The long and bumpy road to realize the Zone

Gaia Durante Mangoni*

During a trip to Syria in 1941, Charles de Gaulle wrote in his War Memoirs: “towards the complicated Orient, I flew with simple ideas”.[i] Over 80 years later, regional tensions are still escalating, and the spiralling proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) erodes the efforts to establish a zone free from those weapons (WMDFZ). The Middle East (ME) is a strategic area. On the one hand, it has vast reserves of energy and maritime resources. On the other, it is a hotbed of territorial disputes and struggles for regional hegemony, and is an extremely militarized zone. This creates acute insecurity, which destabilizes the international system as well. In this major hub of WMD, Realpolitik remains the dominant paradigm in security relations. This prompts the question of whether it is possible to define the key obstacles to the establishment of this Zone, and which steps have been taken to overcome these varied deadlocks? This paper identifies three main hindrances to a WMDFZ (and associated proposals to surmount them): chronic mistrust and lack of regional integration; the strong nuclear asymmetry posed by Israel’s de facto possession of nuclear weapons; and Iran’s aspiration to develop a nuclear programme threatening a regional arms race. In particular, the discussion sheds light on the European Union’s (EU) bridge-building stance in this turbulent context.

The chronic mistrust within the region makes it easier for countries to circumvent compliance. A modicum of mutual interaction between anchor states is an essential prerequisite for creating a WMDFZ.[ii] Yet, the ME lacks regional platforms for cooperation and dialogue. The scarcity of collaboration fragments this “region without regionalism” culturally, politically and economically.[iii] This low level of joint engagement is due to the resistance of individual states to any limitation of their sovereignty.

This is accompanied by intra-regional power asymmetries, the prevalence of national interests and insurmountable security dilemmas.[iv] All previous attempts to set up regional integration have been unsuccessful.[v] For example, the Arms Control and Regional Security in the ME (ACRS) process sought to reduce and eliminate WMD and their delivery systems, and to establish confidence-building measures (CBMs) amongst states. This group held several meetings between 1992 and 1995, but those sessions were broken off because of internal discords.[vi] Among the more hopeful schemes was the 2004 UN Report, suggesting a three-step strategy that could be implemented without compromising the parties’ security. The first stage involved the adoption of more robust security structures and CBMs and the enforcement of a “no-first-use” policy by all. The second stage called for setting a ceiling on existing stockpiles of WMD and freezing the production of fissile materials. Lastly, the third stage proposed the gradual elimination of WMD stockpiles, which could only occur after normalizing Israeli-Arab relations.[vii] Without a sense of commonality, multilateralism and a valid rules-based verification apparatus a WMDFZ cannot be promoted, and countries’ interests cannot converge, nor can national worries and suspicions be allayed, especially if one among them actually is a nuclear state.

The presence of a de facto nuclear weapons state, Israel, determines the nuclear imbalance in the region. Israel holds to a policy of ambiguity, which is perceived by others as nuclear “opacity”.[viii] It is highly unlikely that Israel would decide to dismantle its nuclear arsenal under current conditions. Feeling existentially threatened by its neighbours, Israel deems nuclear weapons the only safeguard against hostilities and enemies, especially Iran and Arab countries. Israeli leaders consider their nation’s military monopoly in the region (Israel is the most powerful country in military terms) and its nuclear uniqueness as the only way to ensure its permanent security. Both the US and the EU share a common goal with Israel: curbing Iran’s atomic expansionism. Since last August, the US-Israeli coalition is discussing a plan B to revitalize the 2015 Nuclear Deal, considering alternatives to the conventional diplomatic path. In fact, the Israeli Prime Minister Bennett asked Biden for funds and support for his strategy, aiming to contain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and preserve Israel’s status as a unique regional nuclear power.[ix] However, this is a flawed approach.

