A Middle Eastern WMD-Free Zone: Are We Any Closer Now?

September 2020
By Tomisha Bino

The goal of establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East has received new life after 22 nations met in New York in November 2019 for the first formal session of a long-awaited conference process that will hold annual meetings. The session’s outcome was considered positive by most observers, with reactions ranging from calling it a success to some being pleasantly surprised that it went much better than expected.

Sima Bahous, Jordan's ambassador to the United Nations, presided over the November 2019 meeting on establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. (Photo: Manuel Elias/UN)A closer examination of those assessments reveals that the bar for approval was not very high. Nearly all states in the region participated in the conference, 21 members of the Arab League and Iran; significantly, Israel chose to stay away. The discussion included general and thematic debates that allowed states to express their positions on core issues related to the zone, and the conference concluded by issuing a short political declaration. This is what success looks like for a process that has barely seen any progress since its inception in 1974. To sustain and grow the meeting’s momentum, the regional states that have committed to create a successful process to establish a WMD-free zone in the Middle East must agree first on the scope of such a treaty and securing the participation of all regional states.

Several Milestones, Little Progress

The pursuit of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East dates back decades and has moved slowly, with a variety of states creating periodic initiatives to revitalize the process. The first major milestone took place in 1974, when the UN General Assembly approved a resolution titled “Establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region of the Middle East.”1 That resolution was proposed by Iran and Egypt, and the assembly has since adopted it without a vote from 1980 to 2018.

Little happened in the initial years, until the 1991 Madrid peace conference created the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) Working Group to complement bilateral discussions between Israel and its immediate neighbors. The working group met from 1992 to 1996, and it aimed to foster regional security by discussing conceptual and operational confidence-building and arms control measures applicable to the Middle East. Yet, due to continuing disagreements over the purpose of the process and the focus of the discussions, the dialogue collapsed in 1995 and ultimately was suspended the next year.

The next significant milestone occurred at the 1995 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review and Extension Conference, where NPT states-parties adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of an “effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and their delivery systems.”2 The resolution was co-sponsored by Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States.

In 2010 the NPT review conference also adopted a consensus action plan containing a number of practical steps meant to create “a process leading to the full implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East,” which included the convening of a conference in 2012 “on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the states of the region, and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon states.” In addition, the action plan included the appointment of a facilitator and host government for the conference, with the co-sponsors of the 1995 resolution acting as co-conveners. In November 2012, due to divergent views about the conference agenda and desired outcomes, the conference was postponed with no new date being fixed. Following the postponement, the appointed facilitator, Jaakko Laajava of Finland, convened five informal consultations in Switzerland with all regional states and the co-conveners to discuss the conference modalities, agenda, and other relevant elements. Yet, the previous points of divergence could not be bridged.

Six years later, in December 2018, the General Assembly adopted a new decision, based on an Arab Group draft resolution, to entrust the UN secretary-general to convene a conference, beginning in 2019 and annually thereafter, “until the conference concludes the elaboration of a legally binding treaty establishing a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.”3 In explaining its reasons behind putting forth the draft decision, Egypt, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, described the move as “long overdue” and a way to break the stalemate on the implementation of 1974 resolution and the 1995 resolution.4

The Arab Group’s frustration with the lack of progress on the zone had been mounting, especially after the postponement of the 2012 conference. The Arab Group was particularly dismayed by the United States blaming the group for the failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference to reach a final consensus document5 and by U.S. officials asserting in 2018 that the next NPT review conference would be “ill-suited” for discussing the zone and “cannot be the primary mechanism for progress on a Middle East WMD-free zone.”6 These reasons could be seen as some key motivators behind the Arab Group’s decision to find a new route to cement the position of the Middle Eastern zone in international forums.

As empowered by the 2018 resolution on the zone, the secretary-general made plans for the November 2019 conference and invited all states in the region, the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Implementation Support Unit.

