear legislation and regulations, human resource planning and modeling, nuclear safeguards and security, radiation protection and environmental. Shane McGinley, “Kuwait signs MoU with US on nuclear safeguards,”, 24 June 2010.
In this accord, CNEA and CNEN (the countries’ national atomic energy commissions) reached agreement on a wide range of joint technical projects, including research and development on experimental and power reactors, exchange of nuclear materials, uranium prospecting, and the manufacture of fuel elements.
Bahrain and Lebanon have a modified SQP; Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Yemen have the old SQP. Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Turkey, and UAE have an AP in force. For states which have only very small quantities of nuclear material, the comprehensive safeguards agreement allows them to conclude a protocol which holds in abeyance most of the operative provisions of the IAEA’s verification tools. This is the old SQP. The modified SQP reduces the number of safeguards measures held in abeyance and makes an SQP unavailable to states with existing or planned facilities. The AP complements comprehensive safeguards agreements and enables the IAEA not only to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material but also to provide assurances as to the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in a State.