A Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction - The Middle East: Next Steps

One of the major efforts to preserve international peace and security in the twenty-first century has been to “control” or “limit” the number of weapons and the ways in which weapons can be used. Two different means to achieve this goal have been Disarmament and Arms Control [1]. Disarmament is the reduction of the number of weapons and troops maintained by a state, while Arms Control refers to treaties made between potential adversaries that reduce the likelihood and scope of war and usually impose limitations on military capabilities. Although disarmament always involves the reduction of military forces or weapons, arms control need not. In fact, arms control agreements sometimes allow for the increase of weapons by one or more parties to a treaty. One arms control agreement of major importance globally and in the Middle East is the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). According to the NPT, countries that do not possess nuclear weapons give up their right to acquire them, while countries with nuclear weapons waive their rights to export nuclear weapons technology.

The 1995 NPT Review Conference called for the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological) and their delivery systems [2]. Following the September 11th terrorist attacks, great uncertainties began to cloud the future of arms control. The emergence of novel military technologies such as cyber warfare and drones further complicate cooperative approaches to arms control. Nobody doubts that the Middle East will experience growing problems in the future and will need a new diplomatic process to replace the one that has been stalled since the 1995 collapse of the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) multilateral negotiations [3].

A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction

In 2010, the NPT Review Conference agreed to hold a Middle East WMD-free zone conference by 2012. In October 2011, the Finish diplomat Ambassador Jaako Laajava was appointed by the UN as facilitator for a planned International Conference on a Middle East WMD-free zone (MEWMDFZ). On November 23, the United States issued a statement postponing the December 2012 conference. Russia called for the conference to be rescheduled and held before April 2013, citing that the preparations had already reached an “advanced stage”. At the time, facilitator Jaakko Laajava had not yet secured Israel’s attendance. On April 29, 2013, Egypt walked out of the NPT Preparatory Committee Meeting in Geneva in protest at the conference’s postponement and called for it to be rescheduled as soon as possible [4]. The European Parliament called for the postponed event to take place in the Middle East as soon as possible in 2013 [5].

The meeting had been tentatively set to take place in Helsinki in December 2013, but was called off after it became clear that Israel would not attend. As Israel is widely presumed to possess the only nuclear arsenal in the region, its attendance was viewed as critical to the success of the conference. The European Union (EU) supports the ongoing preparations for the conference with the participation of all states in the region. Resolving the problem of chemical weapons in Syria will mark a big step towards implementing a long-standing goal of setting up a WMD-free zone in the Middle East [6].

Iran, whose uranium-enrichment activities are feared to be a precursor to a drive to develop nuclear weapons, was the other country whose attendance was critical for the conference. Late in 2012, Tehran agreed to participate, though some experts said they suspected the Iranian government had by then concluded that Israel would not participate. However, the UN facilitator was unable to secure the participation of all Middle Eastern nations by the end of 2012. The Finnish facilitator is employing the normal tools of diplomacy to solve these issues and create forward motion.

Despite extensive international support, practical progress has been stymied by strong disagreement between countries in the region over the terms and the sequence of steps leading to the establishment of the zone. Israel has closely linked discussions on the zone to its own security concerns. Arab states have said that no such linkages should exist and the establishment of the zone would contribute to peaceful relations. Discussions to date include proposals for banning all ballistic missiles with ranges in excess of 150 km [7].

Series of Conferences

Through parallel workshops and conferences addressing security and humanitarian concerns, the objectives and modalities for a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East are on the political agenda in both regional and international terms. On May 28th 2012 a One Day Civil Society Conference was held at the Scottish Parliament, preparatory to “The UN Meeting of States Parties in Helsinki, December, 2012” [8]. The conference discussed human rights; humanitarian concerns; the rule of law and democracy; the relationship between promoting human rights, civil-society responsibility and democratic institutions; and reducing the role of militarism (including the value attached to nuclear weapons and other WMD), not only in the region, but also globally.

