Believing in a Mideast WMD-free zone

Nuclear weapons-free zone sign from IowaHighways' flickr accountBy Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Sometimes you never know what you think about an issue until you start putting pen to paper.

Last November, the United Nations Association of the UK (UNA-UK) asked me to write a briefing report on the issue of establishing a Middle East Zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. (This mouthful is usually abbreviated as MEWMDFZ, or sometimes simply called the ‘zone’.) The paper would be the second in a UNA-UK series on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Part of the organisation’s ‘Towards Zero‘ programme, the paper seeks to raise awareness ahead of a conference being organised later this year by Jaakko Laajava, Finland’s under secretary of state for foreign and security policy, in support of the zone goal.

My initial reaction was to wonder whether there was anything new to say on the subject, given that the zone has been on the international agenda since 1974 and is as distant now as it was then. I also confess to having harboured some initial cynicism about whether the 2012 conference would contribute to the goal of a zone, or indeed whether it would even be held, given the differences among the key players.

But being a member of UNA-UK’s Policy Advisory Group and having been asked by Laajava to lend him support I couldn’t refuse the commission. As I began to research and write, I realised that the rationale for creating such a zone was stronger than ever. As I wrote in the introduction:

‘If established and faithfully implemented – certainly two big “ifs”– a Zone banning all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles would be an answer to the Iranian nuclear crisis that threatens to spark regional proliferation and engulf the Middle East in another war. It would remove the sense of double standards over Israel’s nuclear programme; the threat posed by chemical weapons programmes in Syria and elsewhere; and one of the dangers associated with introducing nuclear energy in the region. It could help to create the conditions for regional cooperation on future challenges, such as reduced oil supplies, rising temperatures and the needs of growing populations. And it could address popular demands regarding nuclear policies that could find new expression in the peoplepower wave that has swept the Arab world. The non-proliferation benefits of a MEWMDFZ would resonate beyond the Middle East. It would serve to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by fulfilling a key bargain that enabled indefinite extension of the treaty in 1995.’

After assessing the history of the zone concept, lessons learned from zones elsewhere, and the unique challenges of the Middle East, I realised that some interim steps were possible. I concluded that the 2012 conference could be a success if it made progress toward the minimum objectives of the two essential partners – Egypt and Israel – through a strategic trade-off. The concluding final paragraph of the report notes:

‘The Israelis need help with their security concerns in light of the growing instability on their borders. The Egyptians need to demonstrate that it made sense to accept an indefinite extension of the NPT in exchange for a commitment by major powers to a MEWMDFZ. For concrete progress toward this goal, a re-declaration of principles should be supplemented by the establishment of a continued process. The Conference must be forward-looking, with a focus on security and nuclear disarmament. If the 2012 Conference and its attendant process point the way forward to the implementation of a Zone and of a new set of security arrangements in the Middle East, it would be attractive to both of the essential players. Other nations, within and outside the region, would also be well served.’


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