The WIP The global source for women's perspectives

Establishing a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East:Is It Possible?

by Elena Ilina

There are five nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZ) in the world, comprised of more than 100 countries. Significant tools for disarmament and nonproliferation, such zones assist in strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and contribute to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. They also promote trust, cooperation and security in the region establishing such a zone.

During the fall semester of 2007, I participated in an Arms Control Simulation class composed of students focusing on non-proliferation and conflict resolution with Professor Jean du Preez at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The students were asked to negotiate a treaty resulting in a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East and the world’s five nuclear weapon states: China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States. For the past three decades, a global movement has been working on establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East to resolve existing regional conflicts and address security needs. Our class had just four moths to propose the resolution of this long-standing and complex issue for the international disarmament community.

Key disarmament experts participated in our project, including UN Secretary General High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Ambassador Sergio Duarte, Permanent Representative of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the United Nations, Ambassador Maged A. Abdelaziz, and former diplomat Richard Butler, who served as UNSCOM Chairman. Our class spent the entire semester negotiating the treaty, studying the positions of relevant countries and gathering after class in the school cafeteria to conduct secret meetings to figure out each other’s positions. Our work was guided by the general rules of international forums, with two elected chairmen and representatives of various agencies observing our negotiations. At the last meeting of the semester, we were unable to conclude the treaty – our national positions and interests could not be reconciled.

The reason for our failure to achieve consensus and conclude the treaty was simple – the outcome of the negotiations reflected the current realities of the world and the existing obstacles that prevent regional parties from reaching an agreement: the positions of Iran and Israel, the war in Iraq, the unresolved status of the Palestinian territories and the general security situation in the region. For the Arab nations, the importance of a nuclear-weapon-free solution for the Middle East is among the highest priorities in addressing the region’s security needs, and a core condition of the deal struck to extend the NPT in 1995. On the other hand, Israel insists on a “comprehensive peace agreement.” Western states, including P-5 (permanent Security Council members China, France, Russia, UK and US), also support the idea that prior to establishing a NWFZ in the Middle East, peace talks need to take place. Meanwhile, the region continues to wait for major change in stalled negotiations.

Within the United Nations Framework

For my spring semester I went to New York for an internship at the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. One of my key tasks was to produce a general paper on the relevance of NWFZs, and in particular, research the prospects of such a zone for the Middle East. While compiling existing resolutions and statements produced at the international fora, I was astonished at how much detailed study and discussion takes place within the UN regarding the NWFZ needed in the Middle East. Moreover, numerous statements and working papers on the matter had been regularly submitted at each NPT Review Conference and Preparatory Committee session since 1995, when a resolution on the Middle East declared the intention of the international community to pursue not just a nuclear-weapon-free zone, but a broader arrangement for a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the region.

It was not a surprise then, that the issue of a NWFZ in the Middle East was among the top items on the international agenda, especially for the Arab nations (Egypt in particular) and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which is comprised of more than 100 nations. Disarmament and non-proliferation are also among the key priorities of the UN Secretary General’s agenda, which indicates the level of global interest in seeking new solutions to international security issues.

Walking in the UN halls and having informal discussions with experts and regional representatives, I became confident that the establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East has become a more urgent issue today than ever before. A representative from Chile pointed out during a conversation that NWFZs represent important building blocks for disarmament. Though an important and relevant confidence building measure, NWFZs require the commitment of the states in the region, which can often be problematic. For example, the NWFZ in Latin America and the Caribbean was established by the treaty of Tlatelolco, but took more than 40 years to achieve. The requirement of NAM and Arab states to make progress on NWFZs in the Middle East could, in fact, put the future of the NPT into question during the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

One of the UN experts on disarmament issues that I spoke to noted that “[the] Middle East is one of the biggest problems and it seems that there will not be a solution in the short-term, which also can cause problems for the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Western states should show more interest towards NWFZs in general and maybe commit to establishing one in Europe, but no doubt that today the focus should be on the Middle East.” When asked, the UK representative stated that a NWFZ in the Middle East is key to bringing stability to the region. He also added that informal negotiations, involving regional representatives and diplomats listening to each other and sharing their respective views, are very important to establishing trust among the parties. This month, London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) will host such a meeting to specifically discuss a Middle East NWFZ (MENWFZ) involving representatives from the Middle East.

In an interview, Mr. Randy Rydell, Senior Political Affairs Officer at the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, outlined needed areas of change to strengthen existing NWFZs and further contribute to disarmament efforts. He says the NPT nuclear-weapon states should sign and ratify the protocols granting negative security assurances (or guarantees from nuclear weapon states to not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states) to all NWFZ parties as well as bring the Treaties of Pelindaba and Central Asia into effect. He also says that a NWFZ must be established in the Middle East, or better yet, a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone. Mr. Rydell points out that during the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, the parties agreed to a “package deal,” which included the establishment of “an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems,” but since then there has been no progress in achieving this goal.

In light of Iran’s controversial nuclear program and recent allegations regarding Syria’s intentions to develop a nuclear weapon program and build a nuclear reactor for military purposes, as well as the conflict rising between Israel and Iran over nuclear issues, Middle Eastern security needs must be addressed. Many parties in the region have already declared their interest in acquiring nuclear energy capabilities, which at some point could be used for military purposes in a region already high in conflict. Due to this complicated political and security situation, many experts and decision makers doubt the possibility of Israel’s disarmament and establishment of the MENWFZ. And yet in this regard, a NWFZ in the Middle East could actually serve the security needs of Israel as well as the larger region.

A Way Forward?

The 1999 UN Disarmament Commission Report provides guidelines for establishing NWFZs “on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at among the States of the region concerned.” My research on the topic and experience at the United Nations brought me to the conclusion that despite external factors, it’s the regional parties who will ultimately decide the future of a NWFZ in the Middle East. Similar to my class’ failed negotiations, though we were unable to arrive at an outcome based on mutual interests, it does not mean that a solution does not exist. Cooperation from all countries in the Middle East is critical to making progress.

During our discussion, Mr. Rydell noted that “education and advocacy, including pressure on legislators and decision makers, represent a very important role of NGOs” as they can help communicate and explain complex issues to the general public and work closely with media to promote understanding. Few grassroots organizations and NGOs currently address the issue of nuclear-weapon-free-zones, including the one in the Middle East, but should to help make progress possible. Mr. Rydell referred to the instrumental role of NGOs in achieving the Mine Ban Treaty, as well as the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty.

I believe that as representatives of the global community, as citizens of our own countries and as activists in various fields seeking a safer world, we should not give up. We must instead engage in discussions, promote cultural cooperation, ask our elected officials to take appropriate steps and seek creative solutions to make progress on disarmament in general, and as a first step – establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

(The author wishes to extend her appreciation to those who provided their advice and shared their views and ideas for this piece, including the UN ODA Weapons of Mass Destruction Branch for affording her the internship opportunity.)

About the Author
Elena Ilina is in the Master’s program at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, pursuing a Certificate in Nonproliferation. Originally from Russia, she holds a degree from the Russian State University for the Humanities and a BA in political science from Beloit College in Wisconsin. In addition to her graduate studies, Elena serves as a Nuclear Analyst at Saga Foundation.
Previous publications include a volume of articles, “Islamophobia in Moscow” (2003) and an op-ed piece in National Interest online. Elena believes that entrepreneurial approaches and “outside the box” thinking can help find practical solutions to further disarmament and make the world a safer place.

Back to top