WMDFZ conference idea: What isn’t working, why, and what might have a chance

Introduction: It’s not working

It is no secret that the idea for convening a conference on a Weapons of Mass Destruction-free zone (WMDFZ) for the Middle East is not working (1).

It was originally intended to be convened by December 2012, but at the close of 2013 still no conference date has been set. The reasons why the idea is not congealing are also quite well known in professional circles, even though some insist on playing a political ‘blame game’ in this regard, which consists primarily of pointing accusing fingers at Israel alone for sabotaging the conference idea.

Reality is of course vastly more complex. The problem is not Israel, but rather the set-up and framework of the conference – which go to its problematic history – and more importantly, its underlying logic, and (as of yet) undefined agenda. Indeed, at the heart of the problem is the existence of two competing logics for how arms control discussions in the Middle East should proceed: immediate focus on the elimination of Israel’s assumed nuclear weapons (Egypt’s view), or dealing first with the very problematic context of inter-state relations in the Middle East, creating essential channels of communication and dialogue, and establishing a basis of mutual confidence and trust (Israel’s view). The very different views in this regard have been apparent since the years in which the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) talks were active, in the early 1990s. These talks were the only experience the Middle East has had with regional arms control dialogue, but they were plagued by the ongoing lack of agreement over what arms control really means for this region.

Polar conceptions of Arms Control and Regional Security

For its part, Egypt has been focused for decades on singling out Israel in the nuclear realm. Even today – and even as it finds itself embroiled in an ongoing crisis of national legitimacy and identity – Egypt maintains an uncompromising approach in this regard. It maintains focus on Israel even though across the Middle East there are very strong indications that the true cause for concern in the nuclear realm for many states is Iran’s unchecked military nuclear aspirations. Over the decades, states in the region have actually come to recognize that Israel is not a danger in the nuclear realm because its assumed nuclear deterrent is for one purpose only: to ensure its continued survival in a very hostile region. Ironically, the fact that Israel has been engaged in so many conventional wars throughout the years is (unfortunate) testimony to the fact that the nuclear issue does not come into play in any scenario short of an existential threat. In fact, Egypt should be the first to recognize this: it had no qualms about attacking Israel in Sinai in 1973 although it assessed that Israel had crossed the nuclear threshold by that time. It is of course also telling that Egypt signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 without conditioning this on Israel joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The very history of the WMDFZ idea does not auger well for its acceptance as a basis for dialogue by Israel, and in this regard as well, Egypt played a central role. The WMDFZ idea was forced onto the agenda of the NPT twice by Egypt: in 1995 and again in 2010. In both cases, Egypt threatened to upset a consensus document at a critical NPT Review Conference (RevCon) if the US did not agree to carve out, and then support, a special Resolution on the Middle East that included the idea of pursuing a WMDFZ in the Middle East. President Clinton succumbed to the pressure in 1995 at the critical NPT Review and Indefinite Extension RevCon, but at least ensured that the relevant clause in the Resolution linked the idea to the then-still active peace process. President Obama succumbed to the pressure in 2010 because he had committed himself to a nuclear disarmament agenda the year before (Prague speech, April 2009), and desperately needed a consensus final document at the 2010 NPT RevCon as a central pillar of his agenda. But, it is clear that the US was (both times) anything but happy about having its arm diplomatically twisted in this manner by Egypt, and strategic assurances issued to Israel almost immediately upon closure of the 2010 meeting are testimony to this discomfort.

It should also be recalled that in 1995, the Egyptians forced the idea onto the NPT agenda at a time when the ACRS talks were still ongoing. Therefore, in contrast to common assumptions today that this idea was initiated in order to address a topic that was sorely lacking attention in the region, in reality, by pressing for a WMDFZ, Egypt was actually undermining an extremely important forum that had already been established to deal exactly with this issue, albeit on the basis of a competing arms control logic.

So what is the competing logic? The arms control logic that was incorporated into ACRS by the US and Russian gavel-holders, and that Israel subsequently adopted, was not surprisingly imported from the superpower experience of the Cold War. It is an arms control logic that focuses on the state before the weapons, and that puts a premium on introducing stability into the relationship in order to lessen the dangers of misescalation that could lead to nuclear war. The logic was very much in tune with Israel’s view that arms control cannot be detached from the context of what transpires among states in the Middle East. For Israel it is impossible to discuss reductions of strategic capabilities before addressing the very difficult inter-state relations through dialogue, cooperation and confidence-building. Significantly, at the time of ACRS this was decidedly not a unique Israeli approach to arms control; rather it was broadly embraced by participants across the Middle East – one of the strongest advocates was Jordan – leaving Egypt largely alone in its rejection of a confidence-building approach to regional security dialogue.

