Middle East security at the crossroads: Urgent need for a WMD-free zone

Preventative diplomatic action is needed to halt nuclear proliferation and ensure disarmament of WMD in the Middle East.

"While Israel steps up its rhetoric over Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, it continues to ignore the part its own nuclear weapons play in regional insecurity," says author [EPA]

As tensions mount in the Middle East, so do the demands for a regional WMD-free zone. Nearly 40 years after such a zone was first proposed on the floor of the United Nations, the need is as urgent as ever. So it’s good news that finally some tentative steps are being made to move forward on outlawing the Middle East’s weapons of mass destruction. 

This December, the Finnish government is hosting a conference in Helsinki, on behalf of the UN, with experienced diplomat and politician Jaakko Laajava bringing together the region’s states to discuss this most elusive but necessary goal.
Many will see this proposal as a pipedream, but Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones (NWFZs) are highly successful forms of collective security across large parts of the world. Currently, 115 states and 18 other territories belong to 5 regional treaties, covering a majority of the earth’s surface, including almost the entire southern hemisphere.

The establishment of such a zone in the Middle East was first proposed in 1974 by Iran. In 1990, it was extended by Egypt to include other WMD, reflecting the serious concern around chemical and biological warfare in the region. A resolution on achieving a WMD-free zone was adopted at the 1995 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. 

Subsequently, the 2010 NPT Review Conference identified five steps necessary towards the goal of establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, including convening a regional conference in 2012 and appointing a facilitator. 

As this conference draws near (The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s (CND) free international conference, Building towards a nuclear weapons-free Middle East: Civil society input for a new Helsinki process, which draws together anti-nuclear activists from Britain and the Middle East to discuss input and raise the profile of this crucial issue, takes place in London on Saturday, October 13.), not surprisingly, questions over whether it can succeed are surfacing. But the consequences if it should fail are unthinkable.

Regional insecurities

While Israel steps up its rhetoric over Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, it continues to ignore the part its own nuclear weapons play in regional insecurity. Meanwhile, other states have made it clear that if Iran did develop a nuclear weapons capability, they would seek their own. 


 People & Power – Iran and the Bomb

As one senior Saudi Arabian official in Riyadh said: “We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don’t. It’s as simple as that… if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit.”

Preventative diplomatic action must be taken now to halt nuclear proliferation and ensure the disarmament of WMD within the Middle East. Building support for the UN’s conference not only in both high-level meetings, but also within grassroots movements is crucial. 

To this end, CND is holding a free public conference in London this weekend. Drawing speakers from around the Middle East, we are seeking to discuss how civil society can input into and support this process – as Jaakko Laajava has himself requested – and highlight the urgency of action (for more information see here). 

Amid escalating tensions between Iran and Israel, both policymakers and the public in the region would do well to look to the African and Latin American examples. They demonstrate how regional security can be far more effectively achieved through co-operative, transparent and rigorously verified security frameworks.

Building genuine security

In the Treaty of Pelindaba (Africa), South Africa set a precedent, becoming the first state with nuclear weapon capabilities to enter into a NWFZ: preferring the long-term benefits of collective security over the totemic status but ultimate insecurity of maintaining a nuclear arsenal. 

In the Middle East, the proliferation of WMD has persistently been a strain on diplomacy. In a region where one state is widely acknowledged to have nuclear weapons, four others have at some point violated their safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and another has been found conducting undeclared activities, transparency is key to building trust. 

Open discussions about security concerns and weapons capacity will be vital to the success of this zone: and it begins with opening channels of communication which are the building blocks of peace and genuine security.

There are of course significant obstacles to overcome before this conference can succeed, but certainly, the biggest threat to the region would be failure. Failure to move forward in establishing a WMD-free zone will mean that the stakes will remain higher in any potential conflict. And the stakes are always a human cost. 

“We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don’t… if Iran develops a nuclear weapon… we will have to follow suit.”

– A senior Saudi Arabian official 

In a document submitted in May to the planning committee of the NPT Review Conference in 2015, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said the Arab League sees the Helsinki conference as an important crossroad with regard to its nuclear policies. If realistic and practical steps towards WMD disarmament cannot be agreed upon, then nuclear proliferation will become a dangerous reality across the region. The international community should do all it can to avert this.

NWFZs are fundamental mechanisms for tackling precisely these insecurities and subsequent escalations. The Treaty of Tlatelolco (South America) included two competing treaty members, Argentina and Brazil, both with large nuclear power industries with the capability of developing nuclear weapons. The treaty provided the confidence-building framework and a norm of non-proliferation which defused the potential and perceived need for pursuing nuclear weapons systems. 

And it is not unthinkable to suggest that this is a feasible outcome in the Middle East: the landmark co-operation and negotiations which would be essential in establishing a WMD-free zone would be positive for intra-regional relations. And while states may be cautious in their approach, if they believe that this can be a serious framework for peaceful co-existence then of course they would be supportive. Such caution can be gradually turned to confidence, through robust and transparent verification measures, as well as binding mechanisms with teeth.

This Finnish-led UN conference represents a significant moment which we would do well to seize upon. To allow this momentum to falter could well result in a hitherto unseen scale of nuclear proliferation across the region, the implications of which are grim. But if we are to build on this momentum it could represent a significant step towards global disarmament and completely transform security relations within one of the world’s most unstable regions. 

Dr Kate Hudson was chair of the UK-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from 2003 to September 2010, when she became general secretary. She is a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner nationally and internationally.