Iran’s Legal Stance on a WMD-Free Middle East

By Ariane Tabatabai − The recent postponement of the conference on a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East (MEWMDFZ) came as no surprise to most observers. Regardless whether one is a pessimist or an optimist, or somewhere in between, the news provides a good excuse to continue to reflect on all dimensions of the topic. Among the many questions that come to mind is that of the role of individual states in the process. In this short piece, I focus on Iran’s. 

To better understand Iran’s ambivalent relationship with the concept of a MEWMDFZ, one must first explain the Islamic Republic’s relationship with international law, the nonproliferation regime, and by extension, the NPT.

Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic has criticized the modern international legal framework and its supporting institutions. This has played and probably will continue to play a key role in the way the country approaches diplomacy and the settlement of disputes in accordance with international law. To borrow Allan Gotlieb’s words, ‘there is an obvious relationship between a country’s attitude towards what the law is and its willingness to settle disputes according to that law.’[1] The Islamic Republic has time and time again demonized the international legal system and undermined it, condemning it as a mere tool to subjugate the majority of the world population to a handful of ‘arrogant powers.’ In the words of the country’s highest power, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei:

International peace and security is one of the sensitive issues of today’s world and the disarmament of catastrophic weapons of mass destruction, a pressing necessity and a general demand. In today’s world, security is a common and indiscriminable phenomenon. Those who stockpile their inhumane weapons in their arsenal do not have the right to consider themselves as the flag bearers of international security. This, without a doubt, will not bring them security. Today, it is with a lot of regret that it is witnessed that the countries that have the largest nuclear arsenals do not have a serious and real motivation to remove these deathly tools from their military doctrines and continue to see them as an element of dissuasion and an important factor in their political and international status. This image is completely outdated and obsolete.[2]

Such statements are especially aimed at the five nuclear weapons states who hold veto power at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), a body that the Iranian leadership sees as biased and controlled by the ‘great powers’ since the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Hence, UNSC Resolution 1696, which calls for Iran to suspend all enrichment and reprocessing activities, has been denounced as unjust by various Iranian officials. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the NPT regime are also denounced as discriminatory systems:

The International Atomic Energy Agency is affiliated with the United Nations and was created to supervise the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Look at its treatment of countries, its discrimination, the influence of the political constituent in it, because force dominates it.[3]

This attitude toward international law and institutions supports a neo-colonialist ‘enemy’ narrative developed by the Islamic Republic, according to which the world is divided into those who rule and those who are ruled. The first category encompasses the former colonial powers, with the United Kingdom as their flag bearer, the world’s sole superpower, the United States, and Israel. The second category includes the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Muslim world in particular, which Tehran tries to keep on its side. Hence, this attitude toward international law and institutions has become one of the pillars of Iran’s approach to international affairs, yet despite this resilience, one of the key strands in the leadership’s nuclear narrative lies in the fact that its nuclear ambitions are in complete compliance with its international legal obligations and safeguards.

In addition this ambivalent attitude to international law and the world community, Tehran has a puzzling approach to the previous government’s legacy. Indeed, Tehran denounced the Shah (still does) and viewed him as corrupt and dependent on the West. As such, the mullahs try to distance themselves from the Pahlavi dynasty as much as possible and refuse to acknowledge any positive outcome of the previous rulers’ legacy. However, occasionally, the mullahs seem to forget that they represent the Islamic Republic and their referral to the ‘we’ encompasses the previous regime. This has been a particularly interesting ‘slip of the tongue’ in the case of the country’s advocacy for the creation of a WMDFZ in the region.

The Islamic Republic of Iran considers the use of chemical and nuclear weapons and the likes a great and unforgiveable sin. We have proposed the slogan of a “Middle East free of nuclear weapons” and we stand by it. This does not mean giving up on the right to use peaceful nuclear energy and the production of nuclear fuel. The peaceful use of this energy, according to international law, is the right of all countries.[4]

In fact, the ‘we’ that proposed the creation of such a free zone along with Egypt was the Imperial State of Iran not the Islamic Republic of Iran. While international law does not distinguish between the two regimes, as they both govern the same nation, such words coming from the Supreme Leader are particularly interesting, as they seem to highlight the nation’s continuous commitment to this process.

Yet, in spite of this seemingly continuous dedication and its adoption of the different nonproliferation instruments, including the NPT, CWC, and BTWC the country has failed to take positive steps toward the materialization of this goal. First, the leadership’s continued demonization of international law and institutions has a negative impact on an already fragile process in the world’s most unstable region. Indeed, such an attitude to globally established norms and institutions does not make a suitable environment for confidence-building and trust, a crucial foundation of such a free zone. Second, the ‘enemy’ narrative is one that should be banished to make room for cooperation if the WMDFZ is to be successfully created in the region. Such a narrative cannot be the basis of regional cooperation. Both these challenges seem extremely difficult to overcome in the context of the current theocratic regime, as the very existence of the Iranian system is based on these two rhetorical strands.

Ariane Tabatabai is a Ph.D. candidate at King’s College, London. Her dissertation examines the strategic implications of the legality of nuclear weapons under Sharia law.


[1] Allan Gotlieb, Disarmament and International Law – A Study of the Role of Law in the Disarmament Process, Ontario: The Canadian Institute of International Affairs (1965), PP. 96

[2] ‘Statement in the Sixteenth NAM Summit,’ http://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=20840, 30 September 2012, Translation Ariane Tabatabai, Last accessed 14/11/2012

[3] Majles Research Center (2012), ‘The Stances of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution Regarding Sanctions and the Nuclear Diplomacy of the Islamic Republic of Iran,’ PP. 17

[4] ‘Statement in the Sixteenth NAM Summit’. http://farsi.khamenei.ir/speech-content?id=20840. 30 September 2012