A Middle Eastern WMD-Free Zone: Objectives and Approaches of Arab States

By Hossam Eldeen Aly

A key part of the final document of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is the agreement to convene a conference in 2012 on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East. Preparatory work for the conference, which represents an important phase in efforts to implement the Resolution on the Middle East from the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, has been under way since the appointment last fall of Finnish Undersecretary of State Jaakko Laajava as the conference facilitator and the selection of Finland to be the venue for the event.

The conference is “to be attended by all states of the Middle East,” and the zone is to be established “on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by states of the region and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon states.”[1] Along with the positions of Iran and Israel, the Arab position will play a key role in shaping the way ahead at the 2012 conference. This article attempts to lay out the details of what might represent the key features of an Arab position at the 2012 conference. While highlighting some essential background on that position, the article also attempts to sketch out some options that could be further developed for consideration at the conference and beyond.

Under any accepted formulation of the geographical boundaries of a Middle Eastern zone, Arab states[2] obviously represent a clear majority. A more detailed understanding of Arab positions is essential in order to have a better perception of potential Arab preferences relating to the procedural and substantive framework required for the 2012 conference and the regional negotiation process it is expected to create. The discussion here will focus on practical policy choices that might be helpful in increasing the array of options pursued in preparing for the conference.

The establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East has been a collectively endorsed Arab-Iranian objective since 1974. This was demonstrated by Iran and Egypt’s resolution presented at the UN General Assembly that year;[3] Egypt has offered the resolution every year since then. The General Assembly always has approved it—by vote from 1974 to 1979 and by consensus from 1980 to date. Arab states also collectively rallied behind Egypt’s initiative in 1990 on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. For a long time, both zones have been on the agendas of various international forums, including in particular the UN Security Council and General Assembly and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors and General Conference.

Arab Priorities

A number of key Arab-sponsored international resolutions identify the operational framework and basic principles perceived by the Arab Group as essential for the process leading to the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone and eventually a WMD-free zone in the region.[4] Arab states also have described their positions with a fair amount of detail at ministerial and summit meetings at various international forums.[5] The increasing frustration of Arab states with the lack of implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East has been documented extensively in relevant international forums for more than 15 years, most strongly expressed in the run-up to and at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

In fact, an Arab working paper at that meeting called for the 2012 conference, although point 8(c) of that paper originally called for “an international conference that genuinely aims, within a specific time frame, to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.”[6]

It is widely believed that, without an agreement on convening a Middle East conference in 2012, agreement on a final document at the 2010 meeting would not have been possible. The prospects for the success of the 2012 conference thus are directly linked not only to chances to address regional security and stability in the Middle East, but also to the future of the NPT review process itself.

One Zone or Two?

Since Egypt’s 1990 proposal for a WMD-free zone, no Arab statement in any international forum has suggested that Arab states have dropped the nuclear-weapon-free-zone initiative or that any of them saw the WMD-free zone initiative as intended to replace the earlier proposal. In fact, both zones are mentioned in a large number of Arab-sponsored international resolutions as well as in the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East. The consistent Arab approach in pursuing the proposal for a WMD-free zone indicates that, to Arab states, such a zone represents an expanded version of the nuclear-weapon-free zone in which the nuclear dimension continues to feature prominently, complemented by prohibitions on chemical and biological weapons. The Arab position has clearly gained the support of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM). In May 2011, NAM foreign ministers “reaffirmed the need for the speedy establishment” of a Middle Eastern nuclear-weapon-free zone as “a priority step” toward the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the region.[7]

Since the adoption of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East, some regional and extraregional players have used the terms for the two kinds of zones interchangeably. The mandate from the 2010 NPT conference uses the term “a zone free from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.” This article endorses that particular formulation as the most representative of the 2012 conference mandate and for convenience will refer to it using the term “nuclear/WMD-free zone.”

Main Features of the Arab View

Through their consistent support of the annual General Assembly resolution on the Middle Eastern nuclear-weapon-free zone, Arab states endorse the call for Israel’s accession to the NPT, to which all Arab states and Iran are parties. To Arab states, Israel’s accession not only would address a major imbalance in commitments in the nuclear area, but also would have practical consequences for verification by providing for the application of IAEA full-scope safeguards on all nuclear facilities and activities in the region, Israeli facilities and activities included. Arab states see the application of IAEA comprehensive safeguards on Israeli facilities and activities as “a prerequisite” for establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone.[8]

The declared preference of Arab states that this zone should acknowledge the inalienable right of states to acquire and develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,[9] as stated in Article IV of the NPT, represents an advance indication of their preference for an arrangement heavily reliant on NPT membership and the rights and obligations of non-nuclear-weapon states under the treaty.

