ACA New Voices Fellow Presents at International Network of Emerging Nuclear Specialists Conference

Middle East Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction: Time for Practical Steps

Prepared Remarks by Alfred Nurja, New Voices Nonproliferation Fellow, Arms Control Association
At the International Network of Emerging Nuclear Specialists Conference:
“The 2011 North America Nuclear Policy Dialogue”
March 27, 2010

When I was selected to present a few thoughts on the 2012 Conference on the WMDFZ in the Middle East and international efforts to shape a constructive outcome from that conference, I was asked to focus on generating new insights on how to answer some of the tough questions on the matter.

I believe you will all agree with me that my presentation, by default, meets the second criteria. The question of a WMDFZ in the Middle East, an objective of the international community since the late 70s, is a very tough issue indeed as both the lack of progress and the persistence of the issue in the international agenda can attest.

Before I attempt to address the question of the 2012 conference and what a constructive outcome would look like, a quick sum-up of the issue may be appropriate.

The UN General Assembly first endorsed the concept of a NWFZ in 1974. In 1980, Israel first accepted the idea and a resolution to that effect has been passed annually by the GA without a vote.

NWFZ are, of course, well-known nonproliferation mechanisms. There are currently five in existence - with four of them covering the entire southern hemisphere. They help fence off entire regions from nuclear weapons. They also reinforce the non-proliferation regime’s normative value and provide a vehicle for securing legally binding negative security assurances from the nuclear weapons states.

In 1990, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak expanded upon the concept by proposing the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone (WMDFZ). Such a proposal was intended to respond to Israel’s concern over the biological and chemical threat in the region. It would also formally link Arab accession to CWC and BWC to Israel’s accession to the NPT.

This proposal was officially endorsed by the 1995 NPT Review Conference Middle East resolution, which “called on states in the region to take practical steps in appropriate forums aimed at making progress towards, the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems, and to refrain from taking any measures that preclude the achievement of this objective.” Consensus on that resolution, it is worth remembering, is seen by many as instrumental to securing consensus on the indefinite extension of the NPT.

Following some intense discussions at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, state parties to the treaty were able to endorse for the first time practical steps toward implementing the 1995 Middle East Resolution. It is important to recall that the 2010 final document “emphasizes the importance of a process leading to full implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East.”

At the 2010 meeting, the United States, Russia and Great Britain, committed to work together with the UN Secretary General to convene a regional conference in 2012, appoint a facilitator and identify a host country for the conference. The conference will take as its terms of reference the 1995 Middle East resolution.

Developments since May 2010

The United States and the UK announced late last year that consultations to identify a facilitator as well as a host country for the conference had already begun. Speaking at a London conference on the topic, Ambassador Burks also said that there is broad agreement on the qualifications the facilitator must meet, including some put forth by Egypt.[1]

Arms Control Today reported (in the March 2011 issue) that selection of a facilitator and host country may be achieved before summer. According to the same report, Israel has also said that it is examining the question of the conference and consulting with the United States, a marked departure from its earlier statement that it would take no part in the implementation of the steps agreed upon at the 2010 NPT Rev/Conf.

The European Union had also agreed to host a seminar, a follow-up on the one organized in Paris in 2008, to discuss steps that would facilitate work on establishing the zone ahead of the 2012 Conference. According to the same sources, that seminar may now take place this summer.

Regional perspective

The particular challenge of establishing a WMDFZ in the Middle East is driven home by the fact that, unlike other regions of the world where such zones have already been created, nuclear weapons as well as other WMD are already an established reality in the region.

Open source reports indicate at least four Middle Eastern countries may already have chemical weapons capabilities. Out of these four, three may also have biological weapons capabilities. Up to eight countries in the region possess missile capabilities of ranges relevant to the WMDFZ. Further, Israel is widely recognized as already possessing a sophisticated nuclear arsenal and is the only country in the region not to have signed and ratified the NPT.

Despite formal endorsement by all countries in the region for a WMDFZ, deep divisions on what that entails have precluded any concrete steps forward. These positions also reflect differing perceptions of the role of arms control and disarmament mechanisms and how they affect state relations.

Arab and Iranian policy has been motivated by the overriding objective to get Israel to join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state and accept full-scope safeguards.

Likewise, Arab governments and Iran tied agreement to the indefinite extension of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1995, with endorsement of practical steps toward the creation of a WMDFZ in the region.

To date, Arab states also have generally rejected any linkage between the question of establishing peaceful relations with Israel and the NWFZ.

Israel, on the other side, insists that any WMDFZ agreement can come only as a consequence of [not a precursor to] a comprehensive and durable peace in the region. Israel also stipulates that any future agreement must also address the question of conventional forces asymmetry existing in the region.

In addition to this [often referred to as] “the chicken and the egg” question, Israel’s position on the need for “stringent mutual verification mechanisms” point to an equally challenging problem of ensuring compliance with international obligations in the Middle East.

