Following through on a Middle East WMD-Free Zone

18 Jan

A recent editorial in the NY Times from 15 January proposed that the best way to prevent a ‘nuclear Iran’ is through a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East (WMDFZ). A 1995 resolution on the Middle East at the Review Conference on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) calls upon the states from the region to “take practical steps in appropriate forums aimed at making progress towards, inter alia, the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems, and to refrain from taking any measures that preclude the achievement of this objective.” Furthermore, a statement from the UN Security Council on 31 January 1992 affirmed that proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is a threat to international peace and security. The outcome document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference committed states parties to a 2012 conference on the establishment of such a WMDFZ and such a conference will be held later this year in Finland. Given this historical context and mindful of current political circumstances in the region, it is essential that the development of concrete proposals for treaty elements and confidence-building measures towards a WMDFZ in the Middle East are taken both seriously and expeditiously.

As explained by Shibley Telhami and Steven Kull in their Times op-ed, a military attack on Iran will most likely encourage the Islamic Republic to more vigorously pursue nuclear weapons in the long run, even if its program is set back several years due to the attack. Such costs are high insofar as the likelihood of Iran’s more robust and intense pursuit of nuclear weapons as well as the chance that other Arab states will consider ‘going nuclear.’ The other major challenge (and danger) in the region is surely Israel’s policy of ‘opacity’ around its nuclear program– not acknowledging having nuclear weapons while the rest of the world operates under the assumption that they do, in fact, have such capabilities with little to no ambiguity around that fact. Therefore, the only clear path forward is the proposed (and promised) development of a Middle East WMDFZ.

As expressed on numerous occasions by government officials, a nuclear Iran is not an option for Israel or the United States, while Israel continues to operate outside the NPT framework and therefore is not obligated to IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities. Moreover, Israel’s escalating tensions with Turkey and even Egypt (with which Israel has a peace agreement) are indicative of a worsening situation in a region home to some of the most protracted and deep-seeded conflicts in history. Iran’s recent inflammatory actions, including its threatening to shut down access to the Strait of Hormuz because of sanctions imposed against its developing nuclear program, are a sign that the current trajectory is at best alarming and a new pathway to peace must be seriously pursued. A WMDFZ would ultimately force all the major stakeholders to task– Israel’s nuclear program would have to become a viable discussion point and Iran would be subject to legitimized monitoring in terms of its uranium enrichment program for energy production, which the Islamic Republic strongly contends is as far as its production goes.

There are no illusions in terms of how difficult, complex, and unique a WMDFZ in the Middle East actually is. The zones that already exist, such as Latin America and the Caribbean, Central Asia, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Mongolia, clearly do not have the same political challenges that the Middle East must grapple with. The negotiations around the zone will be long, complicated, and frustrating to be sure, but it is essential to not only international peace and security, but to a sustained regional peace that will never come to fruition if the threat of nuclear weapons and the development of such weapons are on the table. Negotiations to develop and implement a WMDFZ must operate in concert with complementary steps toward regional peace as collective security agreements cannot be viably and permanently de-linked from peace agreements. Disarmament and arms control issues must be negotiated simultaneously. Nonetheless, it is important to caution that although a dual peace and arms control process is important, the WMDFZ will have to be negotiated even if a comprehensive peace agreement has not yet been reached in the region (at least to start) .

It is also important to understand the WMFZ negotiations in the context of other international disarmament and arms control processes such as ratification of the CTBT, other biological, chemical and nuclear treaties, the UN Programme of Action on small arms, and IAEA inspections. Compliance with these measures are essential in order to increase confidence in regional security and trust in the preparatory process (which is sure to be long) leading to the creation of the zone.

The time is now for honest and robust efforts towards a WMDFZ in the Middle East. Such a zone will have positive ramifications for the region and the world at large by eliminating the option of the antiquated Cold War-style nuclear deterrence for ‘mutually assured destruction.’ It’s time for all stakeholders to be held accountable and for a transparent framework that limits the dangerous double standard and acceleration of tensions that currently exist.

–Katherine Prizeman

One Response to “Following through on a Middle East WMD-Free Zone”


  1. Looking Forward to the 1st NPT Prep Com and Back on the 2010 Outcome Document « gapwblog - April 12, 2012

    […] secure region that will render weapons of mass destruction ultimately irrelevant. (See previous post on “Following through on Middle East WMD-Free Zone” from 18 […]

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