With political upheavals in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, this might seem like a bad time to begin talks on a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. And, in fact, some claim that meaningful progress on a treaty cannot be made until order is restored -- under publicly accountable authorities with clear control of military forces and weapons. Others suggest, however, that undertaking multilateral negotiations now would calm fears, provide transparency about nuclear weapons, and encourage a regional peace process that would contribute to stability. So, which should it be? Wait until domestic harmony is restored before tackling a regional treaty on weapons of mass destruction? Or undertake talks to free the Middle East of the world's most dangerous weapons even before internal peace returns to key countries in the region?
At the recent European Union Non-Proliferation Consortium in Brussels, experts and officials from the Middle East and around the world vigorously debated these questions as they considered launching negotiations within the next year on a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone. Of course, the idea for this zone has been around since the 1960s, but it has received renewed attention in the wake of the Arab Spring and as a result of the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference's recommendation. With Iran inching closer to nuclear weapon capability and with the current instability across the region, the arguments took on a particular urgency in Brussels.
To be sure, waiting for internal order to be restored in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere makes sense for at least two reasons. First, to have meaningful representation at multilateral negotiations, such as the one now proposed for Helsinki in 2012, parties to the talks will need to be accepted as the legitimate authorities and representatives of their countries. Without such imprimatur, any negotiated agreements could be disputed later or, worse, ignored altogether. So, if the continuing revolutions and struggles across the Arab world result in new regimes, ones that then overturn any decisions made before their tenure, then all bets are off on compliance with a nuclear weapons-free-zone treaty. Second, government leaders must have control over their weapons and military forces if decisions about nuclear weapons are to be implemented with confidence. Should control of weapons be in dispute, then confusion about who is accountable for carrying out the provisions of any treaty will result in a meaningless agreement.
As valid as these points are, waiting for internal turmoil in the Middle East to be settled before entering negotiations could easily lead to the indefinite postponement of talks about a nuclear weapons-free zone. And addressing nuclear weapons is too important a goal to put on the shelf while civil war, trans-border violence, and cycles of revenge that have troubled the Middle East for decades play out. Not to mention the fact that as these tensions continue, they breed increasing mistrust and hostility, leading to ever larger weapons arsenals and, ultimately, to the desire for nuclear deterrents. In this context, Iran's ambiguity about the military uses of its nuclear energy program, the continued presence of undeclared Israeli nuclear weapons, and the possibility that Egypt's new government and Saudi Arabia's current government may want to acquire nuclear bombs to deter Israel and Iran, respectively, are sufficiently dangerous to propel swift action on a nuclear weapons-free zone -- and prevent a Middle East nuclear arms race in the process.
That's why waiting for civil strife to end may result, paradoxically, in even more interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. As emerging leaders move to consolidate support for their regimes, it is all too likely that they will use nationalist appeals to bring feuding parties into orderly ruling coalitions and bind citizens to the state. Such loyalist sentiment, in turn, can lead to calls for military build-ups to protect a fragile reconstituted order. In the late 1990s, for example, the Bharatiya Janata Party publicly detonated India's first nuclear bomb to bolster national unity and garner increased support for its Hindu nationalist agenda. Pakistan's first nuclear test soon followed as proof of its own capability to deter an attack from India. And, with that, an arms race began in South Asia. Regional talks about reducing the threat from nuclear weapons before ethnocentric rhetoric dominates places like Syria and Libya could interrupt vicious cycles of fear, hostility, and arms build-ups. In other words, starting a regional dialogue early would leaven nationalist tendencies by creating incentives to cooperate in eliminating nuclear weapons. In fact, the Helsinki treaty process may be the only hope for defusing an arms race.
Additionally, UN-sponsored talks will elevate the weapons issues to an international level, which will require support from the nuclear weapons states to be successful. Such support would require the permanent five to refrain from talk of military strikes and to lift sanctions on Iran in order to allow it to participate in the talks. Furthermore, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could even be advanced in negotiations for a nuclear weapon-free zone, where all parties in the region no matter what their status -- mid-revolution states, transitional governments, historical foes, repressive regimes, fledgling democracies -- would be welcome.
Some may object that introducing regional arms negotiations at a time of several national crises will complicate matters beyond the capacities of emerging leaders in the region. But political leaders are accustomed to playing "two-level games," as political scientist Robert Putnam calls them. They know how to use rhetoric in international forums to consolidate domestic support; likewise, they are able to frame domestic issues to rouse citizens for international action. So, while it is true that national leaders' participation in nuclear arms reduction treaty talks will add another level to the chess board that is the Middle East, in this forum officials will be obliged to shift their outlook to the region as a whole. And, in the end, simply joining the UN-led conference may constrain the rhetoric of nationalist outrage as states seek rewards for cooperating to prohibit nuclear weapons in their own backyards.