WMDFZ: Obstacles and solutions

Nadine Easby*

In 1990, Egypt proposed a Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East, which built upon longstanding calls to establish a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone (NWFZ).[i] In 1995, the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference called for “the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems that extended the Treaty on Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) indefinitely.”[ii] Both measures have amassed high levels of international support, but concrete progress has since been elusive. This paper will therefore deconstruct the many obstacles facing the establishment of the zone, and will explore the efforts to overcome them.

The NPT has been signed and ratified by every country in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel. However, various violations by such countries, along with the P5 states being slow to make disarmament commitments, has ultimately corroded the credibility of the international non-proliferation regime; “representing its inability to constrain state behaviour and verify compliance measures.”[iii] Obstacles facing the zone can be separated into four areas: non-participation, subversion, non-compliance and demonstration effects. These have all stalled initiatives to establish a successful WMDFZ in the Middle East.

In terms of non-participation, Israel is the only state in the region not to have signed the NPT, as noted. However, Israel, Djibouti and Comoros have not signed the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), with Egypt, Somalia and Syria signing but failing to ratify.[iv] Despite Egypt initially proposing the WMDFZ, it is the only country in the Zone not to have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), nor to ratify treaties that it has already signed such as the BWC and the CTBT, which creates a credibility issue, and marginally reduces confidence-building measures in the zone.[v]

Syria’s acquisition and demonstrated use of chemical weapons has “legitimated further acquisition of WMD capabilities, due to deterrence concerns”.[vi] Syria argued that it would not join the CWC until Israel joined the NPT, however after the sarin gas attacks in Ghouta in 2013, it was ultimately forced to do a deal brokered by Russia, the US and the UN. State and non-state actors have raised doubts about the truthfulness of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles including chlorine gas, and the existence and use of CW in the region create an obstacle to the realization of a Middle East WMDFZ by depleting trust in the Zone.

The question of Israel is frequently cited as the cause of nuclear ambitions in the Middle East, with “every leader in the region that has pursued nuclear weapons claiming the need to deter Israel” due to the country’s ambiguous nuclear weapons programme. As such, the latter is a large source of insecurity and proliferation that has defined every regional proposal for the establishment of a WMDFZ.[vii] The US provides ‘double standard treatment’ through strong political cover and support for the Israelis in the name of their exceptional alliance in allowing such programmes to develop.[viii] This goes contrary to Washington’s own interest in nuclear non-proliferation and has “amplified the mistrust and negative feelings of Arab states”, ultimately damaging the already strained relations among countries in the region and making constructive engagement on the WMDFZ less likely.[ix]

Israel is wary of a WMDFZ process that does not provide reasonable verification mechanisms to ensure that all states in the region are complying with disarmament. As the British American Security Informational Council (BASIC) observes, “many Israelis believe their security depends upon a nuclear ‘Samson option’ of retaliation against their neighbours”, which they are not yet prepared to give up.[x] Israel strongly believes in its right to own a nuclear deterrent, and without significant security guarantees from neighbours, is steadfast in its aim to protect itself through a policy of ambiguity on its nuclear programme. However, transparency over Israel’s nuclear arsenal is critical to enable a serious debate on the issue of a WMDFZ in the Middle East and has become a large obstacle for the Zone. Diana Ballestas de Dietrich, formerly of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, argues that as Israel is the only nuclear possessor state in the region, “the issue at stake is not about a WMD free zone, but ultimately about disarming Israel.”[xi]

Another obstacle lies in the prolonged negotiations between Israel and the Arab states, as participants become frustrated and ‘dig in’ to their positions. The ‘long corridor’, an Israeli negotiation strategy which divides issues into smaller steps (for example: proposals for a Chemical-Weapon-Free Zone, then linked to other questions such as recognition of Israel), has made Arab partners wary, entangling the process as Israel insists that achieving “meaningful progress on the zone must be conditioned on resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict”.[xii] However, Egypt claims that the zone can only “mitigate regional conflict at lower levels of armament”.[xiii] The failure to reconcile these opposing views on the Zone constitutes a primary obstacle to disarmament in the Middle East, and negotiations become so entangled that they become unresolvable.

