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In the Middle East, Get Rid of Chemical Weapons First
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Dina Esfandiary

No substantive progress has been made toward the creation of a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The only way to change this is by adopting an incremental approach to the zone: phasing weapons out by category, beginning with chemical weapons.[1]

Although some leaders and analysts oppose the idea of breaking up the task by weapons categories, the regional landscape at the moment makes this the best approach to a complete WMD-free zone in the Middle East. To build the necessary trust, parties will need to select an issue that is significant enough to be meaningful to all parties, yet provides a realistic goal. Until a few months ago, beginning with any category of weapon seemed difficult. Now, however, the Russia-brokered deal on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and Damascus’ subsequent accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), as well as the interim deal on the Iranian nuclear program, have provided a window of opportunity to revisit the idea.

The Middle East has been home to some of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons and has felt the impact of their use. Following the use of chemical arms in Syria, there is a groundswell of support in the region and the rest of the world for the elimination of this category of weapons. This presents two opportunities: first, to eliminate chemical weapons in the region and, second, to build on this to work toward a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone.

The Stalled Process

The goal of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East was first proposed by Egypt in 1990 as a modification of the nuclear-weapon-free-zone resolution that Egypt and Iran had promoted at the UN General Assembly. Although the new proposal outlined a zone free of all nonconventional weapons, the emphasis continued to be on nuclear weapons, and a resolution encouraging steps toward a WMD-free zone was adopted by consensus in the context of the 1995 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review and Extension Conference.[2] Frustrated by lack of progress toward establishing the zone, the 2010 NPT Review Conference adopted an action plan that set a date for a conference on the zone in 2012 and called for the appointment of a facilitator.[3]

The year 2012 came and went with no sign of a conference. Although the facilitator, Finnish Undersecretary of State Jaakko Laajava, worked tirelessly to try to put the pieces in place for a conference, the United States announced in November of that year that the conference could not be convened as scheduled.[4] In their statements at that time, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Russia insisted that the conference be held in the first half of 2013, but the United States did not specify when or, indeed, whether it would take place at all.

While parties bickered over blame for the postponement, zone proponents despaired over the lack of a clear timeline to get the process on track. The process was put on hold while the conveners (Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, working with the UN secretary-general) and regional states debated the arrangements for holding preparatory consultations. Finally, last October 21-22, Laajava was able to convene a meeting in Glion, Switzerland. That meeting brought together the conveners and states in the region, including Iran and Israel, to discuss preparations for a conference, but did not lead to any breakthroughs other than scheduling future meetings. A senior Western government official highlighted what he called “minor progress” in the second Glion meeting November 25-26, saying, “For the first time in many years, Israelis and Arabs sat together and discussed security issues.”[5] Iran chose not to attend the meeting despite having said the previous year it would join a Helsinki conference.

Prior to these meetings, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy outlined an initiative on the Middle Eastern WMD-free zone at the UN General Assembly. The Egyptian initiative calls on all countries in the Middle East and the five permanent members of the Security Council to file letters to officially endorse the zone, to ratify WMD treaties that have not yet been ratified in the region[6] by the end of 2013, and to convene the 2012 conference by the end of 2013 or, “at the latest,” the spring of 2014.[7] In mid-November, the Arab League met to coordinate its position in preparation for upcoming talks on the WMD-free zone and the Helsinki conference. Member states reportedly endorsed Fahmy’s initiative unanimously. No further progress has been made.

Regional Challenges

In its November 2012 statement on the postponement, Washington said the conference could not be held because of “present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.”[8] In short, Israel had no interest in attending a gathering where it would be the center of criticism, and other regional states showed no interest in agreeing to the logistics and an agenda that would allay Israel’s concerns and give it reason to attend. In the words of William Potter, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, “[E]verybody’s out of sync.… [I]t’s as if nobody really wants this to happen.”[9]

Given the rivalry, hostility, suspicion, and religious and sectarian tensions in the region, it is difficult to be optimistic about establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. The advent of the Arab Spring only emphasized these problems. The unanticipated changes in the region resulted in more inward-looking governments, diverting attention away from goals such as the zone. This is on top of the long-standing lack of trust among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Arabs, Israel, and Iran. The goal of establishing a WMD-free zone in the region is almost a fantasy.

