A Blueprint to a Middle East WMD Free Zone


By Chen Kane – The ninth Review Conference (RevCon) of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is currently taking place in New York. Central issue for the RevCon include the Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).


The idea to free the Middle East from all weapons of mass destruction and establishing a weapon-of-mass-destruction-free zone (WMDFZ) originated many decades ago. Surprisingly little thought has been given to how it can be realistically implemented. Currently, there remain significant gaps regarding core concepts of the WMDFZ (the “Zone”) negotiations and implementation within the Middle East and internationally.


I just completed a new report titled Planning Ahead: A Blueprint to Negotiate and Implement a Weapon-of-Mass-Destruction-Free Zone in the Middle East. The report, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, addresses the gaps with regard to the planned WMDFZ Middle East Conference, negotiation process, and the subsequent establishment of such a Zone by identifying the legal, technical, and organizational elements required to support the Zone negotiations and implementation. It recommends regional states establish a group of experts that can address the challenges in establishing “an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems.”


Creating a WMDFZ is a very tall order; not only has one never been created before, but also all existing nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZs) formalized an already existing situation—the absence of nuclear weapons in their region. The WMDFZ, by contrast, is aimed at reversing the status quo by dismantling existing WMD capabilities and programs in a region that is suspected of hosting all three categories of WMD. Moreover, the region suffers from deep-rooted conflicts and mistrust, and many areas are undergoing considerable social and political change. The increasing influence of non-state actors on states’ affairs and the existence of ungoverned territories in the region is another complicating factor. Additionally, while there are regional and international regimes and organizations charged with verifying the peaceful nature of nuclear energy programs and chemical industries (all of which could inform the WMDFZ negotiators), there are no comparable mechanisms to cover nuclear and biological weapons dismantlement, verify sensitive activities for biological programs, nor sufficiently regulate WMD delivery systems—all of which are mandated under the Middle East WMDFZ.



The report offers a number of constructive suggestions that could engender significant progress on the issue. For instance, regional states can establish a Group of Experts to discuss legal, technical, and organizational issues essential to negotiating and implementing the Zone. Many of the issues identified in this report should be discussed first within regional states in a comprehensive interagency process, not just to formulate national positions on the issues, but also to clarify their declared, undeclared, known, or unknown WMD capabilities.

The regional experts group could also consider key legal aspects such as the negotiation mandate, scope, rules of procedures, and delineation of the Zone. This would include identifying options for issues such as: what weapon systems would be prohibited under the Zone (i.e., only nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and their delivery systems, or also radiological); what should be states obligations under the Zone; are there areas where agreement already exists; and in what ways existing NWFZs and no-first-use agreements could apply to the Middle East.


On the technical aspects, the report offers ideas and highlights issues on how to implement WMD weapons and programs disarmament and create an “effectively verifiable” verification mechanism. The report identifies sets of lessons learned from the five NWFZs, previous WMD dismantlement experiences such as South Africa, Libya, and Syria, and existing regional verification organizations such as ABACC and Euratom. Importantly, it is essential for the political and technical experts to work hand-in-hand to ensure that the politically desirable falls within the realm of the technically feasible. This includes examining what are the verification lessons from past cases of WMD disarmament and dismantlement, to what extent will states be required to declare past or existing WMD programs, how can negotiators address the strategic linkages in the region between acquisition and dismantlement of chemical and nuclear weapons; and how and by whom will verification of dismantlement and compliance be conducted.


On the organizational level, the experts’ group could define how broadly or narrowly issues concerning the Zone will be defined. While the Zone may be defined narrowly to address the proliferation of WMD in the region, it is important to note that not one of the existing NWFZs exists in the absence of a regional architecture and agreed upon principles for cooperation and security. The experts’ group may want to address the underlying causes for regional WMD acquisition, as well as to adopt a set of principles regarding arms control and regional security that would govern relations among states in the region. To assist overcoming the prevailing mistrust, the group should also discuss the role of confidence-building measures (CBMs) as part of the Zone negotiation and implementation, and identify relevant unconventional and conventional CBMs to be implemented as part of the Zone.


The group could also recommend whether there is a need to establish a regional organization to ensure implementation of the treaty, address compliance and enforcement issues, and promote the peaceful applications of nuclear, biological, and chemical technologies. Given the prevailing reality of the region where non-state actors have tried to acquire WMD capabilities, targeted strategic infrastructure, and have gained control over significant territories (including where WMDs are located), the group could address how the Zone provisions would tackle this emerging threat.


If regional states are unwilling to commit experts to the process, an alternative route is to establish the dialogue as a track-two or track-one-and-a-half process. Because of the unique political and geo-strategic circumstances of the region, nongovernmental experts have played a critical role by providing the only forum for regional dialogue on arms control and nonproliferation in the Middle East since 1995, thus having much to offer in laying the foundations for an eventual WMDFZ.


If you happened to be in New York on May 7, please join us at the UN Headquarters, where we will officially launch the report.  The event will take place at 1:15-2:30 pm, in the ECOSOC chamber. The event will be co-hosted by the UK delegation to the NPT with welcome remarks by Dr. Matthew Rowland, UK Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and the head of the UK delegation to the 2015 NPT RevCon.


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Saving the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone Process


By Karim Kamel – Those who greatly oppose the idea of the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (MEWMDFZ) and those who strongly want to impose it are ready to engage in a finger-pointing process about why the Helsinki Conference has not taken place by the 2015 Review Conference (RevCon) of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). If both sides proceed with this outlook, the MEWMDFZ initiative, the people of the Middle East, as well as the NPT as a whole will suffer. Moreover, at such challenging times, when global governance is being challenged with outbreaks of conflicts in the Middle East and Europe, a failed RevCon will hurt the legitimacy of the NPT and the international system and its commitment to pursue the Zone.




