x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Hans Blix calls for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East

Former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog has urged Middle East leaders to strive for a region free not only of nuclear weapons but the capacity to enrich uranium, too.

A former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog has urged Middle East leaders to strive for a region free not only of nuclear weapons but the capacity to enrich uranium, too.

Next month's meeting in Vienna of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is set to take up again the thorny issues of Iran's nuclear programme and the proposal for a nuclear-free Middle East.

Hans Blix, who led the IAEA from 1981 to 1997 and now heads an advisory board for the UAE's nuclear power programme, said it is time to widen the discussion beyond who has nuclear weapons, who is developing them and who wants them.

"I cannot escape the thought that a zone that eliminated both weapons and existing potential future enrichment and processing plants would be to the benefit of everybody," the veteran diplomat said in a recent interview.

Iran insists its enrichment programme is for peaceful purposes only, saying it needs provide fuel for the nuclear power plants it plans to build. But western powers and Israel are suspicious of its intentions.

A review committee of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, an accord on preventing the increase of nuclear weapons, accepted an Egyptian proposal in 2010 to hold a conference on ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

Getting Israel and Iran to work towards a nuclear-free zone is unlikely at present, but Mr Blix believes that focusing on fuel remains important.

"At this stage a Middle East free only of the weapons is very strange, when everyone is totally absorbed by the uranium enrichment programme," he said.

Current tensions could be defused if Iran could be persuaded to stop enrichment, receiving in exchange a guaranteed supply of processed uranium that would be returned when it is depleted.

Russia has already set a precedent by supplying Bushehr, Iran's sole nuclear power plant, with fuel rods after completing the reactor last year. But Iran's own enrichment programme continues.

"My feeling is that the western world has not handled Iran very successfully. They have put too much emphasis on the whip, and too little on the positive incentives," said Mr Blix.

fneuhoff@thenational.ae