Although Arab advocates believe the zone would be a confidence-building measure leading to regional peace, Israel believes it must be the culmination of a process that addresses regional tensions and conflicts. In March 2012, Israel said that it would “be willing to attend something like [the planned 2012 conference] when there is comprehensive peace in the region. Before that, we feel that this is something that is absolutely not relevant.”[10]

Israel is also unwilling to take part in the process of creating a WMD-free zone as long as Arab states continue to single it out as the only nuclear-weapon state in the region and demand unilateral disarmament. Yet, the 1995 resolution on the Middle East effectively did just that. Although it called for the establishment of a WMD-free zone, it also urged “all States of the Middle East that have not yet done so, without exception, to accede to the [NPT] as soon as possible” and to place their nuclear facilities under full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.[11] This clearly targeted Israel. The 2010 NPT Review Conference went one step further and named Israel in its final document without mentioning Iran’s safeguards violations and refusal to abide by UN Security Council mandates.[12] It is not surprising that Israel insists its security concerns be addressed in negotiations on a zone.

For Arab states and Iran, the main reason to pursue a WMD-free zone is to curtail or eliminate Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal. At the same time, this is also why progress has been impossible.

Israel insists that the Helsinki conference not be held within the context of an NPT process in which it, as an NPT nonsignatory, did not participate. Arab states do not want to take the zone out of the NPT framework in part because of the timelines provided by the 2010 NPT Review Conference final document but largely because of the focus on the Israeli nuclear program. This has not worked in breaking the long-standing deadlock. Israel will not agree, at the initial stage, to sacrifice its most prized strategic asset. The only plausible way to address Arab and Iranian concerns over Israel’s nuclear program is to begin by eliminating chemical weapons from the region today, with a view to expanding the ban to other nonconventional weapons in the future.

Iran also is skeptical of the current process. Although it was a co-sponsor of the 1974 resolution calling for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, Tehran was unconvinced about extending the zone to cover all nonconventional weapons. The “comprehensive approach” would complicate the process and make the end goal more “elusive,” a former Iranian official said in 2012.[13]

Instead, Iran chose to focus on the nuclear track. That approach focuses the discussion on Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons capability, making it a pointed statement about Israel’s role in the region, but making diplomatic progress more difficult than under any other approach. In addition, expanding the scope of the WMD-free zone to cover delivery systems capable of carrying nonconventional weapons poses a problem for Iran.[14] Tehran is unlikely to give up some or all of its prized missile arsenal, which is considered too important for Iran’s defense posture.[15] Despite expressing a willingness to attend a conference on a WMD-free zone, Iran clearly has doubts as to its feasibility. As a victim of chemical weapons use during the Iran-Iraq war, however, Iran would find it politically awkward to stand in the way of a regional ban on chemical weapons.

Despite their enthusiasm for the zone, the Persian Gulf Arab states do not have the political will or influence to lead the process.[16] The six GCC countries are split by their different threat perceptions and security priorities. Their lack of personnel to devote to the process adds to their unwillingness to take a leading role after their failed attempt in 2005 to form a subregional WMD-free zone, which aimed to address the Iranian nuclear program.

Today, establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone as a whole clearly aims too high. The only feasible way to overcome the current deadlock in negotiations is through an incremental approach. Although this in itself was unlikely until a few months ago, Syria’s accession to the CWC and the recent interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program have made such an approach possible.

Road Map to a Regional Ban

Chemical weapons are devices that, according to the CWC, contain “toxic chemicals and their precursors” that cause “death or other harm.”[17] They are relatively inexpensive to produce, have significant psychological and physical effects, and are weapons of fear and disruption. Some political leaders see them as “equalizer” weapons—appealing in a region of asymmetrical military capabilities.