Limiting nuclear negotiation efforts to a bilateral architecture, concerning Americans and Israelis only, derails the broader disarmament effort. Multiple actors are implicated in this process, from states (both within and outside the ME), to researchers and independent experts, to civil society and multilateral organizations. This is where the EU comes into play. The EU needs to be at the forefront of alleviating animosities. Its Joint Commission can coax Washington towards the traditional diplomatic option, the only way to ensure the success of EU foreign policy. As the Joint Commission has highlighted, the Iran Deal is an instrument belonging to the international community as a whole, not a bilateral agreement restricted to two parties. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, emphasized that considering this greater inclusivity reinforces that this accord is a comprehensive framework, thereby facilitating reconciliation and disarmament.[x] Notwithstanding, amid such havoc, the EU still lacks an evolving common and integrated foreign policy for security and defence. This supranational body must opt for more constructive diplomatic means to compensate for its lack of consistent military instrument.

Finally, the spotlight turns to Iran. This nuclear aspirant jeopardizes the prospects of a WMDFZ, insofar as its behaviour could trigger a regional arms race and a possible nuclear “domino effect” in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.[xi] Although Tehran continuously states that its purposes are exclusively peaceful (civil uses only of nuclear technology), the international community holds widespread dread that it is acquiring technical capabilities (mainly by enriching uranium, surpassing the authorized levels) and fissile materials for clandestine military activities. Iran’s lack of transparency, along with its aggressive rhetoric for regional leadership, raises legitimate doubts and anxieties about why it is embarking on an expensive and complicated nuclear programme despite its plentiful energy resources.[xii] Like Israel, Iran has long feared armed attacks, especially during the Bush administration, when the massive American military presence in the region fuelled Iran’s feeling of being surrounded.[xiii]

The 2018 American withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), combined with Trump’s “maximum pressure” on Iran fractured the “transatlantic link” and ruled the White House out of the decision-making process.[xiv] The EU, traditionally the US’s strategic allies and trading partner, entered the scene to mitigate the historic US-Iran animosity, in light of the deterioration of relations. Thus they managed to keep this agreement alive between Iran and other signatories, the “E3/EU+3” (France, Germany, the UK/the EU + the US, Russia and China). Still, talks were put on hold in June 2021 in the run-up and aftermath of Iran’s elections and the victory of the new Conservative President Ebrahem Raisi.

To switch the engine on again, Biden must reassume the leading role in negotiations, but there is also greater space for the EU. Spearheaded by High Representative Josep Borrell, the EU should take the reins of the forthcoming talks, setting clear deadlines for open dialogues and initiatives. Among the tasks the EU should accomplish (together with the US and the UN Security Council), the most urgent is probably encouraging the Biden administration to earnestly reengage in the deal, consolidating its full application. Moreover, progressively lifting the financial and economic sanctions on Iran, and ensuring that the latter avoids retaliation measures, is paramount because it would freeze forms of reprisal from both Washington and Tehran. Stimulating trade between Europe and Iran will support Iran’s recovery after the devastations caused by Covid, and eventually create a new opportunity to nurture an enduring synergy.

Once the deal is revived, launching further negotiations to break unresolved standoffs (maritime security, extremist threats and health) that still hamper normalcy in the Gulf will galvanize the various interlocutors to act in concert.[xv] The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director- General Rafael Grossi recently declared that the IAEA is “the guarantor of what is agreed at the political table”.[xvi] This agency also recognizes that the abundance of actors involved exacerbates the predicament, making conjectures more unpredictable. It seems certain that, as recently announced by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, his country is willing to come back to the table and restore negotiations in Vienna by December, a disposition presumably economically motivated, given the growing inflation in Iran. However, Iran’s oil prices have also increased lately (to over $80 per barrel), so Tehran is probably taking advantage of this favourable circumstance to ask for lightening sanctions. It would not be overly pessimistic to claim that trust will not become the norm anytime soon.