Although Arab states that have refrained from ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), or both have openly linked their accession to the two instruments with Israel’s ratification of the NPT, they also have extended that linkage to their possible ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) or conclusion of an additional protocol to their existing comprehensive safeguards agreements with the IAEA. In an October 2010 statement to the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, the Egyptian representative emphasized that accession by Egypt to the CWC and BWC “would further widen the existing gap between the commitments of States Parties to the NPT, which implement all their Treaty obligations, and the sole State outside the NPT in our region.”[10]

Scope and Verification

A 1989 IAEA study defined the geographical scope of the “Middle East” for the purpose of the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone as covering the area extending from Libya in the west to Iran in the east and from Syria in the north to Yemen in the south.[11] A wider concept for the zone was identified a year later in a UN study that considered the geographical delimitation of the zone to include “all States directly connected to conflicts in the region, i.e. all States members of the League of Arab States, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Israel.”[12] Arab states have openly endorsed this concept of the zone and remain consistent in advocating it in relevant forums. Although not necessarily challenging this formulation, Israeli representatives have emphasized on a number of occasions that agreement on the geographical scope of the zone will have to be the outcome of a political agreement among the negotiating parties.

Given the anticipated complexity of setting up a totally independent verification arrangement for a WMD-free zone, an obvious option is to take advantage of the highly efficient and effective international treaty-based verification systems that already exist. This is particularly relevant to nuclear and chemical verification, which at least can represent the backbone of a regional verification system. A regional negotiation process could consider the possibility of combining international verification obligations with additional regional arrangements with regard to biological weapons.

As is the practice for nuclear-weapon-free zones in other regions, a nuclear/WMD-free zone likely will be agreed in the context of a regional legally binding instrument stipulating all rights and obligations of regional states. Accession to the NPT, CWC, and BWC is likely to be a basic requirement for the zone, and the regional instrument establishing the zone likely will set a time frame to address asymmetries in membership of the three treaties. This process is expected to take place in connection with supplementary regional arrangements relating to the resulting verification obligations possibly to include a regional consultation and clarification mechanism or other related regional verification elements.

As with existing nuclear-weapon-free zones, the five NPT nuclear-weapon states will need to commit to upholding the treaty establishing the zone, undertaking not to use or threaten to use a nuclear explosive device against any state-party to the zone or any territory within the zone and not to contribute to any act that constitutes a violation of the treaty establishing the zone.[13]

Possible Options at the Conference

The provision on the Middle East in the 2010 NPT document contains deliberate ambiguity aimed at constructively accommodating regional states, whether or not they are parties to the NPT. Although clearly identifying the objective and its urgency, providing for the practical requirements to convene the conference in 2012, and linking its substantive terms of reference to the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East, the 2010 mandate is silent on issues such as the level of participation at the conference, its duration, the nature of its expected outcome, and most importantly, on the structure and substantive details of the process it is to establish. This prudent approach acknowledges the importance of providing regional states with the opportunity to elaborate such details themselves.

The 2010 document does provide, however, for what might represent a new direction, resolving the issue of priorities related to addressing weapons of mass destruction. It “emphasizes the requirement of maintaining parallel progress, in substance and in timing, in the process leading to achieving total and complete elimination of all weapons of mass destruction in the region, nuclear, chemical and biological.”[14]

The Arab states are likely to expect the 2012 conference to reach agreement on a detailed initial declaration of principles. Such a declaration has to be linked to a collective agreement on the form, mandate, and time frame of a regional negotiating framework. To reinforce the credibility of regional declarations, the UN secretary-general and the three depositaries of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East—Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—might choose to oversee, as sponsors, the compliance of all regional states with their pledges through different phases of the regional process. This will require their provision of strong and direct support to efforts by the facilitator to chart common ground to move forward.

With regard to the details of the regional declarations, it is a basic requirement of confidence building that states of the region expressly declare their commitment to refrain from the development, acquisition, or stationing of any weapons of mass destruction on their territories and territories under their control. Although a declared commitment against the use or threat of use of such weapons might appear to be an option worth considering, a declaration to this effect could be counterproductive if the issue is not carefully addressed. No-first-use declarations indirectly acknowledge the acquisition and stockpiling of weapons categories by focusing solely on the “use” aspect of these weapons. This dictates that, if proposed, such declarations must be directly linked to a clear and verifiable commitment to implement plans for the suspension, reversal, and total elimination of the particular WMD capabilities in question within a given time frame.