The point is not whether you have a ‘peace first’ or ‘disarmament first’ approach to arms control, but rather whether one believes that there is a pressing need to address what is going on within and among states in our region, or only the weapons, detached from context. The reason that it is imperative to have relations and context at the forefront is because the situation in the Middle East is horrendous – tensions and conflicts cut in all directions, with a heavy dose directed to Israel. At the rhetorical level, Israel is subjected on a regular basis to statements that reject its very place in the Middle East as a legitimate sovereign state, while blaming it for being behind all the ills of the region – from the internal civil war in Syria to the military takeover in Egypt.

Another major concern that Israel has is that regional states’ commitments to international nonproliferation and disarmament treaties are not reliable. States such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria have joined these treaties and then proceeded to cheat on their commitments while deceiving the international community about their military intentions. This creates a crisis of compliance and trust that cannot be ignored. This is why efforts should be moved to the regional context, where the first order business must be to create a context for improving confidence among states. Absent that, there is simply no way to proceed. The US statement of November 2012 that announced the delay of the WMDFZ conference recognized the importance of both inter-state relations and the centrality of compliance when it noted that stable peace and full compliance with arms control and nonproliferation commitments are essential precursors for the establishment of the WMDFZ.

A final issue goes to the question why WMD in the Middle East should be discussed in a purely nuclear setting – the NPT – in which Israel is absent. Although the idea is ostensibly geared to discussion of all WMD, and not to single out Israel and the nuclear realm, many in the region refuse to even call the conference by its name (WMDFZ), and insist on separating the nuclear from “other weapons of mass destruction”. The NPT RevCon final document of 2010 states clearly, however, that all arrangements must be “freely arrived at” by the parties that will attend, therefore nothing can be dictated, and this is all the more relevant to Israel, who of course was not a party to the deliberations or to the decision that was taken in 2010.

A possible way forward: Creating a regional security dialogue forum

In light of all of these problems, what could nevertheless work to break the deadlock? In the Arms Control program at INSS (2) we have for over a year been discussing the pressing need to create a regional security dialogue forum for the Middle East. Although the Middle East is one of the most conflictual regions in the world, it stands out in its stark lack of an inclusive regional institution for discussing regional tensions and conflicts. We are sorely in need of a regional framework in which the full range of security issues can be discussed: from soft security issues, to very hard security ones, including WMD. We believe that this comprehensive approach – that includes but is by no means limited to WMD – is the best formula for moving forward in a win-win mode in the Middle East.

Setting up a forum for regional security dialogue draws on the same underlying rationale of the WMDFZ conference idea: namely, the pressing need to reduce regional tensions, and thereby lower the prospect of escalation that could lead to mass destruction in the Middle East. But it would equally address the problematic conditions that we face in this regard: poor relations, conflicts, and the debilitating lack of trust that has been engendered by years of states systematically cheating on international disarmament commitments.

The internal turmoil that is rocking a number of Arab states, and transformations that the region is undergoing, only make this dialogue all the more essential, and ironically may even create some new opportunities. This could actually be an auspicious time to carve out a new approach to arms control in the Middle East, and to explore whether some new common security interests have emerged.

If regional states are truly serious about reducing tensions and threatening behavior in the Middle East, it is difficult to envision substantive – rather than political – grounds for objecting to setting up such a forum. It could be the best way to create a win-win forum for fostering better understanding, and hopefully new routes for cooperation on a full range of security issues that will make the Middle East a much safer place.


(1) This article draws on ideas discussed in: Landau, Emily B & Stein, Shimon (2012), ‘The Decision to Call Off the 2012 WMDFZ Conference: An Outcome Destined from the Start?’, INSS Insight, no. 390, 5 December; Landau, Emily B. (2013), ‘Egypt, Israel and the WMDFZ Conference for the Middle East: Setting the Record Straight’, Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, vol. 7, no.1, pp.13-16; Landau, Emily B. & Stein, Shimon (2013), ‘Israel, Region need Middle East Security Forum’, Al Monitor, 20 May; Landau, Emily B. (2013), ‘Wanted: A Mideast Security Forum’, Jerusalem Report, 6 June.

(2) The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is Israel’s largest strategic think-tank, affiliated with Tel Aviv University.