Assistant Secretary Ford on Efforts Toward a Middle East WMD-Free Zone

August 9, 2019

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On Friday, August 2, Assistant Secretary Christopher A. Ford gave a luncheon discussion at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies Washington, DC, office to discuss a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East. The event attracted around 80 policy experts, government officials, and members of the media. CSPAN broadcast the event live.

During his remarks, Assistant Secretary Ford stressed that the United States supports the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, asserting the US policy that the zone must meet several crucial conditions, which successive US administrations and other governments embraced. Crucial among these is that the zone must be freely established by the regional parties. Ford stated that current efforts to put pressure on regional states to negotiate zone treaty by having the UN secretary-general convene an annual conference with the mandate to develop it does not meet this criterion. He urged those promoting the UN conference to work directly with other regional governments to move the concept forward. The full text of the Dr. Ford’s speech is below.

The assistant secretary’s remarks were followed by a robust question-and-answer session that was Chatham House rules.

Watch CNS’s video of the event.

Full transcript of Dr. Ford’s presentation:

Whither a Middle East WMD-Free Zone?

Remarks by Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford
Assistant secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation

James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Washington, DC

August 2, 2019

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It’s good to be back at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), and I’m pleased to have the chance to talk with you today. I want to express my thanks, in particular, to Dr. Chen Kane for moderating this event.

Today, I would like to discuss a longstanding issue that may not always rise to the attention of many policymakers here in Washington, but which represents an important, shared aspiration of the United States and all Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT): the objective of creating a zone in the Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.

The NPT Context

But first, for the benefit of those not already initiated into the wonky world of NPT diplomacy, allow me to say a few words of introduction regarding the broader context for this issue. NPT Parties are currently in the throes of preparing for the 2020 Review Conference of the Treaty, which will take place next spring at the United Nations in New York and will mark the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force. NPT Review Conferences (known as RevCons) take place every five years and are intended to take stock of progress made in implementing the Treaty to date and assess areas where more can be done.

As we near the 2020 RevCon and commemorate 50 years of the NPT, there are, unsurprisingly, a great many important topics NPT Parties can and should be discussing. Most obviously — and most appropriately for reviewing implementation of a nonproliferation treaty — NPT Parties should be talking about how the international community can better support efforts to solve the most pressing nuclear proliferation challenges facing the world today. In this respect, we should be discussing the need to achieve the final and fully verified denuclearization of North Korea, and how to get that country to return to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state that complies with all its nonproliferation obligations.

We should also be discussing the need to ensure that Iran never acquires the means to break out of its own nuclear obligations into rapid weaponization, and to hold the regime accountable for its nuclear brinkmanship and attempts to monetize nuclear irresponsibility in its crude campaign of atomic extortion. We must also ask ourselves why Iran secretly retained and concealed (and still denies) an archive of materials from its past nuclear weapons program well after the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), if not to keep its nuclear weapons options open. More broadly, we should all be thinking about how the diplomatic community can work together better to ensure that Iran does not develop the dangerous fissile material production capabilities that nuclear deal so unwisely would have permitted it.

NPT Parties should also be discussing more generally the security benefits that the NPT has provided to all States Party – non-nuclear weapon states and nuclear-weapon states alike – by forestalling rampant proliferation of nuclear weapons. And we should be discussing the way nonproliferation assurances provide a foundation for other benefits. It is nonproliferation, for instance, that helps make possible the sharing of nuclear technology with low risk of diversion, and it is nonproliferation that helps provide a foundation for disarmament by building confidence that as existing possessors take steps to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals, as envisioned by the NPT, other states will not then step into the vacuum with their own nuclear weapons programs.

Leonard Spector

NPT Parties should be taking stock of the concrete benefits that the nuclear nonproliferation regime has helped make possible — such as helping countries around the world use nuclear technology safely, securely, and sustainably, not only to generate low-carbon and dependable electric power, but also to help make the people of the developing world healthier and more prosperous in innumerable ways. And we should be highlighting the progress already made in living up to the NPT’s disarmament ideals as the Cold War’s nuclear superpowers have cut back their nuclear arsenals by between 80 and 90 percent, and exploring how to make the world a place in which further disarmament would become easier and easier.

In short, in the run-up to the RevCon, we should be focused on the enormous benefits all NPT Parties derive from the Treaty and the broader nuclear nonproliferation regime, and the common interest NPT Parties have in preserving and extending those benefits. There remain significant areas of disagreement, of course, but NPT Parties should not let those differences overshadow the much broader and more fundamental areas of agreement.