At a symposium jointly held by the League of Arab States and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) in Cairo on 24-25 February 2003 a number of presentations on next steps were given. A summary of the presentations can be found in a paper entitled “Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone: Regional Security and Non-Proliferation Issues” [9]. This paper concludes that the proposal of establishing a WMDFZ was stuck in the “pre-negotiation” stage, and no negotiation of an actual treaty had been carried out. To overcome the impasse that had been reached in 1995-96 in the wake of the Egyptian-Israeli confrontation over the issue of the NPT extension, the paper proposes a three-phase approach, consistent with the requirement for transparency shared by all states in the region:

  • Phase One: Confidence-and Security-Building Measures + “No-First-Use”
  • Phase Two: Capping of Weapons of Mass Destruction Stock
  • Phase Three: Establishing the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone

Recently Laajava appealed for full cooperation and engagement between the countries of the “region” and invited more “concrete input” on what the relevant governments wanted to get out of the Helsinki Conference as well as welcoming practical ideas for the creation of a regional dialogue structure. The substantive issues would include the elimination of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, considering the scope and the geographical parameters of the zone.

The verification of nuclear, chemical and biological peaceful activities needs to be enhanced. The IAEA and OPCW should be given greater powers and more effective monitoring tools that will enable them to extend their activities to a maximum degree. The normalization of relations among the countries of the region will be an important factor in creating a climate conducive to the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East and hence to peace in the region. Facilitating such normalization will be an important task for the entire international community.

Future Conference Agenda

We should be seeking a safer atmosphere for all the powers and peoples of the region. We should also determine to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime including implementation of all relevant multilateral treaties and agreements that help to prevent proliferation. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) still remains the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the essential foundation for the pursuit of disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy [10].

We should strongly support the work of Ambassador Jaakko Laajava as facilitator of the Conference and the commitment of the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution (the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and, in particular, its safeguards system remains an essential institution for the effective implementation of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The IAEA must continue to have the necessary resources and legal authority.

The entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) would lead to a complete and legally binding prohibition on nuclear weapon test explosions. This would build on the 1968 NPT’s prohibition on non-nuclear weapon states possessing, manufacturing or acquiring nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.

In 2013, the IAEA reported that there are 437 operational nuclear power reactors in 31 countries, although not every reactor is producing electricity. There are approximately 140 naval vessels using nuclear propulsion in operation, powered by some 180 reactors [11]. There is an ongoing debate about nuclear power and its applications. Proponents such as the World Nuclear Association, the IAEA and Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy contend that nuclear power is a safe, sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions. Opponents, such as Greenpeace International and Nuclear Information and Resources Services (NIRS) contend that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment.


[1] The Free Dictionary by FARLEX, Legal Dictionary, Arms Control and Disarmament.

[2] Davenport, Kelsey (2013), ‘WMD-Free Middle East Proposal at a Glance’, Arms Control Association, July 2013.

[3] Saab, Bilal Y (2013), ‘The Future of Arms Control in the Middle East’, Arms Control and Regional Security for The Middle East, 30 July 2013.

[4] Grossman, Elaine M. (2013), ‘Q&A: US Envoy Derides  Egyptian Theatrics on WMD-Free Zone Talks’, Global Security Newswire, 26 July 2013.

[5] Mukhatzhanova, Gaukhar (2013), ‘Conference for a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East’, Arms Control and Regional  Security for The Middle East, Progress Report, 23 April 2013.

[6] Radyuhin, Vladimir (2013), ‘Russia to Push for WMD-free Zone in Middle East’, The Hindu, 14 September 2013.

[7] Holton, Jerome, Lumpe, Lora, Stone, Jeremy J. (1993), ‘Proposal for a Zero Ballistic Missile Regime’, 1993 Science and International Security Anthology AAAS, Washington, pp. 379-396. <http://www.fas.org/asmp/library/articles/zerobal93.htm&gt;.

[8] A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Challenges. A Report of a Conference held at the Scottish Parliament on Monday May 28th 2012. Sponsored by Malcolm Chisholm MSP. On behalf of the United Nations Association Edinburgh and United Nations Association Scotland.

[9] Said, Mohamed Kadry (2004), ‘Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone: Regional Security and Non-Proliferation Issues’, On Building a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East, Global Non-Proliferation Regimes and Regional Experiences, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), pp. 123-133.

[10] Declaration on Non-Proliferation and Disarmament for 2013. This Declaration is issued in conjunction with the meeting of Foreign Ministers on 11 April 2013.

[11] IAEA (2013),Nuclear Power Reactors in the World, IAEA, VIENNA, 2012, IAEA-RDS-2/31.