Fundamental reassessments required

By Martin B. Malin, July 8, 2013

My colleagues and I agree on two fundamental points: that it is desirable to initiate a process toward banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East and that such a process will be long and difficult. Ehud Eiran looks at the situation through a realist lens but concedes that "joint mechanisms can help achieve security." Both Ayman Khalil and Mansour Salsabili strongly support the establishment of a WMD-free zone, but Khalil recognizes that the process must be an "ongoing initiative" and Salsabili notes that a lot of "patience and collaboration" will be required. These are constructive positions; unfortunately, official positions have not been so constructive, and the key question remains how to create conditions for initiating a serious process.

The challenges are formidable. Establishing a zone free of WMD is not the most urgent security matter facing the Middle East. Syria's civil war is more pressing, and so is the continuing stalemate over Iran's nuclear program. And though weapons of mass destruction are not unrelated to either the Syrian conflict or the Iranian stand-off, the WMD-free-zone proposal is not likely to be a meaningful vehicle for resolving either situation in the short run.

Nevertheless, initiating a process for discussing WMD remains feasible. But more than dates and modalities for a meeting in Helsinki are needed—fundamental reassessments are required as well. First, all parties must recognize that progress toward a WMD-free zone will require policy changes in areas only indirectly related to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and their delivery systems. This is not to say that peace must precede any discussion of disarmament, or that progress toward a WMD-free zone must be formally linked to improvements in bilateral relationships involving Arab nations, Israel, and Iran. Establishing rigid conditions such as these would only prolong the current stalemate. But banning weapons of mass destruction from the region inevitably depends on a relaxation of tensions. Conversely, tensions can be relaxed through productive engagement on disarmament. It would be useful for all parties to acknowledge publicly that arms control and the normalization of diplomatic relations in the region are interdependent processes, and to begin removing obstacles on both fronts.

Second, Israel must begin to grapple in its national security strategy with certain long-term regional trends. These include increased political participation in Arab countries, the erosion of US influence in the Middle East, and the diffusion of enrichment and reprocessing technologies. Israel's traditional reliance on deterrence, preventive strikes, alignment with the United States, and a nuclear monopoly is becoming less tenable, and a sensible hedging strategy would be to engage intensively in regional diplomacy. The process toward establishing a zone free of WMD offers a significant opportunity for this. Israelis often describe arms control as a slippery slope that might lead to concerted pressure on the nation to disarm. But if Israel doubles down on its national security strategies as the regional status quo shifts, it would find itself on a more slippery slope by far.

Finally, the Arab League, Iran, and the sponsors of the WMD-free-zone process—if they truly wish to prioritize banning weapons of mass destruction—should support the establishment of a regionally-based security forum, with independent convening authority, to carry out direct multilateral discussions on regional security and disarmament. Such a regional umbrella need not interfere with the mandate of the review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Instead, the forum would complement the work of the review conference and facilitate Israel's participation in arms control processes even though Israel is not a signatory to the treaty. And Israel, presented with the opportunity under such circumstances to enter into discussions on banning weapons of mass destruction, might decide that doing so is in its own best interest.

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