Prospects, not pipedreams

Maxwell Downman reports on the proposal for a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East, and the potential for progress

In nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, firefighting has become the new norm. The global community has become focused on saving the latest collapsing agreement, by necessity, as states appear to walk away from multilateralism. Often it is difficult to see the forest between the burning trees. So as the Iran Deal increasingly fragments and the international community worries about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and war with Iran, it is far too easy to forget the proposal for a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East.

For decades, Israel’s nuclear weapons programme has been a source of grievance for Arab states in the region. While Israel has never publicly confirmed or denied its nuclear status, it is believed to have an arsenal of around 80 nuclear weapons. Since the 1970s Arab States have called for a nuclear weapon free zone in the MiddleEast. This, like the other nuclear weapon free zones in Africa, Central Asia, South America and South East Asia and the South Pacific, would contribute to regional security and the wider non-proliferation regime.

The Zone has been a touchstone issue for the Arab States historically, securing Arab support for the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty originally signed in 1970. Originally a time-bound treaty of 25 years, on its expiry in 1995, the Treaty was extended indefinitely as part of a package including, among other things, the Middle East Resolution. This called for a conference to be called to negotiate a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East which would cover nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom signed on as depository states. Yet the issue has been mired by controversy and difficulty since inception as, for one, Israel is not a signatory of the NPT.

Nearly 25 years later, little progress has been made on this issue that many Arab States see as a cornerstone of securing the indefinite extension of the NPT. In 2015 at the NPT Review Conference, states were unable to find consensus on the Final Document due to the language around the Middle East issue. In the end, the United States and the UK objected to the final document on the grounds that its language on the Middle East Zone alienated Israel.

So, five years on, when the NPT is in an even more fragile place, how can we begin to make progress?

Over the last year, the Arab states have sought to create movement on the issue. Frustrated with the lack of progress within the NPT process, Egypt brought forward a UN General Assembly Resolution in October 2018 that called for a conference to be held every year until an agreement is found. One hundred and three states voted for the Resolution, while 71 abstained and three states voted against (the United States, Israel and Micronesia).

Some have criticised the Resolution as divisive: if Israel will not participate, it will not work. However, the Resolution deserves some closer attention. There is a need to reframe the debate and change perceptions on the WMD Free Zone in the Middle East: it is too simple to say that the purpose of this initiative launched by the Arabs is just an attempt to disarm Israel. Indeed, as Wael Al Assad, former representative of the Secretary-General for Disarmament and Regional Security at the League of Arab States, noted, states need to focus on the benefits of cooperation and the way that the zone can serve as a platform for regional peace.

Indeed, the conference to be held in November 2019 reaffirms the 1995 Resolution that received support from the NPT, places primacy on states freely arriving at decisions and importantly reaffirms consensus. No solution will work without the agreement of all states – including Israel.

The conference could also serve as a well-needed pressure valve for the NPT. Many fear that the Zone could hijack the NPT Conference as it did in 1995. Having an established process will alleviate pressure from the NPT negotiations in 2020 that are tense enough, and it may serve as a lifeline to the Treaty which is already on thin ice.

To a large degree, the greatest obstacle to the Zone is political will. While the Zone may be in the interest of all states in the region, few believe it is possible despite its centrality to so many diplomatic processes. One hears the claim that there can be no Zone without peace in the Middle East, but this belies the ways in which the Zone would contribute to peace. For example, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in arms control processes despite tensions throughout the Cold War, with the common understanding that this was a common good.

So, what can be done? First, a new international project called the METO Organisation has begun the work of creating a draft Treaty. This can lay the technical groundwork for states before there is political will, much in the way work was done on an ‘Iran Deal’ before the United States and Iran began negotiations.

Second, the depository states should consider how they will approach the November Conference, given it is happening. While Russia has said it will attend, the United States has said it has[LL1]  not, and the United Kingdom is yet to decide. The US has opposed the call for a conference because of its ‘focus on isolating Israel’, with US Ambassador Robert Wood stating that the United States would only support proposals that received consensus from all states in the region. Nevertheless, the conference calls for all decisions to be made by consensus and even if one disagrees with the process, good can be done by engaging in it.

Closing plenary at the 2015 NPT Review Conference
Closing plenary at the 2015 NPT Review Conference

Mark Fitzpatrick of the IISS suggests taking a step-by-step approach to the Zone. He proposes that, while the goal of a WMDFZ in the Middle East may appear out of reach, concrete progress can be made on specific issues.

First, no country in the Middle East, including Israel, is known to have conducted a nuclear weapons test. States could sign a Middle East nuclear weapons no-testing zone. They could also multilateralise the verification framework of the Iran Deal to the region. Third, he suggests that Israel and Egypt join the chemical weapons convention. Finally, he suggests states could begin negotiations on a regional ballistic missile control regime, building and improving on the Missile Technology Control Regime. Seven states in the region possess ballistic missiles with a range of over 300km. All proposals would help contribute to creating the environment for the Zone.

So, while we focus on firefighting, it is easy to forget the bigger goal and the steps needed for that. The Middle East continues to be a region in which multiple states have WMDs, but all states have a common interest in their disarmament. The WMD Free Zone in the Middle East should be reframed as such – not a pipedream or impossibility, but a realistic goal and process to reframe regional security issues.


Maxwell Downman is a political researcher with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC),London’s independent disarmament and arms control think-tank. He focuses on nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and East Asian international security

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