The Middle East has a history of chemical weapons development and is second only to Europe as a theater for their use. Egypt employed them in the 1963-1967 North Yemen civil war, and Iraq infamously used them between 1980 and 1991 against Iran and its own people. Libya did not use chemical weapons, but developed an extensive stockpile. Iraq’s program was dismantled in the 1990s, and it became party to the CWC in February 2009. Libya declared its stockpiles in 2004 and similarly joined the CWC, but by 2011, when internal violence erupted, only half of its stockpiles of mustard gas and 40 percent of its chemical precursors had been destroyed.[18] Iran has been accused of having a chemical weapons program.[19]

The Syrian case is most relevant today. As of the fall of 2013, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had the fourth-largest chemical weapons program in the world and the largest in the Middle East: 1,300 metric tons of chemical warfare agents, including different types of mustard agent and key chemical components of nerve agents such as sarin and VX, spread throughout 23 different locations.[20]

In August, video footage of an attack that occurred in the rebel-friendly area of Ghouta in eastern Damascus showed Syrian victims poisoned by asphyxiation with no apparent external wounds. A few weeks later, the United Nations confirmed that chemical weapons had been used.[21] As concerned countries pondered a response, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Assad could avoid planned U.S. military strikes only by promptly giving up his chemical weapons arsenal. This sparked an ambitious proposal from the Russians to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons capability. Although Russia and the United States had been discussing ways to address the chemical weapons threat for a while, the proposal came at the right time for U.S. President Barack Obama, who was looking to minimize U.S. military involvement in Syria. A week later, Russia and the United States agreed on the plan and its framework. After the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Executive Council and the UN Security Council endorsed the plan, the process of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons began.

The crisis in Syria highlighted the devastating impact of chemical weapons use, the difficulty in securing these weapons, and the necessity of chemical weapons disarmament. Nevertheless, in early September, convincing Assad to join the CWC still seemed unlikely. Chemical weapons were a prized military asset for Assad and a means of pursuing strategic parity with Israel, with more than 30 years of investment into their development. The Russian-U.S. deal overcame this problem by forcing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. After agreeing to adhere to it a month earlier when the U.S.-Russian plan was concluded, Syria on October 14 became the 190th state-party to the CWC.

On December 10, while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü pointed to Syria’s disarmament and called for remaining holdouts to join the convention: “There has long been no reasonable defense for not doing so—all the more now in the wake of the robust international reaction to recent use of chemical weapons.… It’s my fervent hope that this award will spur on efforts to make the Chemical Weapons Convention a truly universal norm.”

Today, Egypt and Israel are the only two states in the region not bound by the CWC. Although Israel signed the CWC in 1993, it never ratified it. The Israeli government discussed it more than once,[22] but it deferred ratification because key Arab states had not signed the treaty.

The destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal removes one of Israel’s main concerns. Last September, Israeli President Shimon Peres stated that Israel should now consider joining the CWC; other Israeli officials and analysts agreed, insisting that chemical weapons were not essential to Israeli national security. Nevertheless, the Israeli cabinet opted to maintain its ambiguous stance.[23] Past Israeli assertions that it cannot ratify the treaty because other states in the region do not recognize its existence are a poor excuse. The only country in the region that currently remains outside the treaty is Egypt, which recognizes Israel.[24]

Egypt insists that it cannot accept any more nonproliferation obligations until Israel joins the NPT. In the 1990s, following the drafting of the CWC, Egypt promoted an Arab boycott of the CWC and Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), but today it is alone in its refusal to accede to them. This makes Egypt look petulant and isolated. The failure of the linkage policy is clear, but as the founder of the movement, it is difficult for Egypt to ignore it. Following Syria’s accession, Israeli ratification could provide Egypt with an opportunity and a convenient moment to adjust its stance and overcome the unappealing prospect of being the only nonsignatory in the region, with even Assad’s Syria having signed the treaty. Along with the reputational consideration, it is in Egypt’s interest to join the CWC because pursuing the zone incrementally rather than all at once maximizes the prospects for eventually achieving a WMD-free zone. That would also mean maximizing the pressure on Israel to join such a zone.