Israel and the United States announced they would not participate. Israel explained its decision by saying that the conference was yet another initiative aimed at singling out Israel and imposing a process on it that Israel was not involved or consulted in creating.7 The United States argued that the meeting was an Arab Group effort to dictate terms on and single out Israel, as well as an attempt to weaponize multilateral diplomacy.8

Without these key players, the five-day conference agenda began on November 18, 2019, and included official statements by all the participants followed by a thematic debate. Several sessions were devoted to negotiating the rules of procedure for the conference, where Egypt, in order to prevent any single country from holding the conference process hostage, took the position that only substantive decisions would be made by consensus, with procedural matters being put to a vote. For its part, Iran feared finding itself in an automatic minority among the 22 Arab participating states and insisted that all decisions should be made by consensus.

The participants failed to agree on the matter, leading conference president Sima Bahous of Jordan to issue a statement that “pending the final agreement on the text of the rules of procedure of the conference, consensus will be the only method of decision-making on procedural and substantive issues, except for rulings by the president on procedural motions related to points of order, and suspension or adjournment of meetings.”9 Although the rules of procedure will continue to be negotiated in future sessions, the conference was able to issue a political declaration and two decisions.

The political declaration reaffirmed the participating states’ commitment to pursue “a legally binding treaty to establish a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by consensus by the States of the region” and extended an “open-ended invitation to all states of the region…to join the process.”10 The first decision determined that the presidency of the conference would follow the English alphabetic order: Kuwait would assume the presidency for the next conference from Jordan.11 The second decision determined the timing of future conferences, which will be held annually in the third week of November.12

Fault Lines Revealed

A common feature of the WMD-free zone debate has been the seemingly consistent and common Arab position, spearheaded by Egypt or the Arab League. The November conference for the first time gave each Arab state the opportunity to present its positions on, concerns about, and expectations from the process. It also gave Iran the opportunity to engage with the process and elaborate on its position, which has changed very little since it co-sponsored the 1974 resolution, as Iran was not included in the ACRS Working Group and was present in only one of six informal consultations in the 2010s. Iran’s participation has already created a more transparent and credible process, highlighting diverse threat perceptions and positions among the Arab Group and moving away from the “Israel versus the rest” dichotomy.

The first session of the November conference showed two primary fault lines in the positions of the participating states: the scope of the resulting treaty and the impact of the continued absence of Israel from the negotiations on the prospects of establishing a treaty.

Scope of the WMD-Free Zone

The 1995 resolution defines the scope as a “zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.” The General Assembly decision that created the November conference process does not make an explicit reference to delivery systems, although it does take as its terms of reference the 1995 resolution, which does so. Indeed, some statements by the participating states seemed to challenge the 1995 definition of scope, with some suggesting a narrower scope for prohibitions and others hinting at the inclusion of new ones.

In its opening statement, Iran insisted that “the scope of the treaty…should merely cover nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.”13 The United Arab Emirates adopted a more open-ended approach, saying that the obligations required under a future treaty should include but not be limited to “renouncing the development of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction…and related activities.”14

Danny Danon, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations speaks to the Security Council on Nov. 20, 2019. A meeting to discuss establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East was held the same week, but Israel did not participate. (Evan Schneider/UN)Adding to the debate over which weapons would be prohibited in the zone is uncertainty over how these prohibitions would be implemented, including questions on how resulting obligations will be verified. Can verification be conducted by the existing three global nonproliferation and disarmament treaties, namely the NPT, Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and BWC? Will these need to be supplemented by additional, regional measures or by creating a unique regional regime?

Significantly, not all Middle Eastern states are members of these three existing regimes. Israel is the only state in the region that is not party to the NPT. Egypt has not signed the CWC, and Israel has signed but not ratified it. Israel has also not signed the BWC, while Egypt has signed but not ratified it. How a WMD-free zone treaty will address these discrepancies in treaty membership is not clear.

