In November of last year, when efforts to organize a Middle East WMD-Free Zone Conference collapsed, the US State Department chalked up the failure to “present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.” That assessment was frustratingly general but remains basically accurate. Since the statement was issued, conditions in the region have not become more conducive for discussions of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction: The United Nations has launched an investigation into alleged chemical weapons use in an imploding Syria, the Iranian nuclear standoff persists, revolution and political unrest continue to unsettle the region, and dashed Arab-Israeli peace initiatives remain bitter memories.
After more than 300 rounds of discussion with relevant parties inside and outside the region, Jaakko Laajava, the UN-appointed diplomat charged with facilitating the Middle East conference, has so far failed to arrange even a preliminary multilateral consultation to discuss modalities. Arab states are only willing to participate in a preliminary meeting with states that are on board to attend a WMD-Free Zone Conference—and Israel is reserving judgment about participating in the proposed conference until an agenda and procedures are agreed upon.
Unfortunately, the stalemate concerns much more than conference modalities. Israel views arms control as a process that can only begin after political relationships in the region improve; in its view, arms negotiations won’t bring about better relations. As a country that bases its security in part on its regional nuclear monopoly, Israel places discussions of nuclear disarmament at the very bottom of its agenda. Nonproliferation and regional security are its chief concerns. Further, as a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Israel does not feel bound by mandates issuing from the treaty’s review conferences and is wary of engaging in a process that is linked to the NPT. Leading Arab states, as well as Iran, take precisely the opposite view, arguing that Israel’s nuclear disarmament and its accession to the treaty should be first steps on the path toward regional peace and security.
Consequences of failure. The failure to convene a conference in 2012 provoked deep frustration in the region, particularly among Arab League states. In these countries, diplomats are quick to recall that the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 hinged on an agreement to work toward the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.
This frustration is certain to reverberate through the NPT review process. At the recent NPT preparatory meeting in Geneva, Egypt staged a walkout in protest of “unacceptable and continuous failure” to make progress on the issue. The Arab League has demanded that the postponed conference be held in 2013 and has directly linked the success of the 2015 NPT Review Conference with “perceptible success through the initiation of a negotiation process [on a WMD-free zone] within a specific time frame.”
Failure to convene a conference will also register beyond NPT meetings. It will strengthen the position of nonproliferation obstructionists, who will point to the persistence of double standards surrounding the regime and of discrimination within it. It will deepen the rift between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states. It will weaken efforts by the United States and like-minded nations to promote new nonproliferation initiatives. And the Obama administration will have a harder time mobilizing the resources and authority needed to strengthen the safeguards administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency and toughen consequences for those who violate their safeguards commitments—elements of the agenda that the president outlined in Prague four years ago.
But if efforts to convene a conference come to nothing, perhaps the most significant consequence will be the opportunities foregone. Holding a Middle East conference on WMD is far more than symbolic. No region-wide institutions exist in the Middle East today. A cooperative process for discussing regional security is important not because of what it might produce this year or next, but because of the foundation it might provide for regional problem-solving in years to come.
Reviving the process. It is not too late to get the process back on track. Despite their differences, all the region’s states in principle favor the creation of a WMD-free zone. No party has unequivocally ruled out the possibility that a valuable arms control process might still be initiated. All relevant states have engaged in cooperative discussions with Ambassador Laajava.
The conference cosponsors—the United States, Russia, and Great Britain—must offer greater support to Laajava by pushing the parties in the region to hold face-to-face consultations on an agenda and procedures for a conference. The United States in particular must more energetically encourage Israel to commit to participating in a conference in 2013.
The cosponsors must also press the Arab states and Iran to agree to follow-on discussions, convened under a regional umbrella not directly tied to the NPT, covering a broad range of regional security issues. A regional security forum could serve as a coordinating body for ongoing discussions of WMD issues; an umbrella group for discussions of regional security cooperation; a host for information exchanges, technical meetings, and other transparency measures; and a site for the negotiation of confidence-building measures.
Even if all these steps were implemented, prospects for success in establishing a WMD-free zone would remain highly uncertain. But the stakes are too high to allow the effort to fail. Creativity, courage, flexibility, and goodwill—all of which are abundant among the people of the Middle East—are especially needed now for policy making on this issue.