By Tomisha Bino
Regarded by Arab states as an integral part of the package that led to the indefinite extension of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995, the “Resolution on the Middle East,” which calls for the establishment of a regional zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), has become one of the more contentious issues discussed at NPT review conferences. At times referring to the resolution as the NPT’s “fourth pillar,” Arab states continue demanding its implementation and sometimes condition their support for a review conference final document on making progress on the zone issue.
They also emphasize the responsibility of the NPT depositary states (Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to ensure implementation of the resolution, which they co-sponsored. The zone issue is often seen as making or breaking consensus on the final document and will be a critical focus when the 10th NPT Review Conference is held in August in New York.1
Exasperated by the lack of progress on the zone’s creation, Arab states initiated through the UN General Assembly a conference process, which has held two sessions aimed at producing “a legally binding treaty establishing a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.”
Despite the unclear fate of the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; heightened global nuclear tensions; and Israel’s continued noninvolvement, Middle Eastern states have been able to hold substantive discussions on several key aspects of the zone treaty. At this stage, the negotiations have addressed the general structure of a treaty, agreed on a decision-making mechanism, and identified topics to be addressed in future sessions. Throughout the second session, it was clear that regional states were keen to develop a joint strategy to address the zone during the upcoming review conference.
A Long Legacy
At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, the NPT depositary states were determined to secure the treaty’s indefinite extension without a vote. This offered an opportunity for Arab states, especially Egypt, to move forward their proposal for a WMD-free zone by conditioning their agreement to the indefinite NPT extension on the inclusion of a resolution on the zone. The United States and Egypt negotiated the resolution as part of the extension package deal, which “calls upon all states of the Middle East that have not yet done so, without exception, to accede to the treaty as soon as possible.”
Arab states insisted that the zone resolution include a specific reference to Israel, which has never joined the NPT and is believed to possess nuclear weapons. The United States, however, could not accept that demand, especially when other Middle Eastern states also had not joined the NPT. The eventual compromise removed the reference to Israel and “call[ed] upon all States in the Middle East to take practical steps in appropriate forums aimed at making progress towards…the establishment of an effectively verifiable” WMD-free zone.2
In advance of the review conference in 2000, Arab states aimed to strengthen the 1995 resolution. They won support for inviting the UN secretary-general to prepare papers on implementing the outcomes of the 1995 review conference, including the Resolution on the Middle East, and to submit them to the 2000 review conference.3
The background paper on the issue of the Middle East prepared by the UN Secretariat for the 2000 review conference noted that following the accession of Djibouti, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates to the NPT, all Middle Eastern states except Israel are states-parties to the treaty.4 This language was later adopted as part of the review conference final document, which Arab states viewed as a great success given that publicly identifying Israel as an NPT outlier was a long-standing goal. In return, the United States insisted that an acknowledgment of Iraq’s noncompliance with its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement also be included in the final document.5
The 2005 review conference was troubled even before it began as its preparatory committee disagreed over procedural and substantive matters. Several agreements reached during the 2000 review conference were questioned retroactively, including whether those outcomes were relevant.6 As a result, the 2005 review conference started without an agreed agenda or work program.
Although the issue of the Middle East played a minor role in the failed outcome of this conference, there were a few noteworthy developments. All chair summaries from the 2002, 2003, and 2004 preparatory committees reaffirmed the importance and validity of the Resolution on the Middle East from 1995 and called for the establishment of a mechanism within the NPT review process to promote the resolution’s implementation.7 The 2003 chair’s summary even referred to the “road map” developed by the Middle East Quartet that was working on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and noted that “a view was expressed that the road map could be an important step in the direction of the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction.”
Responding to the road map reference, Egypt stated that “the creation of such zones should not be linked to political developments in the regions concerned.”8 Syria also objected, saying that “compliance with the NPT should not be conditional on any other measures and, in particular, that the creation of nuclear-weapon-free zones should not be tied to other issues.”9 At the 2005 review conference and within the subsidiary body focusing on regional issues, including the implementation of the 1995 Middle Eastern resolution, Egypt and Iran refused to allow any nonconsensus documents to be forwarded to the drafting committee, leaving it very little with which to work to produce the final document.10 Most of the 2005 review conference was consumed by organizational matters, leaving too little time to bridge divergent positions and produce a consensus document.
The 2010 review conference produced the most progress on the WMD-free zone, but it was not easy. Alison Kelly, who headed the Irish delegation and chaired the negotiations on the Middle Eastern zone, conducted marathon consultations with key stakeholders to achieve a consensus report. It contained a number of practical steps, including the decision to convene a conference in 2012 on the establishment of a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone, as well as the appointment of a host government and facilitator to this end.
Once the consensus final document was adopted, however, the United States expressed reservations about the paragraph that reaffirmed the “importance of Israel’s accession to the [NPT] and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.” It said the reference to Israel jeopardized the U.S. ability to help create the conditions needed for a successful Middle Eastern conference.