Iran and Syria demanded that Israel’s accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state should be the first step toward realizing a zone, and Iraq further demanded that Israel join the CWC and BWC.15 The UAE, on the other hand, said it expected that all states of the region would “join and reiterate their commitments to international treaties and conventions” related to the WMD-free zone.16

In subsequent days, it became clear that inclusion of delivery systems in the scope of the future treaty is a sticking point. During the general debate, Egypt put forth an interpretation of the scope, saying that once nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons were eliminated, then the question of delivery systems resolves itself due to the absence of the payload. No state pushed to resolve this issue during the first session. Given this was the first conference, states shared their positions on the matter, leaving how to address them for future meetings.

Ballistic missile and WMD considerations are linked in the Middle East, and several states in the region have pursued ballistic missile and WMD capabilities to respond to asymmetries in conventional weapons capability and to deter attacks from the outside.17 Therefore, it is almost certain that the issue of delivery systems generally and ballistic missiles in particular will remain contentious. Eleven Middle Eastern countries possess ballistic missiles, and some of them consider these as a main pillar of their defense and deterrence strategy.18 Including delivery systems in the treaty’s scope might decrease the security of some of these states, creating a disincentive for these states to join the zone. For example, following the heavy Iraqi missile attacks on Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988, Iran saw it as crucial for it develop its own ballistic missile capabilities.19 Today, Iran possess the largest and most diverse arsenal in the region, while Israel’s is the most sophisticated.

Some of the statements from the first session of the November conference also reflect diverse positions about the security of regional states. Some noted concerns that go beyond the WMD threat, such as rising regional tensions and the threat of terrorism and the need for a regional security framework to address all issues that were raised.

Addressing Israel’s Absence

Israel’s absence from the negotiations and the unlikelihood that it will join the 2020 session of the conference present challenges to the sustainability of the process. If Israel continues to boycott the conference, it will be difficult for the conference to remain a credible process and might run the risk of losing the buy-in of some of the participating states.

Participating states made clear their commitment to the inclusivity of the process and even kept a seat open behind a nameplate that read “Israel” throughout the conference. From Israel’s point of view, however, its exclusion started with its exclusion from consultations on the resolution that created the November conference process. Israel therefore opposes the entire process.

To address the possible adverse effects of Israel’s continued absence in future sessions, Egypt pointed out that other treaties have been negotiated and have entered into force without all the states that would subsequently sign and ratify the treaty being present from the outset.20 Most notably, this happened with the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which created a nuclear weapons-free zone in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This argument, however, was not accepted by all participating states. In its statement, Algeria said that “the full participation, in good faith, by all the states in the Middle East, without exception in this negotiation is a key condition to ensure the credibility of the treaty.”21 The Iranian view was that the U.S. and Israeli nonparticipation in the conference “is a major hurdle in its success. Practically, any possible treaty on the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East will be meaningless and ineffective in the absence of an entity” possessing all WMD types.22

Given the close coordination among the Arab states on this issue through the Arab League Senior Officials Committee, especially in the lead-up to the first session of the November conference, there are arguably still differences among the Arab League states on the approach to the negotiation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Israel has already ruled out participating in the November conference process. In a response to the 2018 Arab Group draft resolution on convening the zone conference through the UN General Assembly, Israel voted against it. The move broke the consensus on this resolution, which had stood since 1980. Explaining its vote, Israel said that “by imposing a new unilateral and destructive resolution entitled ‘Convening a Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction,’ the Arab group has altered the status quo” and that “from now on Israel will not cooperate with regional arms control initiatives.”23

Israel has always argued that a WMD-free zone in the Middle East must emanate from the region, should be based on arrangements freely concluded, and involve direct, regional talks on arms control and regional security. Such a zone, Israel says, cannot be mandated by states outside the region at organizations such as the NPT review conference or the UN General Assembly. From Israel’s viewpoint, the November conference process does not satisfy either of these conditions.

What About the NPT?