The American disengagement in the region has certainly favoured Iran’s assertiveness. Given current geo-economic and geo-strategic circumstances, durable peace and stability cannot ensue without resolving this matter of regional insecurity. The EU therefore must bolster cooperation and urge the US to circumvent the stalemate with Israel and Iran. The EU reiterated that it firmly supports the creation of the Zone, starting with its vibrant mediation between a wide range of representatives. This process should indeed involve experts from research environments (such as independent research and action centres on non-proliferation and disarmament), civil society bodies and governments. Addressing the three structural issues discussed above will foster regional cooperation to face future challenges, such as oil depletion, rising temperatures, migration flows, water scarcity in the face of ongoing population growth, countering violent extremism and strengthening the NPT; all positive results that transcend the boundaries of the ME.[xvii] What’s more, to conclude on a positive note, we should recognize that WMD disarmament in the ME has started already, more precisely in November 2019 during the Conference on the Establishment of a WMDFZ in the ME. Regional states (with the exception of Israel) decided to announce a mutually-agreed document, asserting their political will and acknowledging the urgency of reaching a positive verdict. The road is still long and uphill, but at least we’re on it, so let’s keep going and make our way.

* King’s College, London, United Kingdom

[i] De Gaulle, Charles. “L’Appel: 1940-1942”. Mémoires de Guerre. Paris: Plon, 1954.

[ii] Çarkoglu Ali, Eder Mine and Kirisci Kema. The Political Economy of Regional Cooperation in the Middle East, New York: Routledge, 1998: 25-35.

[iii] Aarts, Paul. “The Middle East: A Region without Regionalism or the End of Exceptionalism?” Third World Quarterly 20, no. 5, 1999: 911-925.

[iv] Harders, Cilia and Legrenzi, Matteo. Beyond Regionalism? Regional Cooperation, regionalism and Regionalization in the Middle East. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008: 1-10.

[v] Balamir Coskun, Bezen. “Region and Region Building in the Middle East Problems and Prospects”, UNU-CRIS Occasional Papers, 1, December 2005.

[vi] Nuclear Threat Initiatives. “Arms Control and Regional Security in the Middle East (ACRS) | Treaties & Regimes | NTI.” October 26, 2011.

[vii] Kadry Said, Mohammed. “Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone: Regional Security and Non-Proliferation Issues”, in Cserveny Vilms et al., Building a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East: Global Non-Proliferation Regimes and Regional Experiences, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), 2004: 123-133.

[viii] Cohen, Avner. “Regional Security and Arms Control in the Middle East”, in Barry R. Schneider (ed.), Middle East Security Issues: In the shadow of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation, USAF Counter-Proliferation Center, AU Press, 1999: 77- 109.

[ix] Josh Lederman, “U.N. Nuke Watchdog Chief Says Monitoring of Iran Is No Longer ‘Intact.’ ” NBC News, October 23, 2021.

[x] “Remarks by High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini following the Ministerial Meeting of the E3/EU + 3 and Iran”. EEAS. September 21, 2017. homepage_az/32546/RemarksbyHighRepresentative/Vice-PresidentFedericaMogherinifollowingtheMinisterialMeetingoftheE3/EU+3andIran.

[xi] Chubin, Shahram and Robert S. Litwak. “Debating Iran’s Nuclear Aspirations”. The Washington Quarterly XXVI, 2003: 99-114.

[xii] Fitzpatrick, Mark. The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding Worst-Case Outcomes. London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, Adelphi Papers 398, 2008.

[xiii] Russell, James A. Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006: 50-60.

[xiv] Cronberg, Tarja. “No EU, No Iran Deal: The EU’s Choice between Multilateralism and the Transatlantic Link.” The Nonproliferation Review 24, no. 3–4, May 4, 2017: 243– 59.

[xv] “Reviving the JCPOA after Maximum Pressure.” International Crisis Group, January 29, 2021.

[xvi] Stimson Center. “1-On-1 with Rafael Grossi: A Live Interview with the Director General of the IAEA.” October 21, 2021. 4:45 – 15:51.

[xvii] Maoz, Zeev. Regional Security in the Middle East: Past, Present, and Future. Frank Cass, London: Portland, Or., 1997: 30-40.