The specific issue I would like to discuss today – how to move forward on advancing a Middle East zone free of all weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery – is, unfortunately, a topic that has given rise to much acrimony in the NPT review process. While NPT Parties are unified about the long-term goal of pursuing a WMD-free Middle East, there remains considerable disagreement among regional states and NPT Parties more broadly about the best path to achieving that objective. Making matters more complicated, many past and present initiatives related to the “Zone” issue have been pursued alongside the ubiquitous, if sometimes more subtle, Israel-bashing polemics that one normally hears in UN and NPT fora. Notwithstanding the politically motivated and often counterproductive manner in which the issue has often been pursued, the “Zone” deserves our serious consideration, so I’m glad to have the chance to explore the topic in more depth here today.

The Prehistory of Today’s Zone Debates

The concept of nuclear weapon free zones (NWFZs), it must be said, did not begin auspiciously. In fact, if I’m not mistake, the first one ever proposed was a zone in Central Europe advocated in the late 1950s by Poland and its Warsaw Pact allies as a thinly-veiled way of precluding the deployment of nuclear weapons in West Germany as the newly-formed NATO alliance attempted to deter aggression by the Red Army. “Zone” debates, therefore, got off on rather a bad foot – being advanced not in order to promote international peace and security but instead as a disingenuous effort to co-opt disarmament discourse in support of self-aggrandizing geopolitical objectives.

Nevertheless, despite having their origin in such efforts to weaponize multilateral diplomacy and anti-nuclear moralism to undermine Western deterrence, NWFZs have become popular with the global disarmament community in subsequent years. Five “zone” treaties are currently in force: in Latin America and the Caribbean (the Treaty of Tlatelolco), Africa (Pelindaba), Southeast Asia (Bangkok), the South Pacific (Rarotonga), and Central Asia (Semipalatinsk).

The idea of establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East was originally proposed by Iran – the Shah’s Iran, interestingly – and was later formalized by a 1974 UN General Assembly resolution. The foundational multilateral document for the broader idea of a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone – a phrase that unfortunately yields the entirely unpronounceable acronym of MEWMDFZ – is the “Resolution on the Middle East” adopted at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, at which all NPT Parties also agreed to the indefinite extension of the NPT. Significantly, that resolution took a thoughtful step beyond the exclusively nuclear-focused tradition of NWFZ discourse, and called instead not just for a Middle Eastern zone free of nuclear weapons, but in fact “an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical[,] and biological, and their delivery systems.” To advance that objective, it called on regional states to take “practical steps” aimed at making progress on such a zone and called upon all NPT Parties, and particularly the five nuclear weapon states under the NPT, to lend their support.

I won’t bore you today with a detailed history of how efforts to address this issue in the NPT context have failed. If you are interested in more details on that topic, I would refer you to a working paper that the United States submitted at the 2018 NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) on “Establishing Regional Conditions Conducive to a Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Delivery Systems,” which is publicly available on the UN’s website. Suffice it to say for present purposes that the lack of progress on the issue has been a source of constant recriminations and division in the NPT review process.

Assistant Secretary Ford giving a lecture at MIIS

Flaws with Top-Down Approaches to a MEWMDFZ

In general terms, there seem to be two competing approaches to how to think about the “Zone.” The first, long adopted by Arab League states, follows a model that relies on external pressure through multilateral means to compel progress on a regional “Zone” – and, more specifically, to compel Israel to accept the Arab League’s approach to this issue. Rather than seeking to facilitate direct engagement between regional stakeholders, on the basis of mutually acceptable arrangements, and in a manner aimed at addressing all parties’ legitimate security concerns, this approach attempts to use NPT processes or multilateral resolutions to isolate or coerce regional diplomatic counterparts to the table from afar and based on terms dictated by a small cadre of officials located largely in one regional capital.

This Arab approach is, of course, generally inconsistent with widely accepted principle that such zones must be based on arrangements freely arrived at among regional states, and as a result, it has proven deeply unproductive and damaging for the NPT review cycle. It proceeds from a similar logic to that of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which assumes that ambitious arms control progress can be achieved without buy-in from key stakeholders and in the absence of any efforts to address underlying security challenges, and through means that center on demonizing and pressuring those who disagree with that approach to solving the problem.