In 2010, members of the League of Arab States (LAS) were hopeful that a process to create a MEWMDFZ was going to start in 2012, as agreed in the final document of the 2010 NPT RevCon. Few months after the adoption of the final document, and even before the appointment of a facilitator and a host government, a massive wave of uprisings swept the Middle East region. Until this day, dust has not settled, several of the 2010 rulers are not in power anymore, regimes are under significant pressure, and it is unknown what the final results of the uprisings will be. What is certain, however, is that challenges facing the region are now more immense than in 2010, and current strategic necessities and threats have shifted.


There are massive challenges facing regional parties, such threats by non-state actors, water and energy scarcity, economic hardships and rising unemployment. These challenges have immediate implications and require instant attention, resources, as well as political capital to resolve. This has resulted in the MEWMDFZ issue being put on the backburner by regional governments. In this context, it is understandable that amidst these challenges, it was hard for regional parties to push the MEWMDFZ issue forward; one which requires leadership backing, making concessions as well as allocating time and resources.


In light of this reprioritization, a number of NPT member states perceived the Arab states’ positions in the informal consultations on the MEWMDFZ Conference as stern, unrealistic, and ignorant of the fact that such a process requires making concessions and engaging in a constructive dialogue. Furthermore, according to the co-conveners of the MEWMDFZ conference (namely U.S., U.K., and Russia), particular LAS member states have been behind failing to agree on an agenda and a date for the Conference when agreement was almost within reach during the consultations.


On the other hand, LAS members take the co-conveners at their word, and argue that they knowingly sponsored the 1995 resolution and agreed to the final document in 2010 and their role as co-conveners, so they understand that this is an international obligation which needs to be met “as is.” They also started to claim that the facilitator was not active enough and was trying to expand his 2010 mandate by trying “too hard” to appease Israel, concede to Israel’s positions which go beyond the 2010 mandate.


In this regard, we have a huge gap in views. And in preparation for the 2015 RevCon, parties are proceeding with a zero-sum game mentality, which is usually a recipe for failure in diplomatic settings.




It is recommended that all parties should not be tempted to engage in a finger-pointing process and demolish what was achieved so far with regard to the Zone –internationalization of the Zone process and serious commitment and work by the facilitator and the co-conveners to organize the MEWMDFZ Conference. Most believe that the issues that were discussed in the informal consultations are the ones that would have to be addressed in any other process that could lead to WMD disarmament and nonproliferation regime in the region.


All sides will have to recalibrate their current strategies as we approach the 2015 RevCon. The LAS should be committed to a regional WMDFZ negotiations process that eventually will bring Israel to disarm its nuclear capabilities, thwart Iran’s and prevent others from acquiring or maintaining WMD capabilities, including non-state actors.


On the other hand, the facilitator and the cosponsors should start working closely with the LAS to start softening their posture of blaming the facilitator and the co-sponsors or Israel. The facilitator can work with the co-conveners to prevent turning the blame toward certain LAS members because such building of antagonism will only further intimidate these states and reinforce their threat perception.


Going Forward


The MEWMDFZ initiative is the only one currently on the table to create sustainable security architecture in the region by disarming WMD capabilities and preventing others from acquiring them. Furthermore, the Middle East has the backing of the international community to start such process. If the vision, legitimacy and momentum of such process are lost, parties of the region will go back to square zero before the 1995 Resolution was approved.


It is clear that many in the region and outside have been working hard to ensure the Conference’s materialization, and it is understandable that many who care about the initiative have a degree of frustration. On the other hand, it is also fair to say that if such conference was to take place, most understand that it will not be a one-time event, but rather initiate a regional negotiation process. It is simply because other challenges in the region currently take precedence, that any concessions, which at the end of the day need to be made by responsible leaders, are very difficult to sell at home.


At this point, all those preparing for the NPT RevCon have an opportunity to either save the existing process, and with it the chances to eventually achieve complete disarmament and nonproliferation in the Middle East, or completely demolish it. Going forward, we have an opportunity to at least save what we have, and proceed after the 2015 NPT RevCon when the cloud of instability passes and allows regional leaders to be involved in such negotiations. In order to minimize both sides’ losses and save the process, going into the NPT RevCon 2015, it is suggested to consider the actions below.


Action Items


1.  Initiate a meeting with the participation of key regional parties (Egypt, Jordan, LAS, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Israel) and the co-conveners of the postponed Conference aimed at formulating language for a document to be adopted at the 2015 NPT RevCon that reinstates the goal of creating a MEWMDFZ by NPT members and extends the 2010 mandate. The document should take into account the challenges of the past years, and note that regional countries were unable to  reach an agreement, but they are committed to continue the process


2.  Broker an agreement between concerned parties to refrain from engaging in a finger-pointing process in the next RevCon and participate in a constructive dialogue about what could be done to create the atmosphere and the capacities conducive to establish the zone


3.  In line with the proposal made by former Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, request all regional states to submit letters to the UN Secretary General declaring support for the Zone and stating as part of the Zone process their intentions to ratify at a future date, in a coordinated manner, all relevant arms control instruments




These action items are not a silver bullet, and they do not guarantee the success of the process, but rather save what was achieved so far, especially in this atmosphere where the tough posturing can be detrimental to the MEWMDFZ and the NPT at large.


In order to create consensus around the suggested action items, the facilitator will need to lobby key people at foreign ministries, the LAS as well as the co-conveners.


Karim Kamel is program associate for the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at The Social Science Research Council