The removal of the Syrian chemical weapons threat, coupled with a debate and willingness in sectors of the Israeli government to ratify the CWC, makes this a plausible way forward. Negotiations for the next steps in the process should be conducted behind the scenes. To build trust, it would be preferable that Israeli officials’ discussions over their country’s ratification of the CWC were conducted with the Arab states, including Egypt, and Iran. That step, however, is not strictly necessary; Israeli accession could be a unilateral measure. Once Israel signals its willingness to ratify the CWC, the region and the designated conveners of the conference on the WMD-free zone (Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) can begin negotiations with Egypt over its accession to the treaty.

Israel’s signature would give Egypt political cover to accede to the CWC while claiming at least a partial victory for its linkage policy because Israel would have eliminated one category of nonconventional weapons and joined the CWC, if not the NPT. It would also leave Cairo as the only government in the region not party to the CWC—an uninviting prospect, especially after one of the region’s most brutal dictators has joined. The horrific images from the recent use of chemical weapons by Syria have brought these weapons to the forefront of the international agenda, making their destruction an easy sell to a domestic audience.

An all-or-nothing approach by Arab states and Iran toward Israeli disarmament has not worked and, as Israel grows more wary of its security because of its unpredictable environment, is highly unlikely to work in the future. Potentially, the most effective way to change Israel’s security calculation over its nuclear arsenal is to begin building trust in the region and tackling a more achievable weapons category in order to get the process started. It would be a significant first step toward a potential zone free of all nonconventional weapons, including nuclear weapons.

Negotiations for a zone free of chemical weapons should be conducted in parallel with discussions over phasing out other nonconventional, particularly nuclear, weapons. This would reassure states that a chemical weapons-free zone in the Middle East is not the end goal, but a first step toward a regional WMD-free zone.

Although the plan for destruction of Syrian chemical weapons has removed a major cause for concern in the region and has put regional recognition of the CWC back on the table, the interim deal on the Iranian nuclear program, signed on November 24, was also a significant regional diplomatic and nonproliferation victory. The agreement, which suspends key elements of Iran’s nuclear program, has helped to generate a wave of optimism and confidence for nonproliferation negotiations in the region. If successful, the final deal could remove another cause of regional tensions, paving the way for further discussions and steps towards a region free of chemical weapons and eventually free of all nonconventional weapons.


The goal of establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East is not new. It has been discussed for more than 30 years, but little progress has been made. It is clear that tackling the zone as a whole, aiming to ban all nonconventional weapons simultaneously and addressing all regional security concerns, is idealistic. The best way to build trust and start the process is to phase out weapons incrementally. In a region that has been plagued by the use of chemical weapons, banning them is the only goal that is significant enough, yet achievable enough to serve as a catalyst for a broader WMD-free zone.

Until recently, turning the idea of a WMD-free zone into functional policy was unimaginable. Yet, the recent Syrian chemical weapons deal has removed one of the major impediments to full regional acceptance of the CWC. It is vital to make the most of the slim chances of establishing a WMD-free zone by capitalizing on the momentum generated by the deals on the Iranian nuclear program and Syrian chemical weapons.

Dina Esfandiary is a research associate in the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Her research focuses on nonproliferation and security in the Middle East.


1. For an earlier articulation of this idea, see Dina Esfandiary, “Building Confidence Towards a MEWMDFZ via a Chemical Weapons Ban,” EU Non-Proliferation Consortium, November 2012, http://www.nonproliferation.eu/documents/backgroundpapers/esfandiary.pdf. See also Eitan Barak, “Getting the Middle East Holdouts to Join the CWC,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 66, No. 1 (January 1, 2010).

2. 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference), “Final Document,” NPT/CONF.1995/32 (Part I), 1995, annex (“Resolution on the Middle East”).

3. 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (2010 NPT Review Conference), “Final Document,” NPT/CONF.2010/50 (Vol. I)*, p. 29.

4. Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “2012 Conference on a Middle East Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction (MEWMDFZ),” 2012/1840, November 23, 2012 (hereinafter U.S. postponement statement).

