Preconditions for a NWFZ in the Middle East

Lawrence Scheinman
June 13, 2008

The meeting was held in Milan, Italy on March 13-14, 2008 with Monterey Nonproliferation Strategy Group and the Italian Institute for the Study of International Politics (ISPI). Nineteen experts from nine countries including the Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Italy, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and a senior member of the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs participated this two day meeting.

The Preconditions

The establishment of such a zone has been on the international diplomatic agenda since 1974 when Iran, supported by Egypt, introduced a resolution in the UN General Assembly advocating the creation of such a zone. Although Israel joined the consensus on this resolution in 1980, it has been unwilling to begin negotiations on the creation of a zone until there was been significant progress toward the goal of a just, durable and comprehensive peace in the region.

While a political breakthrough leading to early and serious negotiation of a nuclear weapon free zone in the region is still a very far reach, it was considered to not be too soon to revisit the question of longer term prospects, and the conditions that would be necessary, to achieve progress in that direction.

Three considerations informed that judgment, namely:

  1. the prospect of a potential nuclear renaissance that includes an increased role for nuclear energy in the region and how this might be accommodated in a manner that reinforces nonproliferation rather than exacerbating the risk of further proliferation;
  2. concern regarding Iran’s nuclear activities and the prospect that it may be seeking a nuclear weapons capability under the cover of a civilian nuclear program; and
  3. the possibility that progress might be made in the current discussions between Israel and Palestine on core issues of a peace plan.

Meeting Agenda

  • Revisiting the Historical Context (in particular the 1990 UN Experts report on establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East, and the 1992-1996 Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) working group that was part of the Middle East Peace Process);
  • Political Issues;
  • Technical, Legal and Institutional Issues;
  • The Perspective of States Outside the Region (in particular the United States, Europe and Turkey); and
  • The Way Forward.
MNSG members

MNSG members

There was a widely shared perspective among participants that the dialogue was constructive and helped each to understand the perceptions and concerns of others. It was also felt that the meeting was both substantive and useful, and that it could serve as a model of how a discussion on conditions necessary for a nuclear-weapon-free zone should be, with a focus on identifying common interests and principles that could guide talks and lead toward a constructive outcome. Observations volunteered by participants included the comment that the meeting went well and above expectations; that discussion was frank, free-spirited while being friendly and fair (Israeli); and the assertion by another participant (US) that this meeting was the best discussion on the subject he had ever participated in either as a government official or an outside analyst. Yet another remarked that he felt that this was a high quality group that engaged in focused and in-depth analysis and was worth the time and effort to attend. In sum, there was an effective consensus that the meeting provided the occasion for a good exchange of views and an opportunity to explore whether conditions were becoming more conducive to making progress on a nuclear–weapon-free zone in the region and, if so, what steps were most likely to further this aim. It was also noted that while there were insufficient signs of a rethink in Israel for an early prospect of negotiations on a zone, there was interest in looking at the conditions and modalities for restarting a process of talks with the prospect that there might be less entrenched positions than before.

Virtually all participants recognized the difficulty in moving from a vision of a nuclear weapon free zone to an agenda for action at present. But it was also the case that the issue was not viewed as politically dead and that the vision of such a zone would continue to attract analytic and political interest. There was some speculation on whether after the U.S. election, and assuming a renewed interest in and attention to disarmament and not just arms control, there might be opportunities to explore a regional weapon-free zone in the context of exploring a vision of a world without nuclear weapons, but no discussion about whether there would be problems as well as advantages in seeking to do so.

On the whole there seemed to be concurrence that movement toward achieving a zone would be slow, incremental and depend on regional political complexities and military development. One factor in this regard was Iran which unfortunately was not represented at the meeting despite efforts to recruit a participant. However, discussion about the Iranian factor was limited largely to moments when the question of Israeli concern about the existence of an existential threat to its security arose. More than once the point was made that the Iranian issue dominated all other items on the regional nuclear agenda. In that regard, note was taken that the Iranian issue was the key development in the region, that perhaps down the road the weapon-free zone vision and the Iranian agenda could be merged, and that Iran was a reason for Israel to think creatively about how arms control discussions could be part of a policy of containment of Iran. At least one participant opined that a change of the policy of opacity might contribute to the goal of foreclosing another nuclear power in the region.

Next Steps

Looking ahead, the consensus view appeared to favor continuing with small, informal sessions such as this one in order to develop common understanding about the future of a Middle East Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone. Ongoing discussions such as these were seen as making it easier to avoid re-inventing the wheel in the event that political changes brought nuclear issues on to the table. One suggestion was to consider revisiting the expert study of 1990 and incorporating the Middle East issue into one of the post-Oslo studies on the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Topically it was suggested that it might be worth exploring the concept of a transitional, differentiated nonproliferation regime – i.e. a long-term proposal materializing over time. In short, the participants viewed this meeting as instructive, exceeding expectations, and a model for future efforts to identify and pursue efforts to move the region toward an eventual nuclear-weapon-free status.

Comments Are Closed