“We continue to count on the valuable contributions of the Arms Control Association.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
Placing WMD in Context
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Emily B. Landau

If things go according to plan, a conference on a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East is due to take place in 2012. The considerable political challenges involved in convening this conference have become much more complicated of late in light of the political turmoil that has been rocking the Middle East since early this year. Although the date of the conference may get pushed back, unofficial Track II discussions already have begun to consider the prospects and logic of such a conference, which has effectively renewed the debate over the meaning and future of regional WMD arms control efforts in the Middle East.

These discussions indicate the serious consideration being given to the prospects for a conference on a WMD-free zone and underscore that a new regional arms control process must begin with a hard look at the realities in this region. There is a need to dispel some of the commonly voiced myths that continue to cloud and confuse many of the discussions on WMD arms control in the Middle East, particularly as far as nuclear weapons are concerned.

One of the most problematic assertions in the debate is that nuclear weapons actually have no value because they cannot be used. The advocates of nuclear disarmament who make this claim argue that nuclear arms should simply be eliminated because they have no value and, at the same time, are extremely dangerous. However, even the most superficial examination of international relations since 1945 would easily convince one that this is not obvious and that disarmament is anything but simple. Although over the 65 years of nonuse a strong norm developed, according to which nuclear weapons are weapons of deterrence and not use, states nevertheless continue to consider them to have tremendous strategic value. Beyond the bolstered security to be gained through nuclear deterrence, states that pursue nuclear weapons might do so for the prestige that accompanies their acquisition or for the ability to threaten their neighbors more effectively, safe in the knowledge that external parties will be much more wary about intervening on behalf of the threatened parties.

The implications for other states of one state’s nuclear possession can be either relatively benign (if the weapons are a way to ensure the possessor state’s survival) or dangerous (as a means of threatening other states), but there undoubtedly are strategic benefits to be gained by going nuclear. Otherwise, determined proliferators would not be devoting so much time, energy, and resources to attaining them, and the current nuclear-weapon states would have no problem in giving them up. In short, the desire of disarmament proponents to change this reality should not be confused with a description of the current role of nuclear weapons in international relations.

States can utilize the strategic value of nuclear weapons in either a benign or a dangerous manner. It is important to take this fact into account when discussing WMD arms control, especially in the Middle East. The threat posed to other states from one state’s possession of nuclear weapons is not just a matter of perspective or in the eye of the beholder. The differences among states are real and can be empirically assessed. For example, Israel has been noticeably low-key and defensive with regard to its nuclear capability for decades. In contrast, Iran is breaching its commitment to remain non-nuclear, while couching its nuclear development in highly threatening rhetoric toward its neighbors, especially Israel.

This connects to another myth that is explicitly or implicitly apparent in some of the debates taking place regarding the Middle East: that the nuclear programs of Iran and Israel are comparable. There is no justification for comparing the two states solely on the basis of their nuclear capabilities, due to the vastly different circumstances of their nuclearization and the very different manner with which each state regards these capabilities.

The argument that Iran is moving in a military direction as a response to Israel, with the implication that if Israel were to do away with its assumed nuclear weapons, Iran would have no reason to pursue them, is similarly unfounded. There are no historical or strategic grounds for making such a connection between the two programs.

Israel began its nuclear program in the 1950s with the idea that it needed an insurance policy for long-term survival, and this has been Israel’s sole purpose ever since. Iran restarted its military program in the 1980s as a response to Iraq’s nuclear development, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War. More importantly, Iran’s present interest in a military nuclear capability stems from Tehran’s desire to entrench its regional power and influence, which will come at the expense of most states in the Middle East, not only Israel. Even if Israel were to join the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), there is little reason to believe that Iran would discontinue its activities. So saying that “both must disarm,” either on the grounds that all states become instantly identical when the issue of debate is nuclear weapons or that Iran’s nuclear program is linked to Israel’s, propagates a false sense of symmetry that is not helpful for serious regional arms control efforts.