A declaration by Israel confirming its preparedness to join the NPT in the context of the nuclear/WMD-free zone would significantly help regional confidence building. This could be met with a similarly declared intention by the relevant Arab states of their preparedness to ratify the CWC and BWC as the process of establishing the zone advances. Another step that could help build confidence is a commitment to renounce all research and development related to testing, maintaining, or upgrading WMD systems. Naturally, this approach will require the acceptance, at least in the early phases, of voluntary guarantees holding the states in question accountable for any alleged violations.

The Postconference Process

Although it has long been agreed that nuclear-weapon states are required to “render their assistance in the establishment of the zone and at the same time to refrain from any action that runs counter” to that goal,[15] the 2010 language particularly reaffirms the role of the three depositaries in this regard. The support of these countries also will be crucial in several other ways.

The nuclear-weapon states will have to reaffirm their commitment to providing all necessary support to the process of negotiating the nuclear/WMD-free zone. In addition to security assurances, this could include technical support and possible guidance on confidence- and security-building measures, verification, and legal issues. Furthermore, the nuclear-weapon states can pledge to pursue a UN Security Council resolution welcoming the launch of a regional process at the conference and emphasizing their security assurances and full sponsorship of the terms of reference of the process and the time frame to realize it. This approach is a reminder of the role of “sponsors” in the context of the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) Working Group, established as part of the multilateral track of the Madrid peace process, yet further developed to increase chances for its success.

As with the ACRS process, confidence- and security-building measures are expected to feature in any discussion of a regional process aimed at the negotiation of a nuclear/WMD-free zone. Unilateral, bilateral, or multilateral confidence-building efforts should best supplement actual arms control efforts, however, and not overshadow, in priority or in practical sequence, the goal of actual disarmament in the Middle East.

Furthermore, the relevance of confidence-building measures to the overall objective of the nuclear/WMD-free zone might suggest a higher value for more WMD-related measures rather than traditional ones considered by ACRS, such as those related to maritime cooperation measures, which had little if any relevance to weapons of mass destruction.

The states of the region can consider many options in developing WMD-related confidence- and security-building measures. They might consider a possible exchange of information on the history, scope, and status of nuclear weapons and other WMD programs and WMD means of delivery, where relevant. Specifically in the nuclear field, a temporary moratorium on all uranium enrichment and plutonium separation in the region, pending accession of all regional states to the NPT and implementation of comprehensive safeguards on all regional facilities and activities, could prove very helpful and address concerns about nuclear programs in the region. Israel might also wish to consider exploring interim measures for the voluntary application of IAEA full-scope safeguards on its nuclear facilities in preparation for the regional arrangement to establish the nuclear/WMD-free zone, while states of the region that are not party to the CWC could consider steps to allow voluntary verification missions by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to their facilities, pending their accession to the CWC. A special arrangement of a similar nature might be sought for the voluntary acceptance of verification visits to prove the absence or termination, where relevant, of biological weapons programs under the appropriate modalities.

The negotiation process on the zone could be structured in several ways. For example, the conference might decide to set up three working groups at the senior-expert level that could separately negotiate the zone’s parameters with regard to the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons dimensions, particularly in terms of required accession to relevant international instruments, additional duties and responsibilities of regional states under a regional instrument, any additional verification arrangements, and the role of nuclear-weapon states in the context of the zone. The conference might decide to reconvene in a given number of months at a senior political level to consider the ideas and plans developed by the working groups. It can then decide to initiate a drafting effort within the working groups and possibly establish an additional working group on WMD means of delivery. In due course, a reconvened conference can combine the working groups into one general drafting committee mandated to prepare a consolidated draft integrating various elements taken up by the working groups. This suggested model is only one example; there exists a wider range of structural options for a Middle Eastern negotiation process on the nuclear/WMD-free zone.


Although not intending to understate the challenges facing the establishment of a nuclear/WMD-free zone, this article aims to provide a forward-looking, more constructive approach highlighting the opportunities and possible practical alternatives that could facilitate movement toward that objective. The 2012 conference undoubtedly represents an exceptional opportunity for states of the region to address their threat perceptions and security concerns through a long-sought and -delayed regional negotiation process aimed at reversing and eventually eliminating serious proliferation risks to which the region is exposed today, more severely than ever. The conference itself does not represent the culmination of such a negotiating process, but it is expected to provide an initial platform for regional states, supported by the UN secretary-general and nuclear-weapon states, to agree on key principles that will rule such a regional process and agree on its objectives, structure, and time frame.