The most recent example of this approach is the UN General Assembly’s adoption last fall, albeit highly controversially and with clearly divided support, of a decision submitted by the Arab Group requesting that the UN Secretary General convene a conference in New York to negotiate a treaty establishing such a zone, which would meet annually until its mission is accomplished. It is important to point out that the Arab Group submitted this decision over the explicit objection of a key regional state – Israel – and made absolutely no effort to address well-known Israeli redlines on the issue, including the role of the UN, the inclusion of discussion of broader regional security issues, and consensus on potential outcomes of any process. If the sponsors of this decision truly wanted to pursue inclusive and constructive discussions with all the regional states, as they have claimed, seeking to impose terms that they knew well to be unacceptable to key regional stakeholders seems an unhelpful means of achieving that goal. Not surprisingly, Israel has since confirmed that it will not attend the conference in November.

For our part, we have made very clear that we do not believe that the new UN “conference” process represents a constructive, inclusive way forward and that, for this reason, the United States will also not participate in the conference. Far from being a good faith effort by regional states to work out their differences together — an effort that would have deserved, and gotten, full-throated support from across the international community, including from us — this new conference process appears to us to be an attempt to “weaponize” multilateral diplomacy, taking advantage of majoritarian UN General Assembly voting procedures to do what clearly could not be agreed more broadly, in order to isolate and pressure another regional state that has different views regarding how to move forward on regional security and arms control.

Indeed, by designing a process that deliberately runs afoul of other regional states’ well-known redlines, the co-sponsors of the decision have only succeeded in creating an expensive, annual process that effectively precludes the possibility of participation by all the regional states concerned. We hope other invitees to the conference will recognize the fundamentally unconstructive nature of this conference and join us in not participating. One can only hope, now that they have won their UN vote and secured a conference on the terms they wanted, that certain Arab League states will refrain from once again wrecking an NPT RevCon over this issue. To that end, we are encouraging other NPT Parties to join us in holding the sponsors of this decision to their promises that the conference in November will finally end the “Zone”-related activism that has so frequently imperiled the NPT review process, and will not merely result in more failed attempts on the part of the same states to hold the NPT RevCon hostage over these matters – for example, by seeking to create linkages between this misguided UN process and the NPT itself. Such linkages would undoubtedly fail, and could cause great damage in the process.

Building Blocks for an Alternative Approach

But I suggested that there are two possible ways to try to get to a “Zone” in the Middle East. So let me say a word about the second approach.

It is precisely our seriousness about the 1995 Resolution that makes us so committed to seeking a more viable way forward. Make no mistake: The United States remains committed to the goals of the Resolution, and to maintaining the integrity of the NPT processes that such “Zone” debates periodically threaten to derail. We are doing our utmost, alongside other NPT States Party, to support the regional states in finding and implementing practical steps in moving beyond the failed thinking of the past and forward constructively toward the Resolution’s ultimate goal of a “Zone.”

As we see it, a truly constructive approach to someday establishing a “Zone” in the Middle East must start with a return to first principles. To begin with, we would do well to remember the principles and guidelines for the establishment of nuclear-weapon-free zones that the UN Disarmament Commission adopted by consensus in 1999. These principles and guidelines stress that such zones “should be established on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at among the States of the region concerned” and “should emanate exclusively from States within the region concerned and be pursued by all the States of that region.” That certainly is no description of efforts to date to promote the Middle East “Zone” in the NPT review process, nor of the current UN-based initiative. But there is no reason to think that regional states couldn’t find ways to come together in good faith as the principles and guidelines describe, if only some states would put aside their penchant for misusing global multilateral fora to apply exogenous political pressure and choose instead to engage directly with their neighbors.

Then, of course, we would also need to keep in mind the exhortations of the 1995 Resolution itself — specifically, its emphasis upon achieving “practical steps in appropriate for[a] aimed at making progress towards, inter alia, the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical[,] and biological, and their delivery systems.” One doesn’t have to be much of a scholar of recent regional affairs to see how important it is that the Resolution specifies this degree of breadth, given the range of problems that the Middle East faces beyond solely nuclear ones.

Most obviously, the region has been plagued by threats deriving from the repeated use of chemical weapon – both the nerve agent sarin and chlorine – by the Assad regime in Syria and ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Elsewhere in the region, states have continued to pursue chemical weapons programs without significant international attention. For example, the United States has had longstanding concerns that Iran maintains a chemical weapons program that it has failed to declare to the OPCW. Equally challenging, Iran’s development of increasingly sophisticated missile capabilities and its egregious transfers of ballistic and cruise missiles to Houthi militias in Yemen and even missile production technology to Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.

