Working Toward a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Mideast

by Shemuel Meir

Earlier this month, I attended an international conference in Berlin which brought together diplomats, former military officers, academic researchers and think tank analysts from the Middle East and Europe. The conference took place within the framework of the “Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East” of the Peace Research Institute Franfkfurt (PRIF).

The “orchestra” is composed of experts on the Middle East, from within and outside the region, who meet to discuss ideas and parameters for promoting the diplomatic process in the Middle East in parallel to the official communications and meetings between the countries concerned in a classical Track 2 initiative. When the official meetings between the countries of the region are as tension filled as those of our region are stuck and on the brink of collapse – Track 2 meetings are the only game in town.

And indeed, the meeting in Berlin was intended to discuss ideas and to create a new momentum for preventing the proliferation of weapons on mass destruction in the Middle East following the failure of the NPT Review Conference in May 2015, which concluded in a dead end without reaching a common agreement because of the inability of the U.S. to bridge the gaps between Egypt and Israel regarding the establishment of a zone in the Middle East that would be free of weapons of mass destruction (ME – WMD Free Zone) with an emphasis on the nuclear. Since the 1995 renewal of the NPT, unlimited in time, the issue of a Middle East nuclear free zone has formed a central pillar of the Treaty alongside the pillars on non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful nuclear energy. The U.S., which in the spring of 2015 set as a high priority the achievement of the Iranian nuclear agreement, preferred at that time not to enter into a collision course with Israel on the nuclear issue. The failure of the U.S. mediation effort between Egypt and Israel (in spite of the secret mission of the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State) prevented the achievement of a non-proliferation common action plan and ended, for the time being, the efforts to convene the conference on a Middle East WMD Free Zone (the Helsinki process led by the Finns) which had been decided on at the previous Review Conference in 2010.

It is possible that Israel breathed a sigh of relief following the pause in the Helsinki process. But this pause is likely to be short lived. The international community is already preparing for the next Review Conference which will take place in 2020 and will be celebratory in nature since it marks the 50th anniversary of the NPT. Preparatory NPT conferences are planned to begin in the spring of 2017. The Berlin conference was intended to launch Track 2 in anticipation of the preparatory meetings and to serve as platform for ideas and plans for exiting the dead end.

The point of departure for our discussion was to try to understand exactly what happened at the May 2015 Review Conference and the reasons for the failure in reaching a common agreement (a difficult task since the discussions between the U.S. and the sides took place in closed rooms), to identify the mistakes of the Helsinki process for a Middle East nuclear free zone and whether it is possible to formulate ideas and draw conclusions from similar processes in other parts of the world.

The success in reaching the JCPOA on the Iranian nuclear program in Vienna in July 2015 was a milestone in international non-proliferation diplomacy. The agreement blocked the potential tracks for a nuclear weapon equipped Iran. So the question is whether it is possible to build on the JCPOA’s positive momentum and to adopt some of the limitations and prohibitions imposed on Iran as well as the intrusive monitoring system in other parts of the world. It is worth noting in this regard the Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s public invitation in The Guardian to the P5+1 on the day following the agreement: “Iran has signed a historic nuclear deal – now it is Israel’s turn.” The Iranians appear to see this as a process that will take years and not a demand for an immediate symmetry.

One of the ideas that was examined in this context at the Berlin conference was an attempt to promote a Middle East nuclear free zone in stages through the establishment of sub regional nuclear free zone that would include the Gulf States and Iran. The establishment of a sub-regional nuclear free zone in the Persian Gulf could act as a pilot to be later expanded to include the Middle East (the Arab League countries plus Iran and Israel). The idea would be to create an interim stage in the establishment of a Middle East NWFZ in which Egypt and the North African countries would be under the umbrella of the Pelindaba Treaty for an African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (bordering Israel up to the Rafah – Eilat line) and in the Arab East (without Syria and Iraq at this stage) in the framework of a Gulf WMD Free Zone.

In spite of the distrust and hostility between the Saudis and the Iranians, it is worth discussing this sub zonal concept. From the Saudi and Gulf country point of view, the agreement with Iran put an end to the domino theory of Middle East nuclearization. One of the Iran deal’s important achievements is the prevention of the appearance of new nuclear states in the Middle East and the cessation of the nuclear arms race in the region which could have developed following a nuclear weapons equipped Iran. From the Iranian point of view, the JCPOA showed its willingness to become part of the international non-proliferation efforts to the extent that it signed an agreement outside the framework of the NPT. Iran also proclaimed the importance that it sees in the improvement of its relations with its neighbors in the Gulf. From this point of view, a Gulf MWD Free Zone could serve as a confidence building measure.

It would appear that at this early stage, Iran and Egypt are not enthusiastic about the idea of the Gulf as a sub region. Egypt in particular who would point to the absence of Israel and ask what the point of the zone would be when all the Arab countries and Iran are signatories of the NPT and under IAEA supervision – comparable to looking for the proverbial penny under the lamplight. Egypt is also likely to see a sub-regional Gulf zone as an additional attempt to “downgrade” its leading position in the nuclear free zone issue in favor of the new player, Iran.

An additional idea discussed for getting out of the dead end was the establishment of a zone that would prohibit nuclear tests in the Middle East as a first step and confidence building measure for a NWFZ. Israel, Iran and Egypt are among the eight countries required to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in order for the Treaty to enter into force. But already as countries that have signed the Treaty, they are obliged to carry out in good faith the Treaty requirements and not carry out nuclear tests. In this context, the ratification of the CTBT by Iran, Israel and Egypt could standardize once and for all and in an obligatory manner the ban on nuclear testing in their borders. The ratification by the countries in the region and the establishment of a Middle East “Nuclear Test Free zone” would be preferable to the proposal to declare a regional moratorium on nuclear testing. The ratification of the CTBT by the three countries would also strengthen the region’s monitoring and verification system.

Including the ban on nuclear testing in the Middle East in the discussion of a nuclear free zone in a Helsinki format could help to break the deadlock on the NWFZ discussion. Most importantly, it would enable a temporary circumvention of one of the preconditions (an Arab demand that Israel sign the NPT) and to give the sides a framework to open professional and practical discussions. In addition, it would introduce substantial strategic content in a real step-by-step process which is often perceived in a negative manner and as a delaying tactic and means to deflect attention from essential issues.

These ideas were combined with a proposal to learn from the multilateral framework to promote regional security and arms control in the Middle East (ACRS). This was the working group for regional security that was active in the 1990s as part of the Israeli-Arab peace process. But this time, there would be necessary to adapt such an effort to the new regional strategic environment. The idea would be to create a broad framework for regional dialogue on proliferation and arms control which would include as many countries of the region as possible. Parallel working groups would discuss regional issues (for example, confidence building measures with military significance and monitoring and verification systems lessons drawn from the Tlatelolco model for the de-nuclearization of Latin America which combined regional and international inspection and verification) and on global agreements on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. One of the reasons for the failure of ACRS (in addition to the collapse of the peace process) was Israel’s insistence not to discuss nuclear arms control and non-proliferation anchored in global agreements. When it comes to nuclear proliferation, the regional and global are intertwined.

Finally, many tend to attribute the inability to advance Middle East nuclear non-proliferation processes to the absence of trust between the sides. My lesson from the Iran agreement is that it is possible to hold discussions and contacts between hostile countries such as the US and Iran even in the absence of trust and mutual affection on condition that the final product is anchored in a tight and intrusive monitoring and verification system of the highest degree.

Photo: IAEA conference on nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, Vienna, November 2011 (courtesy IAEA Imagebank via Flickr)

This article is reprinted, with permission, from +972 blog.

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.