With the postponement of the 2012 Middle Eastern conference and the failure of all subsequent attempts to revive it, Arab states entered the 2015 NPT Review Conference determined to reaffirm the commitments made in 2010 and to adopt a concrete plan to implement them. The Arab Group pushed to have the UN secretary-general convene a WMD-free zone conference within six months after the review conference. A Russian working paper wanted the conference no later than March 1, 2016, nine months after the review conference.
Canada, the UK, and the United States rejected the language on the Middle Eastern zone in the draft prepared by the review conference president, Taous Feroukhi of Algeria, which reflected the Russian proposal. They said the zone conference needed to be held on the basis of arrangements freely agreed by states in the region. In closing remarks, the United States described the Arab states, especially Egypt, as “not willing to let go of these unrealistic and unworkable conditions included in the draft text.”
Since then, some experts have pointed to the WMD-free zone issue as “one of the main reasons behind the failure to produce a consensus final document” at the 2015 review conference.11 Others have cautioned that this argument is “at best misleading and, in some of its guises, disingenuous.”12 Yet, the former view has become the commonly held belief, to the chagrin of the Arab states.
A New Approach
Amid growing frustration, the Arab Group in 2018 tabled a proposal at the UN General Assembly First Committee on convening a conference on establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone. The group acted a few months after the United States submitted a working paper to the 2018 NPT preparatory committee arguing that the NPT review cycles were not an appropriate forum for the zone issue.
Washington defined its role as a co-sponsor of the 1995 resolution as “supporting the regional states in undertaking practical steps and facilitating direct regional dialogue to establish conditions conducive to a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems.” Whether this was a factor in the Arab states’ decision to take the issue to the General Assembly is unclear. A League of Arab States resolution from March 2018, a month before the 2018 preparatory committee meeting, suggests the league already had decided to take action through the General Assembly on the 1995 resolution.13
The General Assembly adopted the Arab draft decision by a vote of 103–3 with 71 abstentions (Israel, Micronesia, and the United States were against). The UN secretary-general was asked to convene an annual, week-long conference at UN headquarters on producing a legally binding treaty establishing the zone. Israel called the decision “another platform to single out Israel,” while the United States described it as a “divisive, short-sighted approach” and one that “will cause profound damage to international efforts to advance” the Middle Eastern WMD-free zone.
Since then, the zone conference has held two sessions that yielded positive preliminary results and momentum. The first session took place November 18–22, 2019, with the participation of 21 Arab states and Iran. China, France, Russia, and the UK attended as observers. Having voted against convening the conference, Israel and the United States stayed away. Although debating procedural rules consumed much of the time, the conference issued two decisions on the presidency and the annual dates of future sessions. It also agreed on a political declaration that reaffirmed the commitment of participating states to the zone conference and urged those states that had not participated to do so in the next session.14
The second session, held November 29–December 3, 2021, also was attended by most members of the League of Arab States and Iran. As in the first session, Israel and the United States were absent. The meeting built on the first session’s momentum by overcoming some past disagreements, notably by establishing the conference rules of procedure and creating a mechanism for organizing intersessional work.
Kuwait, which served as president of the second session, followed the example of Jordan, which presided over the first session, in conducting extensive preconference consultations to shape the outcome of the meeting.
Significantly, the Kuwaiti presidency forged an agreement on procedural rules that specify that all conference decisions, whether on procedural or substantive matters, must be made by consensus. Another rule, on decision-making, states that the final text of a treaty on the zone can be adopted formally only if all conference members are present and vote in favor of the draft. Given that rule 2 defines “members of the conference” as all 22 Arab states, Iran, and Israel, Israel would have to reverse its opposition and join the process if the conference is to adopt a treaty text.
This language may be intended to give concrete form to the stated commitment of participating conference members to an inclusive process. It is unlikely, however, that Arab states will be able to change Israel’s decision not to participate by making overtures that solely address the conduct of the conference when Israel disagrees fundamentally with the conference’s approach and mandate.
The August Review Conference
Arab states see the upcoming NPT review conference as a crucial point for them to gain support or, at the least, acknowledgement for the process they have been building since 2018. It also will present an opportunity to gauge the Biden administration’s position on the zone conference, which will be revealed by whatever language prevails in the review conference final document. Although Israel and the United States broke consensus on the Middle Eastern zone resolution in the UN General Assembly in 2018 to 2020, the Biden administration changed that vote to an abstention in 2021. Whether this change reflects a change in position on the zone conference also might be revealed at the upcoming review conference.
An overview of the statements delivered during the general debate of the zone conference second session shed light on expectations for the NPT review conference. Most states highlighted the responsibility of the three NPT depositary states, as the co-sponsors of the 1995 resolution, to ensure implementation of that resolution and connected that to support for the zone conference. The statements were clearly aimed at the United States, the only one among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council that has not attended the first or the second sessions of the zone conference.
