Whither the Proposed Middle East Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone?

by Shemuel Meir

In late May, the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) concluded without the adoption of a proposed plan of action for a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ). Although sighs of relief could be heard across Israel, that feeling may prove premature, as the full implications of this failure have not been properly assessed here in Israel.

In fact, two key developments during the RevCon passed virtually unnoticed by Israeli commentators and indeed much of the larger arms-control community. The first was the emergence of a “new,” remarkably pragmatic Iran in the nuclear-diplomacy arena that not only sought to advance the process but also stood in marked contrast to Egypt’s more confrontational approach. The second noteworthy development was what could turn out to be serious erosion in Israel’s “Long Corridor” doctrine, which its leadership has used consistently over the years to put obstacles in the way of an eventual NWFZ.

The central reason for the failure to adopt the proposed plan of action in this latest round was that the US, with support from the UK and Canada, worked to thwart an agreement that enjoyed the support of the 188 other member states. Since the 1995 resolution to extend the NPT indefinitely, the provision regarding the establishment of Middle East NWFZ has functioned as a central pillar of the treaty—alongside non-proliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy – and has formed an integral part of the final document of each review conference.

The failure of the 2015 NPT RevCon has left the international community with a number of questions about the global non-proliferation regime and the NPT’s future. The strategic discussion in Israel, which generally tends to ignore the international context, was one of clear relief. Prime Minister Netanyahu set the tone. He was quick to congratulate the US for following through on its promises and blocking a decision that “could have negatively singled out Israel while ignoring its security interests.” Media headlines celebrated the victory as an “Israel achievement” and an “11th hour American rescue.”

But has Israel really gained a long respite from the danger? What awaits Israel in the coming years in international fora? What led the US to foil the proposal for a regional NWFZ and thereby cause the 2015 Review Conference to fail? Did Netanyahu’s victory celebration please the US? None of these questions has been fully discussed in Israel.

Deeper questions about policy and strategic deterrence have also not been seriously addressed. For example, could a future Middle East NWFZ established in the context of peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors be integrated into Israel’s security doctrine? This is a question that has barely been raised in discussions among Israel’s elite since the days of Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s “Committee for the Denuclearization of the Middle East” in the period before the 1967 war. The impression that Israeli governments (not only the current one) have been trying to create for Israeli public opinion is that all aspects of the nuclear issue are sensitive and above all political differences. Indeed, the Israeli press simply ignored the conference, and there was just one press briefing at the beginning of the conference on Israel’s positive contribution (in its view) in informal meetings and on the alleged Arab rejection that foiled attempts by the Finnish co-ordinator to convene the WMDFZ conference in Helsinki. Piecemeal reports on the presence in Israel in the final week of the conference of a semi-secret American envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman, aroused no interest.

The US Role

The official US statement accused unnamed parties of trying to “cynically manipulate” the conference on the WMDFZ question in ways that were “incompatible with our long-standing policies,” including the principle that “the creation of such zones should emanate from the regions themselves, and under a process freely arrived at and with the full mutual consent of all the states in the region.” The American delegation made efforts to improve the proposal and convince Israel to accept it, but when Egypt insisted that a March 2016 deadline include holding a preparatory conference in the final resolution, Washington ultimately rejected it.

Unfortunately the proposed language for a final document did not allow for consensus discussions among the countries of the Middle East for an agreement on the agenda and the modalities of the conference and set an arbitrary deadline for holding the conference. We attempted to work with other delegations—in particular, Egypt and other Arab League states—to improve the text; but a number of these states, and in particular Egypt, were not willing to let go of these unrealistic and unworkable conditions included in the draft text. In the end, the proposed final document outlined a process that would not build the foundation of trust necessary for holding a productive conference that could reflect the concerns of all regional states.

