A Middle East free of Nuclear Weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction

The idea of establishing a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Middle East was spearheaded by Iran in 1974, followed by Egyptian endorsement. In 1990, under President Hosni Mubarak’s leadership, Egypt broadened the concept of the zone to include other weapons of mass destruction and lobbied incessantly to bring discussions of the zone to the upper echelons of international relations, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the United Nations. In 1995, state parties to the NPT agreed by consensus to extend the treaty indefinitely, on the shared understanding to take steps towards the establishment of a WMD free zone in the Middle East, otherwise known as the 1995 Middle East resolution. The 1995 addendum was seminal in prolonging the treaty’s life extension and is now at the center of possible re-evaluation due to seemingly stalled progress.

This ominous prelude sets the stage for the following blog series, which aims at chronicling the progress made toward the establishment of the WMD free zone in the Middle East, while also analyzing the remaining challenges and implications of its failure to the NPT regime and regional security. The entries will draw from historical precedence and current political dispositions in order to challenge the status quo and propose a platform to move forward.

The Middle East WMD free zone and the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee Meetings: A Recap

The 2012 Helsinki conference on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East was never convened and has been indefinitely postponed, despite a definitive mandate from the last NPT Review Conference in 2010. This has turned from grit in the wheels to being a major threat to the health of the global non-proliferation regime. States are angry, and looking for leverage. This was clear earlier this month at the last Preparatory Committee in advance of next year’s Review Conference, when numerous member states made reference to their own disappointment at the failures to make progress.

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The Russian Federation emphasizes the need to convene the Helsinki conference at the 2014 NPT PrepCom

Last year Egypt staged a walkout of the PrepCom in protest over the conference’s postponement. This year, Arab states declined to give national statements during the Cluster II “specific issues” section to register their dissatisfaction. The Iraqis, speaking on behalf of the Arab group, said that Arab states would “seriously reconsider their position toward the indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty” were the conference not held before the 2015 Review Conference. Iran is expected to politically support the Arab states’ position, while Turkey warned that calling off the Helsinki conference would bring “inevitable repercussions on the 2015 Review Conference”.

Nevertheless, Finnish facilitator of the Helsinki conference, Ambassador Jaako Laajava, seemed optimistic in his remarks. He extolled the parties’ readiness and willingness to participate during three informal gatherings in Glion, Switzerland (in October 2013, November 2013 and February 2014), where the conference’s depositary states – the US, the UK and Russia – met with representatives from Middle Eastern states, including the Arab countries, Iran and Israel. The attendees discussed the possible scope of the conference’s agenda and rules of procedure, with the goal of achieving consensus on the modalities and to proceed to holding the Helsinki conference. Ambassador Laajava also announced a fourth meeting in Geneva (for May 14 – 15, 2014), set to unfold under a UN umbrella. This location further formalizes discussions and preparations toward the convening of the conference; a trend that Egyptian officials later welcomed. They also described the Geneva meeting as “preparatory” rather than merely an informal gathering, which they viewed as a semantically unprecedented change toward a more constructive approach.

A date for the conference remains undecided, however. In a bold unilateral move, the Russians declared that the conference was to be held on December 1, 2014, but the announcement was neither refuted nor endorsed by the conference’s facilitator or co-conveners. Instead, it seems likely that any decision on the subject will be left to the Geneva meeting.

The 2014 NPT PrepCom showed a mixture of optimism and dissatisfaction that might prove a catalyst for a breakthrough in the Helsinki process. Civil society members from the international community, including from Egypt and Israel (a state non-party to the NPT) actively hosted events in the sidelines of the plenary meetings, and readily engaged in discussions to find constructive proposals to challenge the perceived stalemate. This level of engagement might be the harbinger of a burgeoning process that will not settle for failed solutions, and one that sees increased interactions between Israelis and Arabs.

Nevertheless, the process still faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles, while the implications of a possible failure remain detrimental. This will be the subject of the next article.


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