With the NPT review conference originally planned for roughly a month away from the second session of the zone conference, several states spoke about the link between the zone conference and the 1995 Middle East resolution.15 They stressed that one does not replace the other and that the zone conference represents an opportunity at long last to implement the 1995 resolution. These statements did not include specifics, however, about how the issue might feature at the NPT review conference.
The Egyptian statement held that the success of the zone conference second session would result in a positive outcome at the review conference, without explaining what that meant in practice. Qatar and Lebanon had more concrete suggestions, with the former suggesting that the zone conference submit a report to the review conference and the latter calling on the review conference to “express its strong support to the process launched by this [zone] conference…as an essential mechanism for the implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East.” Jordan’s statement called on the participating zone conference members to formulate a unified position ahead of the review conference.
Perhaps the clearest indicator of the result that Arab states would want to achieve at the review conference can be found in the Arab Group working paper submitted to the 2019 NPT preparatory committee. It recommended that the review conference “welcome and provide support” to the new zone conference process and urge Israel to participate in it. In making this recommendation, Arab states might have hoped for an outcome similar to that in 2000 and 2010, when recommendations in their working papers were reflected, at least partially, in the final documents. The outcome of the upcoming review conference is more likely to look like that from 2005, when changes in the global context and tensions between nuclear-weapon states impeded the conference.16
In looking at the history of nonproliferation and disarmament advances in the region and with the zone treaty, it is clear that many positive developments, such as the convening of the arms control and regional security working group following the 1991 Madrid peace conference, the dismantlement of Syria’s declared chemical weapons program, and the conclusion of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, occurred when there was a conducive global environment and cooperation between major powers, especially Russia and the United States.17
Despite initial optimism that the Biden administration’s approach to nuclear diplomacy could positively impact the NPT, current global challenges and tensions, most acutely due to the war on Ukraine, could pose an insurmountable challenge for a constructive review conference.18 In such a climate, in contrast to previous review conferences, it is unlikely that the Middle East will be the issue that has the biggest impact on the review conference as some may fear.
1. Chen Zak Kane, “Pathways Forward for the ME WMDFZ Process and 2002 NPT Review Conference,” UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 2020, p. 8, https://unidir.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/ME%20WMDFZ%20Feb%20Conference%20Report%20-%20final_0.pdf; Michal Onderco and Leopoldo Nuti, eds., “Extending the NPT? A Critical Oral History of the 1995 Review and Extension Conference,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2020, p. 149, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/extending-npt-critical-oral-history-1995-review-and-extension-conference.
3. 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Final Report of the Preparatory Committee for the 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2000/1*, May 21, 1999, para. 26–27.
4. 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Implementation of the Resolution on the Middle East Adopted by the 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons: Background Paper Prepared by the United Nations Secretariat,” NPT/CONF.2000/7, April 10, 2000, para. 15.
5. Rebecca Johnson, “The 2000 NPT Review Conference: A Delicate, Hard-Won Compromise,” Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 46 (May 2000), http://www.acronym.org.uk/old/archive/46npt.htm.
7. The summary from the preparatory committee in 2004 was not issued. For a draft, see Rebecca Johnson, “Report on the 2004 NPT PrepCom,” Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 77 (May/June 2004), http://www.acronym.org.uk/old/archive/dd/dd77/77npt.htm.
8. Preparatory Committee for the 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Summary Record of the 19th Meeting,” NPT/CONF.2005/PC.II/SR.19, June 30, 2003, para. 26–27.
11. Nir Hassid, “Thinking Outside the Box: Preserving the NPT While Advancing the Middle East Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction-Free Zone,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 24, Nos. 1–2 (October 2017): 155–166; Naeem Salik, “NPT Review Conference 2015 in Perspective,” CISS Insight Journal, Vol. 3, Nos. 1–2 (July 2015).
12. See Tomisha Bino, “The Pursuit of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East: A New Approach,” Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, July 2017, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2017-07-27-WMDFZME.pdf. https://www.chathamhouse.org/2017/07/pursuit-wmd-free-zone-middle-east.
13. League of Arab States Ministerial Council resolution 8251, March 7, 2018, https://unidir.org/sites/default/files/2020-07/2018-03-07_EN_LAS%20Ministerial%20Council%20adopts%20SOC%20action%20plan%20for%20the%20implementation%20of%201995%20Resolution%20on%20the%20Middle%20East.pdf.
15. When the second session was held November 29–December 3, 2021, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference was planned for early January 2022. It was later postponed until April, and then August, 2022.
18. Rebecca D. Gibbons, “Nuclear Diplomacy in the Biden Administration,” European Leadership Network, January 2021, https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/commentary/nuclear-diplomacy-in-the-biden-administration/.