5. Senior Western government official, briefing with author, December 16, 2013.

6. For the status of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) treaties in the Middle East, see David Santoro, “Status of Non-Proliferation Treaties, Agreements, and Other Related Instruments in the Middle East,” EU Non-Proliferation Consortium, July 2011, http://www.nonproliferation.eu/documents/backgroundpapers/santoro.pdf. Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in October 2013.

7. Nabil Fahmy, address to the 68th session of the UN General Assembly, September 28, 2013, http://gadebate.un.org/sites/default/files/gastatements/68/EG_en.pdf.

8. U.S. postponement statement.

9. Elaine M. Grossman, “Arab States Renew Call for WMD Talks, but May Drop Boycott Threat,” Global Security Newswire, April 16, 2013, http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/arab-states-renew-call-wmd-talks-may-drop-boycott-threat/.

10. “Peace Crucial to Nuke-Free Middle East, Says UN Ambassador,” The Times of Israel, March 31, 2012.

11. 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, “Final Document,” annex (“Resolution on the Middle East”).

12. 2010 NPT Review Conference, “Final Document,” p. 29.

13. Nasser Saghafi-Ameri, “A Nuclear Free Zone in the Middle East: An Iranian Perspective,” Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, June 12, 2012, http://en.merc.ir/View/tabid/98/ArticleId/432/A-Nuclear-Free-Zone-in-the-Middle-East-An-Iranian-Perspective.aspx.

14. Discussions include proposals to ban ballistic missiles with ranges greater than 150 kilometers. UN Security Council Resolution 687 required the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, including all ballistic missile with a range exceeding 150 kilometers, and considered this as a “step towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery.”

15. Nasser Hadian and Shani Hormozi, “A WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East: Iran’s Security Imperatives,” in A WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East: Regional Perspectives, ed. Paolo Foradori and Martin B Malin (November 2013), pp. 16-17, http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/dp_2013-09.pdf .

16. For more on Persian Gulf state views on the zone, see Dina Esfandiary, Elham Fakhro, and Becca Wasser, “Obstacles for the Gulf States,” Arms Control Today, September 2011.

17. Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction,” 1993, art. 1, http://www.opcw.org/index.php?eID=dam_frontend_push&docID=6357.

18. Destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons resumed in March 2013, and the planned completion date was extended to December 2016.

19. See International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “Iran’s Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Capabilities,” February 2011, pp. 96-108.

20. For more on Syria’s WMD programs, see Michael Elleman, Dina Esfandiary, and Emile Hokayem, “Syria’s Proliferation Challenge and the European Union’s Response,” EU Non-Proliferation Consortium Non-Proliferation Papers, No. 20 (July 2012), http://www.nonproliferation.eu/documents/nonproliferationpapers/michaelellemandinaesfandiaryemilehokayem5033c66600360.pdf. On the size of the Syrian arsenal, see OPCW Executive Council, “Note by the Director-General: Progress in the Elimination of the Syrian Chemical Weapons Programme,” EC-M-34/DG.1, October 25, 2013, http://www.opcw.org/index.php?eID=dam_frontend_push&docID=16847.

21. UN Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic, “Report on the Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in the Ghouta Area of Damascus on 21 August 2013,” September 13, 2013, http://www.un.org/disarmament/content/slideshow/Secretary_General_Report_of_CW_Investigation.pdf.

22. Aluf Benn, “Israel Readies to Join Regional WMD Clean-up After Libyan, Iranian Moves,” Haaretz, January 2, 2004.

23. Barak Ravid, “Israel Opts to Stay Vague on Chemical Arms in Wake of Syria Disarmament,” Haaretz, October 31, 2013.

24. Mark Fitzpatrick, “High Time for Israel to Adhere to the Chemical Weapons Convention,” IISS Survival Editors’ Blog, September 30, 2013, http://www.iiss.org/en/politics%20and%20strategy/blogsections/2013-98d0/september-2013-62a6/high-time-8110.

Posted: January 9, 2014