Regional Security

Another issue to be clarified is the concept of regional security and the role of confidence- and security-building measures[1] in that framework. These measures, intended to deal with the tensions, hostility, and mistrust that characterize interstate relations and hamper the states’ ability to cooperate, are the essence of a win-win approach to regional security and have a central role to play in arms control efforts in the Middle East. The idea is to begin with small, mutually advantageous, and nonthreatening steps in order to initiate a dialogue, thus establishing a basis of mutual confidence and trust in the genuine pursuit of enhanced security for all. In light of the harsh and enduring conflicts in the Middle East that gave rise to WMD acquisition, focusing on interstate relations and dynamics is imperative.

An unfortunate result of the early 1990s Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS)[2] talks is that regional security and confidence- and security-building measures became imbued with political content. Rather than being understood as serious arms control measures grounded in a conceptual logic that posits that improving the regional atmosphere is essential in order to approach WMD disarmament, confidence- and security-building measures came to be regarded as Israel’s specific political preference for the talks. Once identified as Israel’s preference, the ideas met with growing opposition in Arab states. This situation needs to be rectified. It must be recognized that arms control efforts and regional security issues are inextricably linked, and the former will not be able to make headway without significant progress in the latter. This message ­resonates even more strongly today than in the 1990s, due to the deterioration of ­regional relations since that time.

The Challenge for 2012

In light of the issues described above, Israel has questions about what will be discussed at the 2012 conference. If it is a venue for improving regional relations and building up a basis for mutual confidence, with the understanding that this will be a long and difficult process in itself, Israel can most likely accept it. However, if it remains strongly linked to the NPT framework, which implicitly sends the message that this is all about nuclear weapons and not other weapons of mass destruction, there is little chance that Israel will view the effort positively. Also, it clearly would be unacceptable to Israel if the efforts remained grounded in the position that Egypt and Iran are strongly advocating, namely that “Israel is the problem.” It should not be forgotten that the 2010 NPT Review Conference final document stipulates that progress with regard to the 2012 conference will be in consultation with states in the region and that these states will have to arrive at these arrangements freely. Israel’s views and concerns must be incorporated.

The heart of the problem in the Middle East is not the weapons but how states relate to one another and to their own international commitments. In regional arms control processes, especially as far as Israel is concerned, weapons of mass destruction cannot be detached from the context of interstate dynamics.

Israel’s nuclear deterrent is considered to have tremendous strategic significance and value; it spells long-term survival for Israel in an extremely hostile and dangerous neighborhood. Israel is not likely to give that up any time soon, nor could the country be expected to do so in light of the threats that it faces from a number of directions. Even in Egypt, a country that has maintained a stable peace with Israel for more than three decades, the current foreign policy discourse advocates ­rethinking its ­relations with Israel.

The most dangerous regional development, however, is Iran’s nuclear advances. The prospect that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons only serves to convince Israel of its need to maintain its ultimate defense in the face of possible annihilation. For Israel, a major problem in the realm of arms control is that states make commitments to international treaties and then proceed to cheat and deceive the international community on their way to a WMD capability. Iran’s slow but (at least until now) unstoppable progress toward a military nuclear capability would be unbearable for Israelis if they were not confident that Israel has the means of deterring a nuclear strike from this hostile and deceptive regime.

The challenge for the organizers of the 2012 conference is to take these hard realities into account when devising the concept and agenda for a new round of arms control talks. Discounting the dangers of unconventional weapons other than nuclear weapons will certainly not help in getting Israel on board, nor will maintaining that Israel is the sole obstacle and that it must first join the NPT—an obvious nonstarter, although it has been a frequent theme at Track II meetings over the past year. Rather, the conference organizers must devise and insist on a step-by-step, win-win logic for the talks, enabling all states to agree to take part and engendering a positive, security-grounded, and forward-­looking process.


Emily B. Landau is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. She teaches arms control at Tel Aviv University and at the University of Haifa’s International School. She is a frequent participant in Track II initiatives on arms control and regional security in the Middle East.



1. The more common term is “confidence-building measures,” but “confidence- and security-building measures” is the term that was used by the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) Working Group to emphasize both confidence and security.

2. The ACRS Working Group was active for four years (1991–1995) in the framework of the multilateral track of the Madrid peace process. For background, see Emily B. Landau, “ACRS: What Worked, What Didn’t, and What Could Be Relevant for the Region Today,” Disarmament Forum, No. 2 (2008), www.unidir.ch/bdd/­fiche-article.php?ref_article=2727.