Challenges to Creating a WMD Free Zone

With the current tensions in the Middle East, regional instability, ongoing debate about the nature and intent of Iran’s nuclear program, and the recent postponement of the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone conference, a Middle East WMD-free zone seems little more than a pipe dream. The conference was postponed in 2012 as a result of the “poor geopolitical climate.”[i] It is unclear whether it will be rescheduled or cancelled altogether with the U.S. State Department suggesting they will “continue to work seriously…to create conditions for a meaningful conference.”[ii]

In a timely briefing on the Challenges to Creating a Middle East WMD-Free Zone co-hosted by the Nonproliferation Review and the George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs experts stressed the importance of creating open dialogue in the region in order to lay the foundation towards a Middle East WMD-free zone.

The discussion at the event was led by Douglas B. Shaw, Associate Dean for Planning, Research, and External Relations, George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs, and Emily B. Landau, Senior Research Associate, Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.

Shaw and Landau were part of a group of experts that contributed to the Nonproliferation Special Report on Creating a Middle East WMD-Free Zone, which began with a joint conference organized between the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, in 2011. The group was formed to discuss the challenges faced by the upcoming conference on a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone which was proposed by the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 2010.

Both Shaw and Landau emphasized that the current instability in the region suggests that a Middle East WMD-free zone is unlikely in the near future. However they also stressed the importance of encouraging regional cooperation and reflected on past efforts in order to pave the way for a peaceful Middle East.

While Shaw noted that there are challenges when creating a nuclear weapon free zone he also emphasized their “imaginative” approach as a form of defense, suggesting that these zones could have the ability to reassure the security of non-nuclear weapon states. Currently there are 5 nuclear weapon free zones in Latin America, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Africa and Central Asia that prohibit the use, development, or deployment of nuclear weapons within defined geographical spaces.

In response to arguments that “zones only take place where dogs aren’t barking,” Shaw noted that some countries that currently participate in nuclear free zones gave up clandestine nuclear weapon programs prior to the entry-into-force of these zones. For example South Africa was required to dismantle its nuclear weapon capability prior to joining the Pelindaba Treaty which was opened for signature on April 12, 1996. Landau reiterated the importance of encouraging engagement and dialogue in the Middle East as she reflected on the successes and limitations of the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) group between 1992 and 1994. As the only regional arms control talks that have taken place in the Middle East to date, they are a significant reference point for the recently postponed Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone Conference that was to take place in Helsinki in late 2012.

The ACRS process concentrated on confidence building in the short term with long terms goals of addressing problems regarding WMD faced by the Middle East. It helped to improve the nature of regional tensions and reassured states of the intentions of others in a step by step manner. While the ACRS process made some positive steps towards regional cooperation the ACRS multilateral talks were put on hold indefinably in 1995, “due to complications in the peace process and the ongoing disagreement between Israel and Egypt over the question of when to place a discussion of WMD-free zone on the agenda.”[iii]

Landau suggested that this reflected the gap between the goals of the global non-proliferation regime and that of the regional effort towards non-proliferation. While she suggested regional efforts were collaborative and incremental, focused on creating good will between countries, the global efforts are more focused on immediate non-proliferation and neglect cooperation between countries.

While the ACRS was hindered by differing perspectives on arms control, lessons can be taken from them. Landau suggested that the main lesson is that the key to success of such discussions is to find a common interest for regional bodies. Unfortunately when posed with the question what are potential current points of common interest in the Middle East, she could not enumerate any. However, one could argue that there is potential for Middle East collaboration on interests both directly and indirectly related to national security among countries in the region including issues such as water, energy and environment. With current talks at a standstill, it is evident that more steps need to be taken to approach the idea of a Middle East WMD free zone, as many issues still need to be resolved.


[i] http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/mideast-wmd-summit-canceled-diplomats/

[ii] http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/11/200987.htm

[iii] http://cns.miis.edu/inventory/pdfs/acrs.pdf

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