Success will require leadership, political will, compromise, and creative approaches to allow the conference to conclude on a positive note, adopting a clear, process-oriented road map; a clear agenda for such a process; and an agreement on the key principles to guide the process. As with ACRS, the strong support of key external actors such the United States and other nuclear-weapon states will remain essential for the success of any anticipated process.

Although the format of ACRS does not represent a fully importable model in its substantive approach, its structure might inspire several aspects of this process. The identified shortcomings of ACRS, however, which led to the collapse of that exercise in the mid-1990s, should not be overlooked. The process to be created at the 2012 conference should not be based on an ACRS-style seminar-like arrangement, but rather on a formal setting backed by all governments of the region rather than a few. The active participation of Iran, Israel, and all Arab states will be an important requirement for progress. The agenda and structure of this process will have to be identified early, allowing for an effective parallel and comprehensive examination of all key elements of the nuclear/WMD-free zone.

The right balance of a comprehensive agenda, in which the nuclear dimension features prominently from day one, along with the chemical and biological dimensions, will be essential to avoid conflicting priorities down the road. The 2012 conference could represent a significant step forward not only in terms of sustainable long-term regional security and stability, but even more in terms of the credibility of the NPT regime and its sustainable effectiveness in the Middle East. The successful launching of a meaningful postconference process also would significantly contribute to increasing chances for a successful 2015 NPT Review Conference.

Although the appointed facilitator, the sponsors of the resolution on the Middle East, and other key international actors, including the UN secretary-general, will have important roles to play, it will remain up to the states of the Middle East themselves to chart the way forward and provide sufficient vision, political will, leadership, and expertise for real progress to be realized. The journey ahead, through the conference and the process that will pursue the conference’s decisions, is not expected to be easy, but the potential it holds for peace and stability in the region and the security of all states concerned certainly makes it worthwhile.

Hossam Eldeen Aly is an Egyptian diplomat who has specialized in multilateral disarmament diplomacy since the early 1990s. He currently is senior adviser on disarmament and international security to the president of the UN General Assembly. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Vienna. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of any institution with which the author is affiliated. The article is based on a discussion paper prepared for the Center for International Cooperation at New York University in March.





1. 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document,” NPT/CONF.2010/50 (Vol. I), June 18, 2010, p. 30 (para. 7(a)).

2. Members of the League of Arab States, namely Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

3. UN General Assembly, Resolution 3263 (XXIX), December 9, 1974 (“Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Region of the Middle East”).

4. Most important of these resolutions are the annual UN General Assembly Arab resolution “Risk of Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East” and the Egyptian General Assembly resolution “Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Region of the Middle East.” In the framework of the IAEA, the list of the most relevant resolutions would include the almost-annual Arab resolution “Israeli Nuclear Capabilities” and the annual Egyptian resolution “Application of IAEA Safeguards in the Middle East.”

5. These forums include the UN General Assembly First Committee, UN Disarmament Commission, IAEA General Conference, and NPT review conferences and preparatory committee meetings.

6. 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Working Paper on Implementation of the Resolution on the Middle East That Was Adopted at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and of the Outcome of the 2000 Review Conference With Regard to the Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East, Submitted by the Lebanese Republic on Behalf of the States Members of the League of Arab States to the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2010/WP.29, April 13, 2010.

7. XVI Ministerial Conference and Commemorative Meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, “Final Document,” NAM 2011/Doc.1/Rev.1, May 2011, para. 158.

8. IAEA General Conference, “Israeli Nuclear Capabilities,” GC(53)/RES/17, September 2009, preambular para. (e).

9. UN General Assembly, “Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Region of the Middle East,” A/RES/65/42, January 11, 2011, operative para. 4.

10. Permanent Mission of Egypt to the United Nations, statement to the UN General Assembly First Committee, October 5, 2010, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/1com/1com10/statements/5Oct_Egypt.pdf.

11. IAEA General Conference, “Modalities of Application of Agency Safeguards in the Middle East,” GC(XXXIII)/887, August 29, 1989.

12. UN Department for Disarmament Affairs, “Effective and Verifiable Measures Which Would Facilitate the Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East,” A/45/435, 1991.

13. Nabil Fahmy and Patricia Lewis, “Possible Elements of a NWFZ Treaty in the Middle East,” Disarmament Forum, Vol. 2 (2011).

14. 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Document,” p. 30 (para. 8).

15. UN General Assembly, “Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Region of the Middle East,” operative para. 7.