07.01.2014 Author: Petr Lvov

Can the Middle East become a WMD-free Zone?

moppscareIn recent days the topic of transforming the Middle East into a zone free of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) has once again been revived in the media. This is perhaps attributable to the fact that Syria is in the process of actively eliminating chemical weapons, and that the 6 countries acting as international mediators have come to an agreement with Iran: the freezing of its nuclear program in exchange for the suspending of financial and economic sanctions against the country. Egypt, meanwhile, steadfastly refuses to join the International Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Israel, no less stubbornly, declines to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or to concede the existence of its nuclear weapons. There appears to be a double standard: some may, others cannot.

But is this really so surprising? Indeed in November 2012 the US State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, stated that an international conference dedicated to the creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East would not take place that year. According to her statement the United States, alongside Russia, Great Britain and the General Secretary of the UN – co-sponsors of the planned conference – “regretfully announce that it will not be possible to convene due to current conditions in the Middle East”, and owing additionally to “Iran’s ongoing failure to fulfil its international obligations in the sphere of non-proliferation”. The cancellation of the forum was further connected with the fact that regional participants “had not come to agreement on acceptable terms of organization” of the conference. From the US’s perspective, she continued, among countries of the Middle East there remain “deep conceptual differences regarding the approach to regional security arrangements in the area of arms control”. At the same time, Nuland pointed out, the US insisted that the conference takes place “only in the instance of consensus among parties of the region”. The US “fully supports the goal of a Middle East to be free of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and does not shy away from shouldering a part of the burden in connection with this commitment”, she added.

On September 02, 2013 the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov effectively confirmed the continuation of the deadlock on this issue in 2013. According to his statement the date for convening the conference for creation of a WMD-free Middle East was not upheld due to the US position on the issue. “A problem that threatens to become quite a serious one is that of convening – or perhaps more accurately the inability to provide for the convening – of a conference on the creation of a Middle East free of Weapons of Mass Destruction”, he was quoted as saying in online media outlets. The decision was made in 2010 that such a conference would be convened “no later than 2012”, Lavrov recalled. “Owing to the US position conference organizers could not even announce a convening date” stated the Russian Foreign Minister. He added that “the conference should have been held last year”, but that we are now working to ensure that it be held as soon as possible, as “ a new review of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons will be held just 18 months from now”.

It would seem that all is clear – the US is not interested in such a conference as it will force the question of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. It is also hardly likely that Iran, with its peaceful nuclear program, will fail to attack Israel and Washington for their reluctance to raise the question of Tel Aviv’s accession to the NPT. But this is nothing new.

What was wholly unexpected, however, was the information that media outlets began publishing at the end of this year – information reporting that Russia had radically changed its position on the issue. This allegation was made in particular by the Israeli newspaper Maariv, stating that Russian president Vladimir Putin had allegedly promised Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that he would not rush to convene an international conference on a WMD-free Middle East. The publication even pointed to the existence of transcripted conversations between the leaders of Russia and Israel on this issue. This does not, however, correspond to reality, as such promises were never made to Netanyahu by the Russian president. Indeed it is Moscow that has been actively promoting the convening of such a conference since 2010. The purpose of publications such as those in the newspaper Maariv is clearly the intention to tarnish Moscow’s relations with Iran and the Arab countries.

So what is the reality? In order to understand the essence of this issue and to assess the prospects of a WMD-free Middle Eastern zone, we must take a short trip back through history. The first party to initiate the transformation of the Middle East into a zone free of rockets and nuclear weapons was the Soviet Union, in 1958. This proposal was renewed in 1974 by no other than Iran – following the next Arab-Israeli war in 1973. Egypt and a number of other Arab states supported the initiative. As a result of these efforts on December 09, 1974 the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 3263 on “the founding of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East”. Since that time the UN General Assembly has adopted several resolutions in support of this idea, but without notable success – mainly owing to opposition from Israel and the United States.

In April 1990 the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak went a step further and proposed the creation of a Middle East zone free of all types of WMDs. There were, however, serious obstacles hindering the creation of such a law. Israel’s nuclear potential and its refusal to accede to the Non-Proliferation Treaty along with the ongoing strategic and political tensions in the region blocked any progress towards this goal. Attention to the problems of WMDs in the Middle East heightened, however, following the opening of a secret nuclear weapons program in Iraq at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. On the heels of this conflict the UN Security Council passed resolution 687, which focuses on the denuclearization of the Middle East for the purpose of promoting regional security. At the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, which brought together Israelis, Palestinians and representatives of many Middle Eastern countries, participants agreed to invest multilateral efforts into achieving the goal of regional arms control and security. They founded a working group on arms control and regional security in the Middle East. However, as a result of sharp differences of opinion between Israel and Egypt on the issue of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, the group has not held formal meetings since September 1995.

At the 1995 NPT review conference participants expressed support for the creation of a NWFZ in the Middle East. A resolution on the Middle East, adopted at the 1995 conference, called upon all States in the region to accede to the Treaty and place all nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards (Israel, however, was not directly referenced in the adoption of this resolution). The resolution also called all States in the region to work together for the establishment of a Middle-East zone free of both nuclear weapons and all other types of Weapons of Mass Destruction. It called upon the States – members of the NPT and in particular those States possessing nuclear weapons – to support this goal. Since the adoption of this resolution, however, no practical progress has been made.

At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, held from May 03-31 in New York, the question of establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East was paramount, and the discussion surrounding this issue is reflected in the gathering’s outcome document. The majority of the Review Conference’s Arab participants agreed to a compromise in the drafting of the outcome document, which entailed limiting mention in the document’s text of the urgency of convening a 2012 conference for reviewing the practical progress of the creation of a NWFZ in the Middle East. Then, on Russian initiative, a decision was made to plan a special conference for developing parameters and placing conditions on the creation of the NWFZ. This decision provided for the appointment of a special coordinator who would prepare for the given event. A coordinator, however, has never been appointed. Basically – nothing has changed.

To all appearances, the realization of this idea will remain highly unlikely until the completion of the Middle East peace process. Disputes between Israel and its neighbors present the most significant obstacle in the path to creating the NWFZ. On the one hand, it is understandable that Israel will not abandon its potential for nuclear deterrence as long as it feels there is a threat to its national security. On the other hand, both Israel’s Arab neighbors and Iran assert that the existence of an Israeli nuclear program threatens their security – and all this is superimposed over the 2011-2013 events surrounding the Arab Spring. Under these circumstances it is obvious that Tel Aviv does not wish to commence a nuclear disarmament in the face of a blatant threat – only to be left face to face with aggressive Islamists, vying for power in the Arab world and calling for the demise of the Jewish State.

However the stockpiling and modernization of nuclear weapons in the region by Israel (which possesses a self-produced tactically-appointed nuclear arsenal estimated at approximately 300 nuclear warheads) and Turkey (which has as many as 70 US-made tactically-appointed bombs, controlled by the United States) clearly demands the transformation of the Middle-Eastern region into a nuclear-free zone.

The rapid transformation of this highly volatile region into a zone free from nuclear, chemical and other types of Weapons of Mass Destruction would, in many respects, greatly strengthen regional security. However, given the development of events in Syria, Egypt and Iraq, as well as Iran, the basis for optimism is small.

Pyotr Lvov, Doctor of Political Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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