Following the 2018 decision to create the November conference process, a key question emerged: What will this mean for the 2020 NPT Review Conference, which has now been postponed to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic? In most review conferences, the Middle East issue has been contentious and has been blamed or used as a scapegoat, depending on the narrator, for the failure to reach consensus on a final document. When the November conference process was established, many hoped that it would relieve the pressure on the NPT review conference. Whether this will be the case is not quite clear yet. In fact, the Arabs suggested that precisely because they were accused of preventing a final document in the 2015 NPT Review and Extension Conference, they turned to the UN General Assembly.

Frustrated by the lack of progress on creation of the zone, the Arab Group has always turned to international forums to seek progress. These forums include the UN General Assembly, the NPT review conferences, and the IAEA general conferences. An indication this approach may persist can be found in a September 2019 Arab League Ministerial Council resolution, which “reasserts the need to continue working toward holding the [November] conference and working in parallel in other relevant international forums to establish the zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.”24 As for how the Arab states view the link between the November conference and the NPT review conference, it is important to remember that the Arab Group regards the 1995 resolution as an achievement in internationalizing the process. Although generally satisfied by the 2019 November conference, the Arab Group will not want to lose the leverage it acquired in other international forums. The final declaration of the Arab League consultative meeting prior to the 2019 November conference “requested the UN secretary-general to submit a report to the next NPT review conference on the results of the first conference on the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East and to reaffirm the responsibility of the NPT depositary states and the regional states of ensuring the success of the free zone conference and establishing the zone.”25

The November conference is a space dedicated to negotiating a treaty for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, but the zone will likely feature prominently at NPT review conferences, albeit to a lesser extent. The November conference does not take the zone issue out of the NPT, but it could ease some of the pressure the zone issue usually creates at the review conference. The dynamic between both forums possibly could be like that between the zone in the NPT and the IAEA General Conference agenda item on Israeli nuclear capabilities: if the issue struggles in one forum, the Arab Group can increase the pressure in another. The participation of the nuclear-weapon states in the November conference, especially the NPT depositary states, could also have a positive effect on the NPT review conferences by giving the former legitimacy and signaling support.

The 2020 NPT Review Conference’s postponement to 2021 means that it will probably take place after the November conference process has convened two meetings, in 2019 and 2020. In addition, a three-day virtual workshop on good practices and lessons learned of existing nuclear-weapon-free zones was organized in July 2020 by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and in consultation with the president of the first session. If the second session can maintain or even build on the good faith atmosphere of the first, then this could further ease pressure on the postponed NPT review conference. It can be expected, however, that the Arab Group will demand that the final document take note of the process and its so-called success.

The Road Ahead

Momentum for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, particularly demonstrated by the interest of the states that participated in the first session of the November conference and the informal workshop, is promising, and Middle Eastern states have shown that they are committed to engaging substantively with the issue.

The November conference participants should heed some of the lessons learned from previous milestones in the history of the zone, where some progress seemed possible, such as with the ACRS and the informal consultations in Switzerland. In both instances, progress was possible because they were conducted through direct, regional dialogue and there were at least attempts, albeit ultimately unsuccessful in the case of the informal consultations in Glion and Geneva, to have a broader agenda that included arms control and regional security matters.

The Arab Group can be expected to continue its support for the November conference process. It sees the conference as an important achievement and one toward which it has worked for a long time. The 2018 UN General Assembly resolution ensured that the process pushed forward in part by closing previous loopholes, such as the one that allowed postponing indefinitely the 2012 conference that was mandated by the 2010 NPT Review Conference action plan.

If success in the November conference is ever to mean progress toward realizing a zone treaty in which all regional members would be members, the process will have to take into account the threat perceptions of all regional states by creating a process that addresses their concerns and interests. If a parallel process were to be established, possibly even taking place in the region, to cover concrete regional security concerns, this could create an incentive for Israel to participate in a process on regional security that includes the creation of a WMD-free zone, demonstrating that there is a desire to address shared security challenges and this new process is not designed merely to single out Israel. That being said, convincing Israel that such a parallel process was initiated in good faith will be difficult.

