WMD no-first-use in the Middle East: A way to move forward in 2012?

At the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, a declaration was approved unanimously to hold a conference in 2012 to discuss the notion of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East. Since this decision, however, it is not clear what, if any, preparations have been taken with regard to organizing the conference, and there remain many more unknowns than knowns about what is expected to take place. There is no indication of which country will take the lead in this process, although this will clearly require determination, dedication, and influence, and organizational and political acumen — not to mention, of course, expertise in arms control issues, as well as in Middle East politics.

A Middle East that is entirely free of weapons of mass destruction is quite obviously a long-term goal. Regional conditions will have to change radically for this to be realized, and anyone who assumes differently is simply not being realistic about the poor quality of inter-state relations in the Middle East. In light of this, it is time for states to start thinking seriously about issues of common interest that they could begin discussing and pursuing in a shorter time frame.

But the question is what common-interest issue could be achieved with small steps, while directly touching upon WMD capabilities? A WMD no-first-use agreement in the Middle East might be the answer.

How to make it work. Over the years, the idea of a no-first-use policy in the nuclear realm has been well-established in conceptual and practical thinking among mainly nuclear states. But the idea of a WMD no-first-use agreement is seemingly new. Because discussion in the Middle East focuses on all WMD, rather than nuclear weapons alone, the idea of no-first-use should follow the same format.

Over the past few years, the nuclear weapons matter has dominated discussions on regional arms control, and two key issues have influenced this trend: current dangers posed by Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the prominence of President Barack Obama’s global nuclear disarmament agenda. However, with the focus of the 2012 conference on all WMD, as mandated in the 2010 NPT Review Conference resolution, singling out the nuclear realm is unwarranted. Indeed, the lack of transparency or non-adherence to international WMD disarmament treaties cuts across many countries in the region.

Possible advantages. Assuming that a WMD no-first-use agreement could be achieved in earnest, and fully implemented, it would have the distinct advantage of lowering WMD-related tensions in the region, and without necessitating a weapon-free zone. It would be an important first step toward gaining more trust among the parties in the region, which is crucial for securing more advanced agreements over time. Further, it would be viewed as a significant achievement, both within and outside the region.

Possible disadvantages. Such an agreement, however, is a mixed bag of benefits and disadvantages for the parties involved. For example, if political tensions are reduced and the probability of armed conflict is diminished, WMD would lose their attractiveness. However, if deep suspicions remain and the fear of surprise attack that might be carried out contrary to obligations persists, a WMD arms race would continue. Moreover, WMD would be granted implicit legitimacy due to their continued role in states’ security conceptions and deterrence value. States that depend on a WMD deterrent for national security might move to bolster their conventional forces. The no-first-use agreement would also have to take into account possible WMD use by non-state actors. It is therefore not a simple step to take, and each state would need to consider and discuss multiple scenarios to find the best approach.

Moving forward. From small steps — a WMD no-first-use zone — to the ultimate goal — a WMD-free Middle East — it is worth considering the approach used by the arms control and regional security working group, which initiated a confidence-building process among states in the Middle East in the 1990s during the Madrid peace process. The guiding principle for those talks was that regional arms control was a long-term process, and that states should begin to cooperate in areas that are security-relevant but that don’t impinge on core security concerns (i.e. their WMD programs). The working group achieved significant progress on confidence and security building measures without addressing the WMD policies of any of the participating states. This allowed states to initiate dialogue — and begin cooperating — without confronting head-on the most difficult security issues.

But only if all states of the region are part of a no-first-use agreement can this even work. Such unanimous involvement remains to be seen for the 2012 conference idea; it is also not clear which countries will be invited to take part in this exercise of regional arms control. Are there states whose non-inclusion is a non-starter for this kind of dialogue? Most likely there are.

These are only some of the issues to be considered when exploring the idea of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. A WMD no-first-use concept, however, is certainly something that states could begin to discuss in the context of a 2012 conference. And if an agreement could be reached — i.e. after the regional states consider that it does not adversely affect their security interests — it would be of great advantage to the region and to the broader international community.

Editor’s note: This Op-Ed is authored by those involved with the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at INSS.

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