Reflection on the Middle East WMDFZ

Aug 04 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Isadora Blachman-Biatch, London

A zone free of weapons of mass destruction has long been a stated desire of many, if not all, of the governments in the broader Middle East. However, bitter disagreement pervades on how to reach this goal. A recent round of discussions in Brussels has shown that discussion is possible, but also clearly highlighted that the road towards the objective remains mined with difficult obstacles.
The European Union’s External Action Service organized region-wide talks in Brussels on 6 and 7 July 2011. The meeting was promised during the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, and follows similar talks hosted by the European Union three years ago. It follows several informal consultations hosted by non-governmental organizations over the past year.
The Brussels meeting involved some high level diplomats from Israel, Iran and Syria, and many non-governmental delegates. However, several important officials were missing, both from the region and from influential Western governments. This meant the discussions, according to one participant, would not move significantly beyond already agreed positions, such as the zone should include a ban on chemical and biological weapons beside a traditional ban on nuclear arms. The next meeting is planned for 2012, although it may well be postponed a year.
Today, many areas of the globe are covered by so-called nuclear weapon free zones: Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa and Central Asia. Most countries in these areas have also signed up to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). This overlap sets up de-facto WMD free zones, although not labelled so. A WMDFZ in the Middle East would be the first in the world, and would so open a new chapter in multilateral arms control and disarmament efforts.
Countries in the Middle East have been reluctant to sign up to all arms control agreements. Treaty membership is patchy. Egypt and Syria, for instance, have opted to join the NPT, but are still only signatories to the BWC. Neither have signed or acceded to the CWC. Israel, to take another example, has signed (but not ratified) the CWC but has not joined the BWC, and does not take part in the NPT (although it has signed up to the ban of nuclear testing). Add to this that countries in the region either have nuclear weapons, or are suspected to seek them. Some states in the region may have stockpiles of chemical weapons, and others are suspected of having weaponized biological agents.
Moreover, recent developments in the region effectively make the goal more difficult to reach. Iran, for instance, plans to significantly increase its uranium enrichment efforts. This will not help to convince other states in the region to subject their own fissile materials to more rigorous international control, a step that would be necessary to create a WMDFZ. Israel still declines to comment on its nuclear arsenal, or to consider introducing comprehensive international monitoring of its fissile material (steadfastly arguing that it will not be the first country to ‘introduce’ nuclear weapons in the region). Egypt won’t take steps to sign up to an Additional Protocol to its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency until it sees some movement from Israel. And there are many more similar issues to explore, unravel and resolve.
Trying to build a new arms control regime in this witches brew of rivalries, suspicion, hostility and distrust is obviously no easy task. This does not mean, however, that it’s an impossible ambition.
The Brussels meeting did make progress. Getting Syrian, Israeli and Iranian officials and diplomats under the same roof, discussing on the basis of the same agenda, must be seen as forward motion. In Brussels, the benchmark for success was seemingly based on whether any walk-outs occurred. None did, and this counts for something. Confidence-building is a gradual process that is difficult to measure. And process does matter in a climate where all matters of substance are hotly debated.
Last year, a VERTIC brief argued that the NPT review conference should set up a standing committee with the aim of following up on progress on its 1995 resolution on the Middle East. While this could be problematic (as Israel is a not party to the NPT and so would not engage), a regional equivalent could be considered. The last in-depth review, focussing on nuclear weapons, was conducted by the United Nations in 1990. Its conclusions would benefit from an update in light of political, economic and technical developments over the last two decades. It would also benefit from incorporating other classes of weapons of mass destruction. All of this would be a welcome step forward, as one conclusion of the UN study undeniably remains: ‘the effort required will be great, but so will the benefits of success.’


Last changed: Aug 05 2011 at 10:04 AM




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