The current international and regional security and disarmament climate is not the most opportune for a new process on the Middle East, but the November conference process creates a space for the states of the region to lay some groundwork for a future WMD-free zone until the right combination of timing and personalities can help facilitate its realization.


1. UN General Assembly, “Request for the Inclusion of an Item in the Provisional Agenda of the Twenty-Ninth Session: Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Region of the Middle East,” A/9693/Add.2, August 22, 1974.

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

3. UN General Assembly, “Convening a Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction,” 73/546, n.d. (decision of December 22, 2018).

4. UN General Assembly, “Thematic Discussion on Specific Subjects and Introduction and Consideration of Draft Resolutions and Decisions Submitted Under All Disarmament and International Security Agenda Items,” A/C.1/73/PV.12, October 19, 2018, pp. 13-14 (Hassan remarks).

5. Rose Gottemoeller, “Remarks at the Conclusion of the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference,” May 22, 2015, https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/us/2015/242778.htm.

6. Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Establishing Regional Conditions Conducive to a Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Delivery Systems: Working Paper Submitted by the United States of America,” NPT/CONF.2020/PC.11/WP.33, April 19, 2018.

7. UN General Assembly, “Explanation of Vote by Mr. Ofer Moreno, Director, Arms Control Department, Division for Strategic Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel.”

8. Christopher Ashley Ford, “Whither a Middle East WMD-Free Zone?” (remarks, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, August 2, 2019), https://www.nonproliferation.org/assistant-secretary-ford-on-efforts-toward-a-middle-east-wmd-free-zone/.

9. UN General Assembly, “Report of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Work of Its First Session,” A/CONF.236/6, November 28, 2019.

10. Ibid., annex (“Political Declaration Adopted at the First Session of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction”).

11. UN General Assembly, “Presidency of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction,” A/CONF.236/DEC.4, November 22, 2019.

12. UN General Assembly, “Dates of the Annual Sessions of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction,” A/CONF.236/DEC.3, November 22, 2019.

13. Majid Takht Ravanchi, Statement before the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, November 18, 2019, http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/23557431/iran.pdf (hereinafter Ravanchi statement).

14. Hamad Alkaabi, “Statement by the United Arab Emirates,” November 18, 2019, http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/23557439/uae.pdf.

15. Ibid.; Bashar Jaafari, Statement before the First Session Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, November 19, 2019, http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/23557434/syrian.pdf (in Arabic); Mohammed Hussein Bahr Aluloom, Statement before the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, n.d., http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/23557428/egypt-oda.pdf (in Arabic).

16. Alkaabi, “Statement by the United Arab Emirates.”

17. Mohamed Kadry Said, “Missile Proliferation in the Middle East: A Regional Perspective,” Disarmament Forum, No. 2 (2001), https://www.peacepalacelibrary.nl/ebooks/files/UNIDIR_pdf-art75.pdf.

18. The states are Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

19. Nasser Hadian and Shani Hormozi, “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, Discussion Paper no. 2013-09, November 2013, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/dp_2013-09.pdf.

20. “Statement by the Delegation of the Arab Republic of Egypt at the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction,” n.d., http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/23329566/egypt-final.pdf.

21. “Statement by H.E. Ambassador and Permanent Representative Mr. Sofiane Mimouni,” November 18, 2019, http://statements.unmeetings.org/media2/23557436/algeria.pdf (in Arabic).

22. Ravanchi statement.

23. UN General Assembly, “Explanation of Vote by Mr. Ofer Moreno.”

24. League of Arab States Ministerial Council, “Establishing the Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East,” Resolution 8419, September 2019, http://www.lasportal.org/ar/councils/lascouncil/Documents/%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA%20152.pdf (in Arabic).

25. League of Arab States, “Closing Statement of the Consultative Meeting of the League’s Ministerial Council,” September 23, 2019, http://www.lasportal.org/ar/councils/lascouncil/Documents/%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%86%20%D9%86%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%8A%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8317%2010.pdf (in Arabic).

Tomisha Bino is a program analyst with the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone project at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research.