What’s in the way of establishing a Zone?

Esra Serim*

The establishment of a WMD-free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East is part of a broader regional security dialogue. For many years, although the international community has set the objective of establishing such a zone in the region, significant progress has not occurred. Yet as tensions continue to increase in the region, so does the urgent need for a WMDFZ. Significant obstacles still prevent a broader regional dialogue and denuclearization efforts towards establishing the zone, and contribute to deepening enmity, distrust, and lack of cooperation among many countries in the region. The following discussion presents the principal obstacles that continue to hinder progress: the ever-worsening situation in Israel and Palestine; the strained or non-existent diplomatic relations between many regional states, notably with respect to Iran; uncertainty surrounding the continuation or revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal; Israel’s nuclear weapons programme; instability caused by powerful non-state actors in the region; and technical barriers.

First among these obstacles is the ongoing breakdown of the peace process between Israel and Palestine. Over the decades, no approach has succeeded in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Having failed at attempts to resolve the conflict, the United States’ position has led to a deadlock for establishing a WMDFZ in the Middle East. US foreign policy continues to maintain Israel’s state security as a top priority,[i] so, for instance, the US administration blocked the 2015 NPT Review Conference Final Document citing Israeli concerns regarding its security interests. Similarly, Israel and the US announced that they would not participate in the November 2019 UN conference on a WMDFZ.[ii] The Israeli and US absence from the negotiations directly present challenges to the sustainability of the process.

Secondly, various regional states, such as Iran and Israel, do not officially recognize each other, while others like Iran and Saudi Arabia share no diplomatic relations. Accordingly, no security framework or regional organization has so far offered the necessary conditions for all regional countries to meet and discuss their concerns and interests regarding the Zone, in particular, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution which resulted in increasing militarization and animosity between Iran and regional opponents, including Israel and states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As a result, “the strained relations between Iran and the GCC—and Saudi Arabia in particular—are a destabilizing factor in the region” and cause unending proxy battles that block the possibility of achieving a WMDFZ in the Middle East. [iii]

Uncertainty around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) since 2018 has impacted the trust in multilateralism that is necessary for the establishment of the Zone.[iv] After the Trump administration decided to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal, the Biden administration reinitiated negotiations with Iran in Vienna in 2021. At present, demands from both the US and Iran make a renewed JCPOA or any other agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme appear unlikely.[v]

The Israeli nuclear weapons programme creates another obstacle to establishing a WMDFZ in the region. Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, but has never officially confirmed their existence. Moreover, because Israel is not party to the NPT safeguard agreement, its nuclear facilities are at high risk due to “possible conventional weapons attacks from state and non-state actors, technical issues caused by the age of the reactor, lack of institutional oversight and natural disasters.”[vi] In addition, the Arab states and Iran view Israel’s nuclear ambiguity approach as an existential threat to their own security. According to them, “if Israel makes nuclear threats, those threatened will believe that Israel has the capabilities necessary to realize them.”[vii] Thus, convincing Israel to join the NPT and participate in conferences related to the WMDFZ seems a vital step towards disarmament in the Middle East.

The rise of non-state actors in the Middle East has multiplied opportunities for WMD trade and proliferation. The appearance of non-state actors like Islamic State (ISIS) since the Arab Spring in 2010, changed fundamental dynamics in the Middle East. The Arab uprisings caused chaos and instability in many states where they sprang up (from Tunisia and Libya to Yemen and Syria). This created a power vacuum and conditions where WMDs could proliferate to non-state actors without a formal government, institutional framework or enforcement of international laws and agreements. In this context, non-state actors that control territory captured from unstable governments could gain access to WMD facilities, or even force experts to supply them WMD materials, technology, and know-how. In fact, the Islamic State actively seeks WMDs, which it could acquire through simply purchasing on the black market.[viii] For instance, many incidents of chemical weapons use (sarin and chlorine gas) have occurred during the ongoing civil war in Syria, several of which ISIS has been suspected of committing since 2015.[ix]

Finally, technical challenges continue to hinder the establishment of a WMDFZ in the Middle East. Lack of effective verification and accountability measures (or differences in scope and verification of such measures) remain very problematic. In addition, the absence of supporting institutions in the Middle East calls for new approaches.[x]