From a careful reading of the final draft, it would appear that the efforts of the special U.S. envoy to convince Israel to accept the ME-NWFZ proposal focused on the consensus mechanism. The consensus rules that Israel has deemed vital to its interest made their way into the final proposal. However, these were not the consensus rules that Israel had been “playing” in the five years of the Helsinki process. The consensus rules that appear in the 2015 final draft make a distinction between obligatory consensus by the states of the region on “all substantive decisions emerging from the preparatory process” (para.169.VII) and a vague and weaker condition for consensus on the organization and preparations for the convening of the conference and its agenda. As stated in para.169.VI: “the purpose of these consultations (in the preparatory meetings) is to reach a consensus on the agenda of the conference. As soon as the agenda is agreed, the Secretary General of UN will convene the conference within 45 days.”

It is possible that the US was able to live with the distinction between substantive and procedural—especially when the secretary general would have found it difficult to convene the conference on his own initiative without US approval—but not with a deadline that was as close as March 2016. This was especially true given the political context in Washington, notably President’s Obama’s battle with Republicans in Congress and AIPAC’s efforts to torpedo the nuclear agreement with Iran. The proximity of the dates between the proposed NWFZ conference and the early stages of implementation of a likely Iran nuclear deal apparently influenced the administration’s calculations. But the context can of course change, particularly if an Iranian deal is in fact consummated and successfully implemented.

Egypt’s Antagonism

Frustration at the failure of the previous decision on NWFZ (in 2010) and the U.S. thwarting of the Helsinki conference in 2012 help explain Egypt’s antagonistic mood at the NPT conference. Rather than following the Helsinki process, Cairo initially wanted to set out on a fresh path and to impose on the UN secretary general the responsibility for convening the Middle East NWFZ conference within 180 days. This clearly placed Egypt on a collision course with the US. Towards the end of the conference, Egypt moderated its positions and signed on to the compromise text, which included the mechanism for consensus rules on substantive issues presented on the last night. Egypt may have been signaling Washington that it would return to the Helsinki process if a specific date for the NWFZ conference were agreed in advance.

An important point in the Egyptian context that went unnoticed was that the US failed to make any public reference to the more positive aspects of Cairo’s original proposal; namely, to convene two working groups that would work in parallel at the conference. One of these could satisfy the Israeli demand to discuss wide-ranging regional security issues and gradual confidence- building measures. This proposal could be seen as a specific response to Israel’s conditions and as an offer for regional dialogue in line with the Arms Control Regional Security group (ACRS) from the 1990s that was spearheaded by Washington.

Indeed, this is likely to be back on the table and could draw favorable attention from US. It would appear that Egypt understood it as a case of launching an ongoing diplomatic process in the Middle East—and not simply cutting and pasting the Pelindaba Treaty for Africa NWFZ (which touches Israel’s Rafah-Taba line at the border with Egypt).

The Iranian Factor

The personal appearance of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the opening of the conference signaled the birth of a new strategic triangle involving Israel, Egypt, and Iran. The debate over a future Middle East NWFZ is no longer a duel between Israel and Egypt alone. Significantly, Tehran’s delegation noted that the original idea of nuclear disarmament in the Middle East was a 1974 Iranian initiative, thus suggesting a reassuring continuity and stability in the Islamic Republic’s security concept. The fact that observers in Israel failed to take note of the new Iranian role in this diplomatic arena is particularly ironic given the leadership’s ongoing obsession with Iran’s nuclear intentions. In fact, contrary to the antagonistic Egyptian posture, Iran presented a pragmatic line. The Iranian position paper emphasized the willingness of Iran to participate in the Helsinki conference and its contribution to the informal consultations conducted by the Finnish co-ordinator. (An Iranian representative took part in the first meeting in Switzerland together with Israeli and Arab state representatives). In contrast to Egypt, Iran called for an additional effort to renew the Helsinki process—a position that was close to that of the US and the co-sponsors. The Iranian paper also did not support the convening of the NWFZ conference within 180 days, implicitly distancing itself from Cairo’s effort to set specific deadlines to which the U.S. delegation had so strongly objected in its concluding statement.

