The US State Department announced last November that no conference on eliminating weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East would be held in 2012. In the announcement, the State Department emphasized its view that "a comprehensive and durable peace in the region" is an essential precursor to a WMD-free zone. But any policy that assigns precedence to peace over disarmament entails two major flaws.
The first is that such a policy ignores the primary objective of a WMD-free zone: to protect civilians from weapons of mass destruction. These weapons are not primarily designed to vanquish an enemy’s military, but to destroy military-industrial centers and trigger a collapse of the enemy’s home front. They cannot have any place in the enduring peace that the United States says it desires.
The second flaw is that making peace a condition for disarmament legitimizes the WMD that already exist, in effect allowing their use as military instruments to support aggressive policies. I recognize that regional security and conflict resolution cannot be ignored while a WMD-free zone is established, but weapons of mass destruction don’t deserve to be tolerated until "comprehensive and durable peace" is achieved. Assigning precedence to peace over disarmament is incorrect sequencing.
Incorrect sequencing bedeviled an initiative that came out of the Madrid peace process in the 1990s—the working group known as Arms Control and Regional Security in the Middle East. The working group’s agenda of peace and conflict resolution could never accommodate discussions about establishing a WMD-free zone, and the group stopped functioning. And perhaps another sign that disarmament must not wait is that Egypt long ago made peace with Israel but still struggles to make progress toward eliminating WMD from the region.
Manageable parts. In Round Two, Ayman Khalil asked whether efforts to eliminate WMD from the Middle East have collapsed or have merely been suspended. My view is that an announcement by just one of the initiative’s sponsors, the United States, cannot end the process. As long as Russia and Great Britain dedicate themselves to the effort, and coordinate policies along with other states in the region, the initiative remains alive.
But how to proceed? The process might still move forward if the Middle East were conceived of as three subregions: the Arab Maghreb (North Africa excluding Egypt); Israel and its immediate area; and the Persian Gulf. Such an approach—which would not replace but rather complement existing efforts to eliminate WMD—would enjoy three practical advantages. Diplomatic obstacles in each subregion would be minimized because a limited number of countries would be involved; neighboring countries’ common interests would make trade-offs possible; and ambiguity and obfuscation would become more difficult.
In the Maghreb, the membership of North African nations other than Morocco in the Treaty of Pelindaba goes a long way toward readying that subregion for joining a Middle East WMD-free zone. In the Persian Gulf, a subregional approach would help fulfill the longstanding need for a Gulf security pact, and the idea has already received considerable support. Regarding Israel and its immediate area, efforts to eliminate WMD could proceed at the same time that territorial disputes are addressed; Israel’s conventional military superiority as well US backing would enable that.
But above all, the success of the Helsinki initiative requires that the Israeli government adopt attitudes in line with those of its own people: Polling in 2011 showed that more than 60 percent of Israelis supported a nuclear-weapon-free zone. Israel’s government could do itself and others a service by following the example of South Africa, which transformed itself from a nuclear-armed, apartheid regime into a non-nuclear, democratic state—and in so doing both enhanced its stature in its region and provided a major boost to efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons from Africa.