A Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East: Shaping the Contours of Discussion toward 2012

What could be the next steps in a discussion about a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East?
Photo: Banksy´s view on peace in the Middle East. Photo was taken by eddiedangerous and is subject to a Creative Commons License.

July 6, 2010
By Emily B. Landau
The final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference includes reference to the convening of a conference in 2012 to discuss the idea of a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free-Zone (WMDFZ) for the Middle East. While thoughts about initiating discussion on a WMDFZ are certainly not new to the region, the particular manner by which the idea was raised and forced into the text of the final document was disturbing. It was the result of a determined Egyptian campaign to pressure the US into agreeing to its Middle East agenda for the May RevCon, aimed at targeting Israel's assumed nuclear capability. In the framework of its ongoing and long-term goal of pressuring Israel in the nuclear realm, Egypt in the weeks leading up to the conference threatened to block any consensus document at the RevCon if its Middle East agenda was not adopted by the forum.

The Obama administration – while disagreeing with Egypt's approach – proved vulnerable to the political blackmail exercised by Egypt due to its keen desire to produce a consensus document, and on this basis deem the conference a "success". The strong US hope for a unanimous position explains why it ultimately conceded to Egyptian demands to include the idea of a conference in the final document.

Significantly, however, to be convened, the conference must be approved by all relevant parties; the document states clearly that the conference will be convened "on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the States of the region". Moreover, immediately upon conclusion of the RevCon, US officials were quick to note that a final document that insists upon targeting Israel, yet bows to Iranian pressure to not even mention this state by name for being in non-compliance with its IAEA safeguard obligations and for ignoring five UN Security Council resolutions that demand that it cease uranium enrichment activities, is not a good basis for securing the consent of Israel to this NPT-supported conference. As National Security Advisor James Jones noted, the prospects for the 2012 conference could be jeopardized "until all are assured that it can operate in [an] unbiased and constructive way." Anyone interested in the convening of a conference on WMD in the Middle East should take note of these reservations, and work to construe it in a more conducive manner.

Indeed, beyond the highly problematic political circumstances at the NPT RevCon that led to its adoption, the idea of a regional conference on WMD should nevertheless be considered on substantive grounds. The overriding assumption is that a WMDFZ would be beneficial for security and stability in the region; the crucial question, however, is how regional states can begin moving toward this goal.

In thinking about this question, one should start with the understanding that the underlying reasons that drove states to acquire WMD in the first place must be incorporated in the conceptual framework of regional efforts to reverse current trends. The key to advancing dialogue in the direction of a WMDFZ is the understanding that this goal is inextricably linked to the nature of inter-state relations in the Middle East. In light of the current prevalence of regional threats and conflicts, this goal cannot be reached without a major improvement in the way states relate to one another. Addressing the underlying context of inter-state relations is therefore indispensible for any effort to tackle WMD in a regional framework.

To begin such a process, states must be able to identify an initial common interest – even if very narrowly defined – that they can agree is necessary in order to improve the relative security of all parties. Such a common interest is crucial for helping the parties move beyond their zero-sum type thinking, in the direction of an appreciation of the win-win benefits of regional dialogue on this topic. This is certainly not a trivial matter, and constitutes the major challenge for increasing the prospects of successful dialogue.

This is precisely the type of conceptual thinking that was injected into the only regional arms control dialogue that has taken place in the Middle East: the 1992-1995 Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) working group. ACRS was one of five working groups that together comprised the multilateral track of the Madrid peace process. In recognition of the difficult task ahead, the architects of ACRS defined the logic of the talks as a step-by-step, building-block process of confidence-building among the participating states. The initial aim was stabilization of the situation in the Middle East, in line with the arms control logic that was devised in the 1950s for the superpower context by academics such as Thomas Schelling. The idea was that even if actual arms reductions cannot be negotiated in the initial phase, all states had a shared interest in calming things down in order to create a more stable regional atmosphere. With inter-state relations on hair-trigger alert, disarmament per se will be impossible to achieve. But more stable relations would reduce the dangers of miscalculation and possible use of WMD.

The deterioration of inter-state relations since the early 1990s renders this logic all the more relevant to the Middle East today. First and foremost, it must be clarified that when arms control discussion becomes regional, the relevant terms of reference are not international treaties per se, but rather the state of regional relations. Indeed, the ability to focus upon and address inter-state problems is the advantage of conducting dialogue in a regional format. Dealing with all WMD (rather than focusing solely on the nuclear realm) will encourage a more equal and balanced discussion because almost all states will have something at stake in security terms. Because security and regional relations will be at the heart of the discussion, it is imperative for all Middle Eastern states to be at the table in a meaningful way. This means that Iran will have to not only sit down with Israel, but begin addressing threat perceptions and security concerns in this context. Finally, no one should be under the illusion that this will be a short negotiation; it should be quite obvious that a process of improving regional relations will take a considerable amount of time.

For external parties that wish to help promote this conference, the most important work to be done in the first stage is at the conceptual level, in line with these insights. Sharpening conceptual thinking about how such a dialogue should be envisioned could help shape and thereafter propagate ideas regarding the contours of a prospective regional process. The EU could be particularly instrumental in promoting such conceptual discussion in the context of both Euro-Mediterranean and trans-Atlantic forums. A more informed discussion of the logic of regional arms control talks and what can realistically be expected of them will enhance the prospects of their initiation.


Dr. Emily B. Landau is Senior Research Associate and Director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), at Tel Aviv University. She teaches nuclear arms control at Tel Aviv and Haifa universities.