A third way toward a WMD-free Middle East

By Marc Finaud | December 18, 2013

The postponement of the planned 2012 Middle East Conference in Helsinki caused much frustration not only in the Middle East, but throughout the world. Indeed, the launch of a process aimed at ridding this volatile, conflict-ridden, strategic region of all weapons of mass destruction was seen as a great opportunity for advancing peace and security. Intensive discussions and consultations have been held since then in multiple official frameworks and many informal or “Track-II” forums. As has been clear for some time, there are two radically different approaches to the goal of a Middle East that is freed from weapons of mass destruction, or WMD.

The first, consistently and logically pursued by Arab countries and Iran, points the finger at Israel, saying, “The only country in the region not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) should accede to it as a non-nuclear state, and all the rest will fall into place.” In other words, let Israel admit and give up its nuclear capability and become party to the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the other regional non-parties will follow suit, and peace and security will prevail. The second approach, promoted by Israel and to a certain extent by the United States, places priority on creating a peaceful situation based on mutual recognition and direct negotiations. When enough confidence is established, this approach then envisions, there is a possibility for the prohibition of WMD from the region.

Are these two options reconcilable, or is a third option possible? One thing is sure: Like any other country, Israel will not make a significant shift in its strategy unless dramatic changes occur in its security environment and threat perceptions. Public debate on the nuclear issue is limited in Israel, and no Israeli government could modify the present policy unless the modification is widely supported by Israeli society, even under strong US pressure that is highly unlikely to be brought. Of course, as the recent historic decision of Syria to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention has shown, the Middle East is not exempt from strategic surprises. But that decision was the result of specific circumstances and Russian pressures on Syria as part of an agreement between Moscow and Washington. Such a development is unlikely in the case of the Israeli WMD, at least in the short term.

In light of the Israeli position, should the international community resign itself to wait for a stable and peaceful Middle East to emerge—God knows when—from a regional peace agreement or a series of bilateral agreements, before trying to address WMD? Of course not. The region and its peoples have already suffered too long and too much from reliance on resort to force—military or terrorist—to settle conflicts. It is true that no progress toward disarmament in the region can be expected as long as some states occupy other peoples’ territories, and other states deny the right of others to exist within secure boundaries, or base their foreign policy on racist or anti-Semitic doctrines. But even states such as Israel and Iran, which do not have diplomatic relations, already take part in negotiations in multilateral and Track-II forums. Iran and the US also now have direct channels of communication and are discussing bilateral and regional issues such as the Iranian nuclear programme.

So why shouldn’t the international community try to move toward direct discussions in the framework of a Helsinki Conference aimed at an eventual agreement on weapons of mass destruction that would necessarily imply mutual recognition between Israel on the one hand, and Iran and the Arab countries on the other? After all, this is what Israel has been seeking for a long time.

An incremental approach. No external actor can force Israel to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, but the international community and the region could create the conditions needed for such a development to occur. For this to happen, an incremental approach probably is warranted. In this approach, there is no ideal sequence, and some steps can be unilateral, negotiated, or coordinated by external mediators.

These steps could include discussion and peer-review of national security doctrines and military holdings in confidential, Track-II meetings that include independent experts and nongovernmental organizations that can help dispel misperceptions and create transparency in a rather opaque strategic environment. These meetings could include discussion and possible adoption of confidence- and security-building measures on the basis of the ones provisionally agreed within the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) talks. In the ACRS talks held between 1992 and 1995, for example, participants agreed on measures that included search-and-rescue and incidents-at-sea exercises, pre-notification of military exercises, military information exchanges, a regional communications network, and the creation of three regional security centers. Such measures could be complemented by non-first use declarations and special crisis-prevention and communication mechanisms, including hotlines, that would help avoid disproportionate reactions to events. 

These kinds of discussions could also explore simultaneous or coordinated accession of relevant states to multilateral arms control and disarmament agreements on conventional, chemical, and biological weapons, as well as ballistic missiles. States already party to these agreements could demonstrate to others the benefits of membership, explaining why their security has not been diminished but was enhanced by membership. Those involved in this Track-II approach could also negotiate a verification framework for monitoring the nuclear activities of countries in the region, perhaps drawing on the model of the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL), to enter into force once Israel agrees to join a WMD-free-zone treaty or the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. Indeed, the experience of other regions that have adopted nuclear-weapon-free zones could be precious to the Middle East. International organizations such as the IAEA and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Commission could also play a useful role in providing technical assistance and training to the countries of the Middle East.

International  help, local solutions. Of course, any number of related developments within and outside the region would have a considerable impact on progress towards a WMD-free Middle East. One such development would be a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that prevents any diversion of nuclear material or technology to military purposes, involves ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol, and is complemented by a multinational management of the nuclear fuel cycle (i.e., a fuel bank) as well as mutually agreed restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities. Dramatic efforts by the international community, in particular the permanent members of the UN Security Council, to mediate peace agreements in the region, beginning with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Syrian civil war, would obviously stabilize the region and facilitate discussion on its future security framework. And substantial progress on nuclear disarmament by the other nuclear-armed states, starting with the United States and Russia, would also improve prospects for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

Those prospects would improve even further if the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty were to enter into force after the eight nuclear technology holding countries who have yet to do so sign or ratify it, or if the Conference on Disarmament agreed to negotiate a treaty prohibiting the production of fissile material for weapons purposes.

Of course, this incremental, multi-track approach would be more complex and ambitious than merely demanding that Israel join the NPT. Pursuing it will certainly require effort, political courage, time, resources, and involvement of actors external to the Middle East. But it stands better chances of success than the repetition of old positions that have led nowhere. Only a win-win solution offering each state of the region undiminished security at lower levels of armaments is likely to attract consensus. External actors can help, but the ultimate choices belong to the peoples of the region and their leaders.

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