Giada Del Russo*
A weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ) can be defined as a zone free of nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons.[i] As states are driven by the notion of deterrence against regional enemies in their quest for these weapons, an important question is to be addressed: what are the benefits of establishing a WMDFZ for the region and its people in terms of both non-proliferation and broader security issues?
This paper will argue that in terms of non-proliferation benefits, it would be a step forward in the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and a glimmer of hope for the field of disarmament, as it would symbolize the possibility of further elimination of such weapons everywhere. Secondly, it will argue that broader benefits include the elimination of a threat to the wellbeing of people and the planet, a relief in terms of inter-zonal issues and improved security overall.
In the context of this paper, we will consider all the twenty-two Arab League countries, and Israel and Iran to be part of the zone. It is also important to note that this paper is by no means exhaustive, but instead aims to give a broad view of the numerous benefits a WMDFZ would bring if it were to be adopted.
To start, the first benefit of establishing the WMDFZ for the region in terms of non-proliferation is that it would be a huge step towards the elimination of WMD everywhere. Notably, nine out of twenty-eight countries worldwide that possess or have the capability to build these weapons are in the region: these include Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Syria. Four of these have physically used chemical weapons. For context, napalm was used by Egypt against Yemen, Iraq employed tabun, sarin and mustard gas against its own Kurdish population and against Iran, and Israel used white phosphorus on Gaza.[ii]
The aim of all disarmament conventions, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and the various conventions on the prohibition of chemical and biological weapons (CWC and BWC) is to eliminate the presence of all WMD, as they represent a risk to everyone.[iii] The Canberra Commission states that “so long as any such weapons remain, it defies credibility that they will not one day be used, by accident, miscalculation.”[iv] Therefore, the elimination of any number of WMD is to be seen as a step towards a more secure world. When it comes to non-proliferation, the benefit is therefore arguably the most crucial of all non-proliferation ideals: the elimination of several classes of weapons of mass destruction.
Secondly, it would represent a glimmer of hope for non-proliferation efforts. It is imaginable that if it were to be achieved it would be a symbol to any other country that a WMDFZ can be a real possibility anywhere. As the region is the most volatile and politically complex area in the world, it would be a sign that disarmament is feasible even in the harshest disputes and would open doors in terms of India-Pakistan relations for example. Most importantly, it would also be a reminder for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5) of their disregard for their NPT obligations and their duty to disarm. The P5 have in fact been growing their arsenals vertically and horizontally during the last few years, meaning they have been growing and improving their weapons of mass destruction capabilities.[v] Consequently, another benefit of establishing the Zone in the Middle East would be that it could cause pushback from other countries, civil societies, and members of the public. Arguably, they would grow increasingly tired of empty promises and violations of their NPT obligations by seeing Middle Eastern states disarm: they would guide non-proliferation efforts.
Broader (human & state) benefits
Secondly, the establishment of a WMDFZ in the Middle East carries broader benefits on the environment and on health. Admittedly, research into the effects of WMD underline both short-term and long-term consequences: the immediate effects of the explosions, which would wipe out entire populations and urban areas, would trigger longer-term consequences which would impact populations, by causing displacements, tumours and deformities in the unborn, irreparable damage to cities, infrastructure and nature.[vi] After a nuclear explosion, growing seasons would be shorter and the climate would become colder, triggering famines.[vii] Hence, the elimination of an important risk to human health, both physical and psychological, and to the environment would be a benefit. Moreover, it would place people and the environment at the centre of the discourse.
What is more, we find a wealth of advantages for the state too. Firstly, it would represent a relief in terms of inter-zonal political issues. Relations between Israel and Egypt for instance are complicated by the belief that Israel possesses nuclear capabilities, and related rivalries with Syria also surround their motivation to acquire such weapons.[viii] Moreover, Israel and Saudi Arabia consider Iran’s nuclear programme to be a threat to their existence and security.[ix] Clearly, although many of the region’s problems are not related to WMD, these weapons exacerbate tensions. One benefit of the zone for states would be relieving the region from a nuclear arms race, which leads to more hostile relations: it would foster more trust between these states. Moreover, it would keep relations on a level playing field and not disturb the balance of power.[x]
Finally, another benefit of the zone would be improved state security overall. This is because of the risk of damage to infrastructure, transport, the economy, and the political system.[xi] However, it is also because of the elimination of the chance of non-state actors acquiring WMD.[xii] Although it is almost impossible for terrorist organizations to acquire WMD because of their limited capabilities, this is not a given as it is believed that a crude nuclear bomb could be created. What is more, it is feasible for non-state actors to acquire biological or radiological weapons or for cyberattacks to take place.[xiii]
In conclusion, this essay has demonstrated the benefits, both in terms of non-proliferation and in terms of wider security issues, which a WMDFZ in the Middle East would bring. Not only would it be an encouragement for all nations to follow the path of the Middle East when it comes to WMD, but it would also entail a more secure and more peaceful region. Understanding the benefits that this zone could bring is essential to convince states to follow suit and shed light onto the numerous issues that it would solve in the region, notably in terms of national rivalries and the arms race.
* King’s College London, United Kingdom
[ii] Encyclopaedia Britannica, “26 Countries’ WMD Programs; A Global History of WMD Use”,
Human Rights Watch, “Rain of Fire. Israel’s Unlawful use of White Phosphorus in Gaza”, 2009. https://www.hrw.org/report/2009/03/25/rain-fire/israels-unlawful-use-white-phosphorus-gaza
[iii] Holdren, John P. “Why is the Non-Proliferation Treaty important?”, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, April 26, 2005. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/question-1-why-non-proliferation-treaty-important-john-p-holdren
[vi] International Committee of the Red Cross, “Humanitarian Impacts and Risks of Use of Nuclear Weapons,” 2020. https://www.icrc.org/en/document/humanitarian-impacts-and-risks-use-nuclear-weapons#_edn6
[vii] Helfand Ira, “Nuclear Famine, 2 billion people at Risk?” IPPNW and PSR (2013), Accessed August 29, 2021. https://www.psr.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/two-billion-at-risk.pdf
[x] Committee on Foreign Relations, “Avoiding the arms race in the Middle East”, 2008 https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CPRT-110SPRT39674/html/CPRT-110SPRT39674.htm
[xi] ICRC, “Humanitarian Impacts” (2020).
[xii] Beard, Jack “Countering the Threat Posed by Non-State Actors in the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law) 92, 1998, 173–177. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25659212?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
[xiii] Kazi, Reshmi “The Correlation between Non-State Actors and Weapons of Mass Destruction.” Connections 10, no. 4 (2011): 1-10.