Until the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, the military dimension of the Iranian nuclear programme was seen as one of the main obstacles to a WMDFZ in the Middle East.Israel and Saudi Arabia questioned Iran’s commitment to the deal, and argued it should have “included elements to limit what they regard as hostile Iranian regional behaviour”, causing a rift.[xiv]President Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and re-imposed damaging sanctions, which saw Iran stepping away from its commitments, throwing the Zone into more confusion as threats between Israel and Iran resumed. In the last few weeks, the Head of The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi prepared to report to the IAEA that “his agreements to monitor Iran’s nuclear programme had in effect collapsed” however on the 12th of September 2021, Iran agreed to resume “monitoring and inspection processes.”[xv] In terms of efforts to overcome these obstacles, a process of realising the zone would need to take into account threat perceptions of all regional states to cover security concerns. There needs to be a desire to address shared security challenges through a ‘parallel process’, and to secure confidence-building measures.[xvi] In A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A New Approach to Non-proliferation, Kiyaei and Mousavian advise a gradual phased process, followed by CBM, regional cooperation and “verification mechanisms for disarmament, and culminating in the sequenced accession of all regional states to the various global non-proliferation treaty frameworks”.[xvii] In terms of Israel, credible efforts would need to address the threats that have led Israel to develop nuclear weapons in the first place and “bring Egypt, Iran and Israel to the table (any table) to begin discussions on their respective security concerns”.[xviii]

* University of Essex, United Kingdom

[i] Cservenv, V., Hoppe, L., Littlewood, J., Morev, R. and Abdulrahim, M., 2021. Building a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East: Global Non-Proliferation Regimes and Regional Experiences | UNIDIR. [online] Available at: https://unidir.org/publication/building-weapons-mass-destruction-free-zone-middle-east-global-non-proliferation#:~:text=In%20April%201990%20Egypt%20took,nuclear%2C%20chemical%20and%20biological%20weapons [Accessed 14 September 2021].

[ii] Bino, T., 2021. A Middle Eastern WMD-Free Zone: Are We Any Closer Now? | Arms Control Association. [online] Available at: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2020-09/features/middle-eastern-wmd-free-zone-we-any-closer-now [Accessed 14 September 2021].

[iii] Chance, M., 2014. The Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East; Obstacles to a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone. CUNY Academic Works. [online] Available at: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1295&context=cc_etds_theses

[iv] Middle East Treaty Organisation, 2021. Treaty Status per Country. [online] Available at: https://www.wmd-free.me/home/treaties/ [Accessed 14 September 2021].

[v] Cservenv et al, 2021. Building a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East: Global Non-Proliferation Regimes and Regional Experiences | UNIDIR. [online] Available at: https://unidir.org/publication/building-weapons-mass-destruction-free-zone-middle-east-global-non-proliferation#:~:text=In%20April%201990%20Egypt%20took,nuclear%2C%20chemical%20and%20biological%20weapons [Accessed 14 September 2021].

[vi] Jouejati, M., 2005. Syrian Motives for its WMD Programmes and What to do About Them. The Middle East Journal, 59(1), pp.52-61.

[vii] Khalil, A. and Finaud, M., 2012. The Conference for a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone A Synopsis of Engagement of International and Regional Organisations, and Civil Society. [online] Dam.gcsp.ch. Available at: https://dam.gcsp.ch/files/doc/the-conference-for-a-middle-east-weapons-of-mass-destruction-free-zone-a-synopsis-of-engagement-of-international-and-regional-organisations-and-civil-society [Accessed 14 September 2021].

[viii] Publications.parliament.uk. 2021. House of Lords – Rising nuclear risk, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – Select Committee on International Relations. [online] Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldintrel/338/33806.htm [Accessed 14 September 2021].

[ix] Bino, T., 2017. The Pursuit of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East A New Approach. Chatham House Journal. [online] Available at: https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2017-07-27-WMDFZME.pdf [Accessed 14 September 2021].

[x] ibid.

[xi] Publications.parliament.uk (2021)

[xii] Haggag, K., 2021. In the Zone: The Long and Winding Road to Middle East Disarmament. [online] The Cairo Review of Global Affairs. Available at: https://www.thecairoreview.com/book-reviews/in-the-zone-the-long-and-winding-road-to-middle-east-disarmament/ [Accessed 14 September 2021].

[xiii] ibid.

[xiv] Bino (2017)

[xv] Wintour, P., 2021. Iran agrees deal with UN on monitoring of nuclear programme. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/sep/12/iran-agrees-deal-with-un-on-monitoring-of-nuclear-programme [Accessed 14 September 2021].

[xvi] Bino (2017)

[xvii] Kiyaei, E. and Mousavian, S., 2020. A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction A New Approach to Non-proliferation. Routledge.

[xviii] Publications.parliament.uk (2021)