A region in flux, a regime at risk

By Ayman Khalil, July 15, 2013

No clear consensus has emerged in this Roundtable on a very basic point: whether the effort to establish a zone without weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East has collapsed—or has merely been suspended. I would be interested in hearing my colleagues’ views on this question. I, for one, would argue that the Helsinki process is gradually slipping into a coma, as evidenced by lack of consensus among the conference conveners and failure by the Finnish facilitator and his team to achieve any tangible progress.

As to how the process might be revived, my colleagues have proposed a number of measures, and many of them seem sound. Here I would like to add three ideas specifically to build confidence and increase transparency in the region.

First, nations in the Middle East could establish a regional cooperation scheme that would enable multilateral inspections of the region’s nuclear facilities. Second, countries could engage in cooperative monitoring activities, including exchanges of data and of environmental samples from the peripheries of nuclear facilities. Third, a collaborative regional network could be established for detecting airborne radionuclides. These steps alone would not create the conditions necessary for establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East—but they could make a valuable contribution by enhancing trust in the region.

In everyone’s interest. Ehud Eiran in his Round One essay wrote that, from a realist point of view, efforts to hold the Helsinki conference in 2012 failed because "holding a conference was not aligned with the interests of … Israel and Iran." But if that were the case, Iran would not have committed to participating in the Helsinki conference, as it did on November 6 of last year. That point aside, I differ with Eiran insofar as I believe that the Helsinki initiative is aligned with the interests of every state in the region, including Israel, and that it offers every state the best opportunity to preserve its interests for future generations. The initiative provides an ideal framework for resolving the stand-off over Iran’s nuclear program, and many believe that Israel’s participation in the zone could open avenues toward finally resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Ultimately, establishing a WMD-free zone is the only way to achieve stability in the Middle East on the basis of equity, not military superiority.

Eiran also wrote in Round One that the seeming failure of the WMD-free zone initiative carries negative but not disastrous consequences for the nonproliferation regime. I believe that Eiran underestimates the consequences: Success or failure of the review conferences for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is strongly tied to conditions in the Middle East. In fact, many judged the 2010 Review Conference successful because it produced a consensus that concrete steps should be taken toward eliminating WMD from the region. Prospects for the next conference do not appear very bright.

Egypt’s delegation walked out of the recently concluded preparatory committee meeting for the 2015 NPT Review Conference, something that is likely to happen on a larger scale at next year’s preparatory committee meeting. And protest against the lack of progress in the Helsinki initiative may soon intensify along two dimensions—vertically, in the sense that countries objecting to lack of progress may make greater demands in return for their participation in NPT processes, and horizontally, in the sense that countries not just from the Middle East but from further afield in the Non-Aligned Movement may join in. The consequences of that would be disastrous indeed.

Amid the Arab Spring, new leadership is emerging in the Middle East and many countries are struggling with internal political rivalries. But once these issues are settled, a diplomatic confrontation with Israel cannot be ruled out. It is time for Israel to take a new attitude toward a number of issues, not least the WMD-free zone. If Israel fails to comprehend new realities in the region, its isolation will only increase.

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