Brisbane, Australia – In December of this year, the Finnish government will seek to negotiate for the complete disarmament of all biological, nuclear and chemical weapons from the Middle East.
Despite world news media giving undue airtime to the nefarious “bomb Iran” rhetoric, there remains a substantial record of legal and political experience in the formation of comparable zones of disarmament going back more than 50 years.
What are Nuclear-weapons-Free zones?
Zones free of nuclear weapons and their means of delivery (NWFZs) delegitimise nuclear weapons at a regional level by having states within a defined region entering into binding commitments not to develop and acquire nuclear weapons.
“The establishment of a nuclear weapons-free-zone covering the Middle East region was first formally proposed in 1974.“
In return, existing nuclear weapons states agree to provide legally-binding negative security assurances to zonal members, resulting in the protection of the states and peoples of the zone if threatened or subject to a nuclear weapons strike.
The first regional, land-based agreement covering a populated area, namely Latin America, was concluded in 1969. Since then these land-based NWFZs cover over 100 states, and include virtually the entire Southern Hemisphere.
Whilst no WMD Free Zone (WMDFZ) has yet been established, a strong case has been made that prevailing conditions in the Middle East make this a more appropriate option – not only for Israel in order to ensure it is not only they under pressure to disarm a central part of their arsenal, but also the Arab states and Iran who are keenly interested also in the eradication of chemical and biological weapons from the region.
The Middle East proposal
The establishment of a nuclear weapons-free-zone (NWFZ) covering the Middle East region was first formally proposed in 1974. Put forward in the form of a resolution to the United Nations General Assembly by Iran (and later supported by Egypt), the proposal gained support from 138 states, with only Burma and Israel abstaining.
Following an Israeli counter-proposal favouring direct negotiations with all other states rather than a universal fiat, in 1980 Egypt submitted a revised proposal that was agreed upon for the first time by all states in the region.
Quite remarkably, a resolution has since been passed annually, without major opposition from the relevant actors since. Yet, no formal discussions have taken place. Many factors have contributed to this disappointing outcome: the actual or perceived intention of one or more states within the region to acquire nuclear weapons; the actual or projected expansion of civilian nuclear power programs in the region; the lack of headway in resolving many of the seemingly intractable conflicts of the region; the military procurement and deterrence policies of regional powers; the role of external actors such as Turkey, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan; and differing views on the feasibility and modalities of either a nuclear weapons or WMD free zone.
Despite the improbability of agreement on a formal WMD free zone, the proposal was a central part of the 1995 Non-proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference, and is therefore critical to the continued viability of the entire nuclear weapons regime.
“Israel maintains that lasting peace agreements with its neighbours are a prerequisite to any formal negotiation.“
More than a decade later the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission headed by Hans Blix called yet againfor the implementation of existing regional NWFZs and the establishment of zones free of WMD in other regions, “particularly and most urgently in the Middle East”.
In November 2009, the Australia-Japan sponsored International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament co-chaired by former Australian foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans, put the case even more bluntly, arguing that “serious movement” toward the creation of a WMDFZ in the Middle East as advocated by the 1995 NPT Review Conference would “make or break” the recently completed 2010 RevCon, as well as the viability of the entire NPT regime.
More recently, at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, state parties unanimously called for for Israel’s accession to the NPT, to become subject to IAEA protocols concerning its nuclear weapons stockpiles and sites, and to attend a UN-sponsored conference in 2012 about a denuclearised Middle East.
|“For Iran and the Arabs, led by Egypt, it appeared a sweet victory. For Israel it is nothing but a proposition.”|
before going on to simplify the basic demands of the three key actors in the region in these terms:
|“Crudely put, Egypt, Israel and Iran have competing reasons for promoting the idea. Egypt sees it as a way of removing Israel’s nuclear superiority. Israel maintains that lasting peace agreements with its neighbours are a prerequisite to any formal negotiation. Iran uses it to exert pressure on Israel’s policy of nuclear ‘ambiguity’, and to deflect attention from its own non-compliance with international safeguards.”|
By December 2011, Finland had been named as the hosts and facilitators of the 2012 Conference on a denuclearised Middle East. In addition, numerous Track Two expert groups have met and begun to compile policy and research materials in preparation for the 2012 negotiations.
However, the task of achieving anything like a WMD free Middle East has become significantly more complex following the Arab Spring – not least of which, the removal of regimes long supportive of the proposal, the possible proliferation of chemical and biological weapons from Libya and Egypt, widespread domestic unrest in Israel, as well as the heightened fears and strategic insecurity of Israel.
Indeed, only last month the Finnish representative responsible for facilitating the negotiations confirmed that “I cannot yet report that the conference will be attended by all states of the region.”
To be sure, the road ahead will be as hard as it will be long, however, it is possible that in the next few years – and note I did not forecast this to occur in the next year – there might well be a series of agreements in place that go some way to addressing the problem of WMD in the Middle East.
Whether that is another nuclear-weapon-free zone remains to be seen. But as I reasoned 15 months ago:
|“I have some small hope that Israel too may do the unexpected, and bring its nukes to the negotiating table. Israel has the trump card in this; may Iran and the Arabs respond in kind. Relations in the Middle East are tense enough without the need for WMD.”|
With official negotiations set to begin later this year, I am willing to risk being breathtakingly naive and not ruling out that “small hope” just yet.
NAJ Taylor is a doctoral researcher at the University of Queensland, writing on the practice of environmental and humanitarian harm in modern warfare.
Follow him on Twitter: @najtaylor