Why We Should Still Move Forward Towards a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East

Photo Credit: Reuters

By Farnaz Alimehri, Columnist

At the 2015 Review Conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), efforts to establish part of the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (MEWMDFZ) were defeated when the participating states failed to agree on the agenda for a regional nuclear weapons conference. Eliminating weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East is not a new idea—in 1974, Egypt and Iran proposed a joint initiative that led to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3236, which called for the establishment of a MENWFZ. In 1990, another initiative offered by Egypt led to the zone’s expansion to include all weapons of mass destruction (WMD).[i] Further progress was made at the 1995 Review Conference, where general consensus to move forward was reached through a resolution that would establish a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone.[ii] Under this resolution, Middle Eastern states would have been required to sign on to the NPT if they had not already done so, and full-scope IAEA safeguards would have been applied to all regional nuclear facilities. However, this resolution was never implemented. Among other factors, ethnic and religious rivalries resurfaced as a number of Middle Eastern countries singled out Israel for its nuclear monopoly, stymieing any possibility of regional consensus. It appears that the most recent efforts have similarly been thwarted; however, such a setback should not dissuade all parties from continuing to advocate for nuclear weapons free Middle East.

There are many difficulties associated with establishing a WMD free zone in the Middle East, none bigger than the conflicting perceptions on how this zone should be established. Both perspectives are compelling. On one hand, Iran and the Arab countries have legitimate reasons for taking umbrage at Israel because it is the only country in the region with a nuclear arsenal. On the other hand, Israel maintains that a conference regarding the zone should also focus on missiles and terrorism within the region, an important aspect that likewise needs addressing, but does not receive significant consideration from the Arab nations. These different positions, importantly, are not mutually exclusive, and parameters for a new conference can be worked out if all states are willing to approach this issue through compromise. Thus far, however, that has not happened.

If such a WMD free zone were to be established, Israel would have to renounce its nuclear weapons program, sign the NPT, and submit its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspections. While it is difficult to imagine Israel making such a move, the country would still maintain the best military in the region regardless of a nuclear deterrent. And, of course, other countries in the region would need to sign the NPT and allow for IAEA inspections as well.

Alongside these measures, all states within the region would have to take steps to adhere to the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention if they haven’t already done so. This is important because it can play an integral role in addressing concerns about regional terrorism. While Israel has historically been most concerned with state-sponsored terrorism—notably, Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon—the recent confirmation of ISIL’s chemical weapons use in Iraq ought to push the issue of terrorist acquisition of unconventional weapons to the forefront.[iii] Hopefully, if the goal of such conferences is stability and a safer Middle East, Arab states cannot ignore the importance and relevance of such a mutual security issue.

Although there may be no clear way forward without compromises from both Israel and the Arab nations, there are steps that both can take to move towards a productive regional discussion on the WMD free zone. By recognizing the mutual issues and threats facing the region, the Middle Eastern states can come together on issues such as biological and chemical weapons and terrorist proliferation in order to make incremental progress. The case for a MEWMDFZ has been building for the past 42 years; the region should not wait for another 42 to make it a reality.

[i] Gawdat Bahgat, “Prospects for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone in the Middle East,” International Relations and Security Network, 15 June 2015, http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?lng=en&id=191392.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Anthony Deutsch, “Exclusive: Samples Confirm Islamic State Use Mustard Gas in Iraq – Diplomat,” Reuters, 23 February 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-iraq-chemicalweapons-idUSKCN0VO1IC.

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