No one serious about implementing the 1995 Resolution can ignore these chemical weapon and missile proliferation problems. I would submit that any government that is not keen to rein in these threats should be presumed to have disqualified itself from speaking credibly in favor of the zone called for in that important document. Any meaningful effort to vindicate the ideals of 1995 must surely begin by taking these threats seriously — as well as by working to hold Iran accountable for its efforts at nuclear extortion and to ensure Iran does not acquire the capability to rapidly reconstitute nuclear weaponization and “breakout” capabilities — for these are obviously the most significant proliferation threats afflicting the Middle East, and one could not possibly imagine making real progress towards a regional “Zone” without addressing them. Talking of moving toward a “Zone” without trying to address these problems is a prima facie sign that the proponents are not serious about the stated goal of a “Zone” and are more interested in exploiting political divisions.

Ultimately, as we pointed out in the U.S. working paper I referenced from the 2018 NPT PrepCom — and as is also the case on the broader world stage when it comes to the challenge of creating a global security environment more favorable to complete nuclear disarmament — the path to a “Zone” can only lie through practical steps and confidence building measures aimed at building trust and ameliorating unfavorable conditions in the broader security environment. Trying to negotiate a WMD-free zone treaty irrespective of those conditions and without the participation of all the regional states is only likely to increase regional tensions and make a “Zone” far less likely. That’s actually why the current UN conference process ironically undermines the ideals of the 1995 Resolution. A process that is by design exclusionary – in effect, if not in word – moves us further from achieving the goals of the 1995 Resolution, not closer to it.

Assistant Secretary Ford Speaking

Reasons for Optimism

Of course, there is still hope that regional states will be able to find the political will and good faith to approach implementing the 1995 Resolution in a more cooperative, constructive manner. I remain optimistic, and I urge you to be optimistic as well.

One reason for my optimism can be seen in the ministerial conference on peace and security in the Middle East that was held last February in Poland — and which some are already calling the catalyst for a new “Warsaw Process” to address the security challenges of that troubled region. That ministerial, which I had the honor of attending, was not expressly described as an effort to contribute to ameliorating the security conditions that have hitherto prevented movement toward a Middle East zone free of WMD and delivery systems, but that is, in effect, in part the case. Among its many attendees were representatives from an impressive range of Middle Eastern countries — attending, in many cases, at the Foreign Minister or even Prime Ministerial level — including Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, all sitting down together to discuss obstacles to peace in the region and potential ways to overcome them. Multiple thematic follow-on meetings from this process are being organized, and we hope to continue to build momentum behind this initiative.

Another reason for optimism is the recent kick-off Plenary Meeting of the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) Working Group, which took place July 2nd and 3rd here at the State Department in Washington. At this meeting, representatives from 42 countries, including a diverse spectrum of states from the Middle East region, met to deliberate on ways to address challenges in the international security environment and improve prospects for disarmament negotiations. This was the first meeting of a broader initiative that seeks to find ways to improve the international security environment in order to overcome obstacles to further progress on nuclear disarmament. The format of these discussions was purposely informal, designed to go beyond the prepared statements typical in other multilateral disarmament fora and to produce more in-depth and interactive exchanges. We were quite pleased with the candor and engagement of all the participants and the impressive range and diversity of perspectives represented – not least by including participants from Middle Eastern states that come at the “Zone” issue from very different perspectives, and whose diplomats are seldom otherwise seen in the same room together. We believe the process is off to a very promising start.

Did the Warsaw ministerial or the CEND Kick-Off Plenary solve all the problems of the Middle East and finally open a path to promptly implementing the 1995 Resolution? Of course not – or certainly not yet, at any rate. But we are optimistic that both can only help, and that the model of good-faith regional and international engagement and cooperation that they represent will prove a salutary one, particularly by comparison to more coercive approaches.

In any event, I can promise you that as the regional states do come together in good faith to work through the security issues that divide them and have hitherto prevented movement toward a Middle East free of all forms of WMD and delivery systems, these efforts will have the wholehearted support of the United States — as well, I trust, as that of a great many more countries besides. Certainly, they will have my support. When all relevant countries are finally able to come together constructively and on the basis of mutually acceptable arrangements, that will then be the time for broader multilateral institutions like the United Nations to step in by voicing encouragement and offering their good offices to support and facilitate such regionally-driven progress.

Thank you.

Christopher Ford

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