Identifying a constructive outcome for the conference

With this background in mind, the challenge of discussing a WMDFZ in the Middle East does not lie necessarily in developing new thinking on the subject but rather with recognizing what shifts are now affecting the region, the impact they have on the non-proliferation regime, and various states’ perceptions of their security interests.

As a 1975 UN study on nuclear weapons free zones put it, “the premise upon which [a] nuclear weapon free zone must be based will be the conviction of states that their vital security interests would be enhanced and not jeopardized by participation.” This principle should, I believe, also serve as a departure point for international efforts to move forward towards a WMDFZ in the Middle East.

In considering this question, I would posit at least three key developments impacting the region today and present my reasons for how such events could provide an impetus for overcoming the long-standing positions of some key parties and forging a path forward:

1. Iran’s nuclear program. Since the revelation in 2002 of Iran’s ambitious nuclear program, this issue has preoccupied the attention of the region and risen to the top of international concerns. Iran continues to defy UN Security Council resolutions and refuses to provide the IAEA with the access it needs to verify the nature of its nuclear program. To date, it has produced more than 3,700 kg of 3.5 % LEU as well over to 40 kg of 20 % enriched uranium.

Iran still has not clarified what the IAEA has identified as  “outstanding issues that give rise to concerns about a potential military dimension to its nuclear program.” While continuing to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material from Iran’s safeguarded nuclear facilities, the IAEA can not verify the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

Even though Iran is several years away from mastering longer-range missile capabilities, the progress of its missile program adds to concerns within the region and the wider international community over Iran’s nuclear program. Despite the mounting impact of international sanctions on the program and the Iranian economy, there is still little sign that Iran is seriously engaging in efforts to find a negotiated solution to the issue.

2. Proliferation of interest in nuclear power production programs. I will not dwell much on this subject, since it was discussed in more detail yesterday, other than to note again that since the mid-2000’s the region is experiencing a marked increase in nuclear power generation with about a dozen other countries who have already signed agreements or expressed interest in building new nuclear power reactors.

(Japan’s on-going nuclear crises will undoubtedly affect thinking in the Middle East about nuclear power but it is not clear to what extent.)

While no country in the region has yet indicated an intention to pursue sensitive fuel cycle technologies, there is little enthusiasm for limitations, such as those the UAE has accepted on its programs.

(Again, the subject was discussed yesterday in greater detail and I would only note that very few countries in the region have accepted an Additional Protocol—to date the AP is applied only in Kuwait, Libya, Iraq, and Jordan.)

Correlation does not equal causation, but the recent uptick in interest in nuclear energy cannot be explained by energy needs and global warming concerns alone. Security and public perception interests [in view of Iran’s nuclear program] also provide equal explenatory power for such policy decisions, especially when considering the economic cost and negative feasibility studies that many such projects in the region have.

While fears of the region reaching a nuclear tipping point are, in my view, perhaps overstated, these two developments do point to the fact that the longstanding nuclear status quo in the region may not be tenable and that, unless mitigating steps are taken, the region may be headed towards a more unstable nuclear future.

3. Since the beginning of this year, the region has been undergoing some unprecedented developments. It is indeed near impossible to predict what the repercussions will be and what possible impact it will have on the Middle East’s nonproliferation agenda. I would want to point out a few clues however, that may already be visible.

From a WMD security perspective, as the Libyan example attests, developments in the region raise concerns about the security of WMD-related materials and dual use technology. As the current wave of unrest continues, these concerns will only increase.

Second, in the welcomed event that such developments lead to more representative forms of government, the impact of behavioral norms and domestic politics on a state’s decision making process will introduce a new element that requires close attention.

What is clear to date is that the explanatory power of older security models will need to take into account the potential impact that these changes might have on the policies of various Arab states. The more representative forms of government will most likely also lead to an increased role for public opinion both in shaping government policies as well as the political rhetoric in key Arab states. [As to how this may affect future nuclear projects in the region remains to be seen. The popular support that the nuclear program enjoys in Iran can perhaps, however, provide a few clues.]

A third insight that these developments drive home (I think belatedly for a number of former leaders in the region) is the value of getting ahead and taking anticipatory measures.

In view of regional developments, this lesson could also be equally applied to our subject of discussion. The 2012 conference presents the international community and certain countries in the region with an opportunity, an important venue for locking each of the players into a regional process at a highly critical time. It is important that out of this process a dynamic of forward movement can develop.

Practical Steps Forward

Now turning our attention to what would constitute criteria for a constructive conference.

The United States has emphasized that “the conference … would have to be a discussion aimed at an exchange of views on a broad agenda, including regional security issues, verification and compliance, and all categories of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems.”

To ensure forward movement, however, the conference must go further than that. In the words of a senior British official “we must be prepared to manage expectations over what the conference will achieve…But similarly, we must not set the bar so low that we leave the NPT Review Conference again paralyzed by this issue."