Freeing the Middle East of all WMD and their delivery vehicles requires a direct, continuous, and strong disarmament and non-proliferation dialogue both among the regional countries and among global powers such as the EU, the US, Russia, and China. First and foremost, mistrust among regional countries and uncertainty in the process must be reduced. The United States plays a major role in the Middle East and can take concrete steps to use coercive diplomacy towards Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. As a first step, the US administration can participate in multilateral efforts with Russia and the EU, restore the JCPOA with Iran and broaden the Abraham Accords.[xi] In addition, the US and other nuclear weapons states could implement negative security guarantees as a means of convincing the Arab States and Iran. Similarly, Israel can be given positive security assistance to conquer its fears about entering into arms control and disarmament agreements.[xii]

Strengthening regional verification and monitoring mechanisms under the UN and the IAEA can also help reduce mistrust. The experiences of other regions with nuclear-weapon-free zones, such as Latin America and the Caribbean with the Treaty of Tlatelolco, indicate that “confidence in the ability to verify the provisions of a zone is a major requirement for successful negotiation and implementation.”[xiii] This can convince Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to be more involved in cooperation and dialogue. On the other hand, increasing the “collaboration of civilian and military communities”[xiv] among the regional countries and those countries providing material and technology (including the EU, the US, Russia, and China) can contribute to WMD elimination efforts and prevent access to materials and facilities by non-state actors such as ISIS and Al-Nusra. Ultimately, international and regional civil society organizations must be strengthened to prioritize disarmament and human security.

* Institut d’Études Politiques (IEP) d’Aix-en-Provence, France

[i] The 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was held in New York in 2015. The NPT represents the only binding commitment in a multilateral treaty to the goal of disarmament by the Nuclear Weapon States. However, at this conference, States were not able to reach agreement on the substantive part of the draft Final Document. “2015 NPT Review Conference,”

https://www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2015/ (Accessed 27 September 2021).

[ii] Tomisha Bino, “A Middle Eastern WMD-Free Zone: Are We Any Closer Now?” Arms Control Association, September 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2020-09/features/middle-eastern-wmd-free-zone-we-any-closer-now (Accessed 25 August 2021).

Andrey Baklitskiy, “The 2015 NPT Review Conference and the Future of the Non-Proliferation Regime,” Arms Control Association, July-August 2015,

https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2015-07/features/2015-npt-review-conference-future-nonproliferation-regime (Accessed 27 September 2021).

[iii] E. Kiyaei, T. Robinson and S. Dolev, “Weapons of Mass Destruction: Non-Proliferation and Regional Cooperation in the Middle East, Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol. 27 No. 1, Fall/Winter 2020, p. 76-77.

[iv] The JCPOA was agreed by Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) on July 14, 2015. The nuclear deal was initialed by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA was verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, July 2021, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/JCPOA-at-a-glance (Accessed 28 September 2021).

[v] John Krzyzaniak, “Iran and US Still Far Apart on Reviving the JCPOA,” IISS, 23 August 2021,

https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2021/08/iran-us-jcpoa (Accessed 25 August 2021).

[vi] E. Kiyaei, T. Robinson and S. Dolev, p. 73.

[vii] Shlomo Brom, “Israel and Strategic Stability in the Middle East,” Institute for National Security Studies, 2016, p.111.

[viii] Stephen Hummel, “The Islamic State and WMD: Assessing the Future Threat,” CTC Sentinel, January 2016, p.18.

[ix] Rebecca Hersman, “Strategic Challenges to WMD elimination,” The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 23, No.1, 2016, p. 38-39 and Kiyaei, T. Robinson and S. Dolev, p. 74.

[x] Paolo Foradori and Martin B. Malin, “A WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East: Creating the Conditions for Sustained Progress,” A Project on Managing the Atom Discussion Paper, Belfer Center, 2012, p.15-18.

[xi] The Abraham Accords are the peace and normalization agreement between Israel-UAE, Israel-Bahrain, Israel-Morocco, and Israel-Sudan, mediated by the US in 2020. “The Abraham Accords Declaration,” US Department of State, https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/ (Accessed 29 September 2021).

[xii] Ibid., p.27.

[xiii] Ibid., p.23.

[xiv] R. Hersman, p. 44-45.