Four key obstacles for the Zone and efforts to overcome them

Sara Al-Sayed

This paper highlights four obstacles to the establishment of the Zone: the disagreement between Israel and the other states in the region over the primacy of regional security over disarmament; geopolitical conflicts that give way to foreign – even great power – intervention; the lack of universalization within the region of the relevant treaties; the lack of a regional security framework or organization and of regional cross-issue cooperation. The paper also discusses some of the efforts that could be construed as advancing the Zone project.

The precursor project to the ME WMDFZ, henceforth alternatively referred to here and there in this paper as ‘the Zone’, was a ME NWFZ. It was based on a proposal by Egypt put before the UN General Assembly in 1974 and backed by Iran. It was motivated by growing apprehension of Israel’s expanding military might, not least its nuclear weapons programme, ambiguities around which had surfaced in the 1960s.[i] Hovering over all efforts ever since has been the disagreement over the primacy of disarmament in the region as opposed to the primacy of the recognition of Israel by the region’s states and normalized, peaceful relations among them.[ii] The Arab states as well as Iran have historically insisted on Israel’s disarmament as the precondition for recognition, normalization, and peace.

Delivering the most tangible assurance of good will, disarmament would be the sole means to establish the requisite trust among the region’s states so that they could confidently proceed with the pursuit of peaceful relations. Israel perceives the insistence on disarmament as a sign of bad faith on the part of its rivals. Those rivals are in Israel’s view supposedly intent on singling it out and stripping it of security rights of a special scope rendered necessary and legitimate by the tumultuous circumstances that presided over the creation of the Jewish state. This fundamental disagreement constitutes the first obstacle to the establishment of the Zone.

There is little doubt, then, that the Palestinian question has played a role, implicitly or explicitly, in framing progress over the Zone. In fact, the breakdown of the peace process that was ushered in by the Oslo Accords in the nineties represents one of many examples of geopolitical tensions in the region that constitute obstacles to the creation of the Zone. A cynic might therefore judge the U.S.-brokered 2020 Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab states (the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco, and Bahrain) to represent progress in the form of advancing peace and partially fulfilling the Israeli precondition for prospective disarmament. But in return for normalization, the Accords come with not only economic gains for the Arab parties, but military and strategic gains as well. So not only are the Accords anticipated to further hinder the two-state solution striven for by the Oslo process, but they threaten to multiply the security dilemmas in an already volatile region that has given way over the decades to proxy conflicts on multiple fronts and not without the intervention of great powers.

On the other hand, one may argue that with at least a handful of Arab states enjoying a peace treaty with Israel, it will become harder and harder for Israel to justify its continued tenacity. So the Abraham Accords might not end up being that huge an obstacle after all. Other signs of easing tensions in the region bolster hope in progress as well: recent Saudi–Iranian rapprochement, recent attempts at reviving talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, and Iran permitting the IAEA to resume monitoring activities under its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, which potentially promises a less bleak fate for the JCPOA under the two new administrations in Iran and the U.S.

Nevertheless, ultimately there remains the issue that the treaties of relevance to the establishment of the Zone – the NPT, BTWC, CWC, and CTBT – don’t all enjoy universalization within the region.[iii] There is little chance that a WMD disarmament project would progress without the relevant treaties being signed and ratified by all states in the region. After all, treaties are legally binding for their members and through compliance and enforcement mechanisms furnish the grounds for confidence building among the members. But from the point of view of ME states, the NPT Review Conferences since 1995 have progressively proved to be an inadequate venue for advancing their causes. Things came to a head in the 2015 NPT Review Conference with objections by the U.S., the U.K., and Canada to calls by the Arab Group to go forward with the Conference on the ME WMDFZ that had failed to take place in 2012 – due to U.S. withdrawal – and for Israel to join the NPT.[iv]

In order to break the impasse within the NPT framework, calls were made by the Arab states at the UN First Committee for the Secretary General to convene the ME WMDFZ Conference as of 2019 and annually thereafter, the 2020 edition not having taken place due to the pandemic. This move never met with the approval of Israel and the U.S., however, who boycotted the 2019 edition, with concerns over the legitimacy of this alternative pathway.[v] And yet, it may be that the ME WMDFZ Conference as well as informal workshops, such as those by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs in 2020 and 2021 (which were not attended by Israel and the U.S.) addressing best practices to approach conceptual, technical, legal, and administrative issues, will lay the groundwork for a future ME WMDFZ treaty that would gain all parties’ approval.

This brings me to the final obstacle I discuss in this paper, namely, the lack of a regional security framework or organization through which all ME states could address security issues and generate cooperative solutions. The League of Arab States is a cross-issue platform that excludes Iran and Israel; the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) excludes Arab non-Gulf states as well as Iran and Israel, though it could benefit from cooperation with at least Iran on issues of common interest by way of alleviating enduring Persian Gulf tensions. Generally, a lock-in in state security discourse can be observed in the region, obscuring the inextricably connected human security concerns that may be better addressed through regional multilateral efforts towards socioeconomic and political development. This would help build bridges and foster trust that would in turn positively impact the prospects for the Zone.[vi]

* Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, United States of America

[i] NTI: Israel – Nuclear, available at:, accessed: 14/9/2021; Julian Borger (Jan. 2014): “The truth about Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal”, in: The Guardian, available at: israels- secret- nuclear- arsenal, accessed: 14/9/2021.

[ii] NTI, Israel – Nuclear; Sharon Dolev (June 2020): “Israel”, in: Assuring Destruction Forever: 2020 Edition, ed. by Allison Pytlak and Ray Acheson, Reaching Critical Will, pp. 67–75.

[iii] Treaty Status per Country, available at:, accessed: 14/9/2021.

[iv] UNIDIR: ME WMDFZ Timeline, available at:, accessed: 14/9/2021.

[v] Kelsey Davenport: Fact Sheets & Briefs: WMD-Free Middle East Proposal at a Glance, available at:, accessed: 14/9/2021;

Tariq Rauf (Nov. 2019): “Achieving the Possible: “Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East””, in: Inter Press Service, available at: possible- weapons- mass- destruction- free- zone- middle-east/, accessed: 14/9/2021.

[vi] Chen Zak Kane (Apr. 2020): Pathways Forward for the ME WMDFZ Process and 2020 NPT Review Conference: Conference Report, UNIDIR;

Emad Kiyaei, Tony Robinson, and Sharon Dolev (2020): “Weapons of Mass Destruction: Non-Proliferation and Regional Cooperation in the Middle East”, in: Brown Journal of World Affairs XXVII.1, pp. 69– 85.