Israel also failed to take account of another important issue that has been gaining momentum. This was the Iranian signal to Washington that it would need to speed up dealing with ME-NWFZ “the day after” any nuclear agreement is achieved with Iran. The fourth paragraph in the Iranian paper to the NPT RevCon quoted at unusual length from the White House statement following the previous decision in 2010 on the convening of the NWFZ conference in Helsinki. In this American statement, the White House placed two “reservations”—as preconditions for the convening of the NWFZ conference—both of which were intended to reassure Israel, which had been taken by surprise by the US support for the ME-NWFZ. The first condition was peace between Israel and its neighbors. The second condition referred to Iran and its failure at the time to completely abide by its non-proliferation undertakings.

The Iranian signal to the US implicitly referred to the second condition: “We are going to fulfill our part in the coming nuclear agreement—and now it is your turn.” Iran thus linked the impending nuclear agreement and progress on the NWFZ. The need for progress in the diplomatic process was not necessarily a demand for immediate symmetry. The Middle East NWFZ will be a long journey, like that of the Tlatelolco Treaty for the Latin American NWFZ.

Israel’s Long Corridor

Surprisingly, Israel—which is not a party to the NPT and does not recognize it as a source of authority for a Middle East NWFZ—sent an observer delegation to the conference and even presented its own position paper. The goal of this unusual step was to emphasize to the Americans the positive role that Israel has played in the informal consultations in Switzerland: to promote the continuation of the Helsinki process within the previous parameters (that required consensus on organizational procedures, setting the agenda as well as on the essential decisions), to set an agenda for regional security and confidence- building measures (and not a discussion only on NWFZ), and, above all, to prevent a “re-run” of the 2010 conference and the unpleasant American surprise.

The Israeli paper reflected its traditional diplomatic skirmishes with Egypt over the past decades. This “long corridor” approach focuses on the discussion of issues and conditions that are not necessarily central to non-proliferation and arms control. It envisages the creation of a regional framework for direct dialogue and confidence-building measures and their implementation in a gradual, multi-step process preceding discussions on disarmament issues in order not to reach the door at the end of the corridor. But this time there was something new and puzzling. The paper did not refer to the traditional declaratory doctrine, formulated in the 1960s, that Israel’s readiness for a verifiable NWFZ in the Middle East is conditioned on peace agreements and mutual recognition between Israel and the Arab states. In the nuclear arena, great importance is attached to the declaratory doctrine, and it is possible that its absence from the paper did not please Washington.

The US government has always taken Israel’s declaratory doctrine seriously. Washington’s recognition of Israel’s unique strategic status (as expressed in 2010 White House statements following its unexpected support for the Helsinki NWFZ conference) is made explicitly in the context of peace agreements. From Washington’s point of view, there is linkage. The nuclear issue and progress towards peace agreements are intertwined. The implication is “Peace first – then NWFZ.” Israel’s abandonment of the peace part of the equation is liable to impact the second half and could make it difficult for the US to support Israel in international disarmament fora. Already in the last days of the conference in New York, Israel could see how critical American support is. According to some reports, Israel was so “stressed” that it was necessary for the US to make extraordinary efforts to calm her; apparently via the discreet envoy from the State Department.

It is not clear from the 2015 NPT RevCon events whether the Helsinki process is dead and buried or whether it requires intensive care. Will the US try in the near future to restore it after an agreement is reached with Iran? The Middle East NWFZ issue will undoubtedly be raised again at the September 2015 UN General Assembly and possibly also in a new formation of the “coalition of the willing” in other international fora. The entry of a “new Iran” into the regional disarmament process—and the paradigm of “no Iranian nuclear weapons” following a nuclear agreement that will reaffirm Iran’s position as a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) in the NPT—are all likely to speed up the diplomatic processes dealing with regional disarmament. In this new context, and after long years of diplomatic service, Israel might find that the Long Corridor doctrine has exhausted itself. Israeli diplomacy will have to get used to dealing with NWFZ issues in a more urgent manner than in the past.


Shemuel Meir

Shemuel Meir is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a former IDF analyst and Tel Aviv University researcher. He is currently a strategic blogger for Haaretz focusing mainly on nuclear issues, Iran, and a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone.


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