Frequently Asked Questions about nuclear weapons in the Middle East

Published: 19 April 2024

The escalation in the conflict between Israel, which has a nuclear arsenal, and Iran, which is not considered by international inspectors to be  developing nuclear weapons, has increased fears the conflict in the Middle East could see the use of nuclear weapons.

Here are some frequently asked questions about Israel and Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the role the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons could play in the region.

  • Does Israel have nuclear weapons?

    Yes. Israel is estimated to have around 90 nuclear weapons. As the country refuses to confirm or deny it has such weapons, little is known about its arsenal, but experts believe it can launch nuclear weapons using missiles, submarines and aircraft.

    Israel spent an estimated US$1.2 billion in 2022 on its nuclear arsenal.

    Israel may  have carried out a nuclear test in collaboration with Apartheid South Africa in 1979 over the ocean between southern Africa and Antarctica.

  • Does Iran have nuclear weapons?

    No. Iran has a well-developed nuclear energy programme which is for non-military purposes. Iran’s nuclear programme has aroused international concern, however, the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) continue to assess that Iran is not currently pursuing weapons-related activities.

    Iran’s recent nuclear activities are nevertheless very concerning, as they shorten the period of time it would take to develop a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so. Iran’s enrichment of uranium to higher levels and its refusal to comply with all international inspections and investigations since the U.S. abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, are at issue. Learn more about the JCPOA here.

  • What is Iran’s nuclear programme?

    Iran has several research sites, uranium mines, a research reactor and several uranium enrichment facilities. Its programme began in the 1950s with support from the U.S under the “Atoms for Peace” program. Iran has been a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since 1970 and so it is legally bound not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons.

    In 2002, Iran was accused of secretly working on the development of nuclear weapons which led to an investigation by the IAEA and a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly calling on Iran to suspend its programme. The IAEA concluded there was evidence Iran had worked on a plan for a nuclear weapon, but there was no evidence this was continuing, and U.S. intelligence has concluded that Iran abandoned plans to develop nuclear weapons in 2003.

    In 2015, following talks with the five original nuclear-armed states, China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, plus Germany, Iran agreed to limitations on its nuclear programme, including the enrichment of uranium and reduce the size of its stockpile of enriched uranium, in return for the lifting of sanctions.

    In 2018, then President Trump took the US out of the JCPOA deal and reimposed sanctions. In response, Iran has incrementally violated provisions of the deal in an apparent effort to put pressure on the other parties to the deal to bring the US back into compliance. Under President Biden, efforts to agree to a US return to the deal and an Iranian return to complete compliance have so far been unsuccessful.

  • What would happen if nuclear weapons were used?

    Nuclear weapons are indiscriminate and even some modern so-called “small” or “tactical” weapons are more powerful than the bombs that killed 140,000 people at Hiroshima and 74,000 people at Nagasaki. They do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants and their use would kill, injure and maim civilians in huge numbers. This means their use would almost certainly constitute a war crime under the existing laws of war.

    A single nuclear weapon would likely kill hundreds of thousands of civilians and injure many more; radioactive fallout could contaminate large areas, including in the country that used the weapon, particularly if used against a nearby target which would be the case in the Middle East.  There are online resources available to predict these impacts, such as Nukemap.

    It takes around 10 seconds for the fireball from a nuclear explosion to reach its maximum size. A nuclear explosion releases vast amounts of energy in the form of blast, heat and radiation. An enormous shockwave reaches speeds of many hundreds of kilometres an hour. The blast kills people close to ground zero, and causes lung injuries, ear damage and internal bleeding further away. People sustain injuries from collapsing buildings and flying debris. Thermal radiation is so intense that almost everything close to the detonation  is vaporised. The extreme heat causes severe burns and ignites fires over a large area, which coalesce into a giant firestorm. Even people in underground shelters face likely death due to a lack of oxygen and carbon monoxide poisoning.

    Following the effects of the intense heat and the blast, there is the devastating impact of radiation poisoning. Nuclear weapons produce ionising radiation, which kills or sickens those exposed, contaminates the environment, and has long-term health consequences, including cancer and genetic damage which people can pass down to any children they may have later in life.

    The use of nuclear weapons would contaminate large areas with radiation. Medical workers and first responders would be unable to work in these areas. Even a single nuclear detonation in a modern city would strain existing disaster relief resources to breaking point. Displaced populations from a nuclear war would produce a refugee crisis that is orders of magnitude larger than any we have ever experienced before. You can read more about the impacts of a nuclear detonation on health care systems here

    Casualties from a major nuclear war between the US and Russia would reach hundreds of millions and according to recent research up to 5 billion would die from famine due to “nuclear winter” where sunlight would be blocked by soot and particles from the explosions. Even a “limited” regional war involving 100 nuclear weapons could have devastating global climatic consequences due to the effect of nuclear winter.

  • Should I be worried about nuclear war in the Middle East?

    The risk that nuclear weapons could be used in conflict is the highest it has been since the Cold War due to the conflicts involving nuclear-armed states, not just in the Middle East, but also in Ukraine, not to mention the escalating nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula. 

    Despite concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme, Israel remains the only state in the Middle East with nuclear weapons. Several Israeli politicians from the governing coalition, including a junior cabinet minister, have talked about using nuclear weapons in the current war in Gaza. Although these comments have been disowned by the Israeli Prime Minister, these threats are dangerous and irresponsible, as they further inflame tensions, and are banned under the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

    There is a risk that the current war in Gaza could spread and that clashes that have already occurred between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon and between Israel and Iran could escalate into a wider war that draws in more nuclear-armed states, such as the US and Russia on opposing sides.

    At present, Israel’s allies, including the nuclear-armed states, the US, Britain and France, are urging Israel not to escalate the conflict with Iran further.

  • Can the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons play a role in the Middle East crisis?

    The majority of nations are nuclear weapons-free and do not endorse the nuclear weapons possessed by other states which they regard as a threat to all countries. In 2017, 122 countries voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) at the United Nations. The treaty came into effect in 2021, and 97 countries - almost half of all eligible states -  have already signed, ratified or acceded to it.

    Members of the TPNW have committed never to possess, host, threaten to use or assist with the use of nuclear weapons. This is a recognition of the inhumane nature of these weapons.

    The TPNW is an important tool to leverage international pressure on all states that host, possess or threaten to use nuclear weapons to abandon them and it is important that all nine nuclear-armed states and their allies which support the use of nuclear weapons join the treaty. 

    All countries that join the treaty strengthen the international taboo against nuclear weapons enshrined in international law through the TPNW. A joint statement by TPNW member states condemning threats to use nuclear weapons following Russian threats to use nuclear weapons during its invasion of Ukraine have inspired subsequent international condemnations and effectively restrained Russian behaviour.

    The TPNW complements the NPT and the regional nuclear weapons free zone treaties already in force in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, South East Asia and the South Pacific.

    A regional treaty banning nuclear weapons from the Middle East has been proposed in UN forums, but so far has not been agreed.