Proceeding from this basic understanding, we could then look at some steps that key states in the region could consider taking—at or in connection to the conference—that come at no cost to their security and which could lay the ground for progress toward a WMDFZ. The list below is neither exclusive nor exhaustive. It’s merely meant to illustrate issues where the parties could identify some commonalities.

“No First Use” Agreement

  • Pledges to actively consider negotiations of a WMD “no first use” zone in the Middle East. Whether initially embodied in the form of declaratory statements or taking the form of a legal treaty, the establishment of a no first use zone as a precursor to a WMDFZ could be a measure that provides security benefits as well as an important step in the direction of a WMDFZ.

    In this context, Israel’s longstanding affirmation that “it would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East” could take legal value without directly requiring an overhaul of its longstanding policy of opacity. Whether this is possible again requires further thought.

    Reinforcing the longstanding customary norms that already prohibit the use of chemical or biological weapons in a region where chemical weapons have been used at least twice already could also mark a reciprocating measure in this respect.


    • Regional commitment to signing and/or ratifying the CTBT by a certain deadline. In a recent meeting on this subject, ACA Executive Director Daryl Kimball set 2015, the year of the next NPT review conference, as the target deadline for completing this process. Without resorting to nuclear weapons testing, states in the region would have trouble validating the warhead designs they need for ballistic missile delivery, a development that could contribute to reducing tension.

    Multilateral Nuclear Fuel Supply / Nuclear Enrichment-Free Zone? FMCT

    • Other topics that could be discussed include multilateral nuclear fuel supply arrangements; perhaps even consideration of an enrichment- and processing-free region.

    • In this regard, Israel’s agreement to place its already aged Dimona nuclear facility under voluntary safeguards offer could provide an important incentive for engaging in these discussions.

    WMD Security

    • Increasing cooperation in the field of WMD security could also provide a useful starting platform for improving trust among the parties. Sharing best practices on securing vulnerable WMD-related materials and dual use technology and preventing them from falling into the hands of terrorist and non-state groups could be a non-contentious item in the 2012 conference agenda.

    Practical steps for each of the three key parties:

    To be possible however, such steps would also call for specific action from key parties.

    Arab League States: Egypt, as well as other Arab League states could greatly improve the chances of a constructive outcome from the conference by giving credible indications of a constructive approach. Recognizing the link that exists between peaceful relations and the WMDFZ would provide a step in that direction.

    Israel: From Israel’s perspective, the conference provides an opportunity to not only gain tacit recognition as a state party to the region but also voice Israel’s position that the problems associated with the creation of a WMD-free zone are not just nuclear and that arms control discussions can contribute to an effective reduction of tensions in the region.

    Little noticed is Israel’s statement in the context of the now defunct ACRS talks “that it would be ready to begin negotiations on the WMDFZ two years from the signing of peace agreements with all countries in the region [including Iran].” Reconsidering this policy position with the view of introducing greater flexibility to it could be another such important step.

    Potential Spoilers:

    I will only mention in passing two issues that could act as potential spoilers for progress at the conference, namely the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the question of Iran’s nuclear program.

    I would be in no way qualified to discuss the first topic but I would only point to the fact that we can all recognize that the chances of a constructive 2012 conference are directly linked to the issue of progress in the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian authority. Negative developments in this regard would also raise immediate questions for the viability of the conference.

    Meanwhile, the question of Iran’s participation at the 2012 conference under current circumstances raises significant challenges for reaching any agreement. I would only point out three points:

    First, the place for addressing concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program remains the P5+1.

    From the Israeli and Arab perspective, the conference could also provide an opportunity to drive home Iran’s regional isolation. Perhaps recent developments may have contributed to Arab willingness to voice officially the views they really have on the subject that are now already known publicly.

    The conference could also provide an opportunity for taking Iran up on their past proposals to play a role in hosting a multilateral fuel supply project in the region.

    While I recognize that there are many questions that require addressing when considering each and any of these measures, the scheduled summer seminar to be hosted by the European Union could provide the venue for examining some of these points as well as identifying other green light arms control measures that each of the key parties in the region could consider.


    I wanted to close with the words of former British Defense Secretary Des Browne, who speaking about this subject last year, said, “the long term options for the Middle East may not include the nuclear status quo… For Israel and other states of the region[,] the long term choice may be between living in an unstable nuclear neighborhood or taking part in [a] serious attempt to build a nuclear free region.”

    Concerns over the health of the nonproliferation regime in the Middle East cannot be separated from the issue of making progress towards the establishment of a WMDFZ in the region.

    Toward that end, agreement on a number of practical steps and the launching of a credible regional process—where issues related to the state of the nonproliferation regime, Israel’s legitimate security interests and its nuclear program are addressed—could mark the criteria for a successful conference.

    [1] According to criteria put forth last year by the Egyptian Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz, the facilitator could not come from a P-5 country; it would obviously have to have good relations with all the states in the region and that individual would need to be at a ministerial level.