Establish a chemical and biological WMD free zone in the Middle East now

Today, with growing turmoil in the Middle East, setting up a collaboration leading to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons in the region appears out of the question.

By YONAH ALEXANDER, MILTON HOENIG
July 13, 2019 21:30
4 minute read.
A late night view of the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel during an extended round of Iran nuclear talks

A late night view of the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel during an extended round of Iran nuclear talks in Lausanne. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The idea of a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone in the Middle East has been around for decades, but the path towards this noble goal of verifiably ridding the region of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons has failed to achieve any substantial progress. This triad’s nuclear component continues to be the sticking point, as illustrated in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s July 1 announcement that Iran had exceeded the limit set by the 2015 nuclear agreement – the Joint Comprehensive plan of action, or JCPOA – on the size of its low-enriched uranium stockpile.

The US warned then that Iran is “playing with fire,” and indeed, on July 3, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that the Islamic republic would start enriching uranium to higher levels than allowed by the 2015 accord. These measures would decrease the breakout time to producing enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. This is merely an example of the recurring nuclear quandary and the failure to gain consensus. The challenge is to move ahead to establishing a chemical and biological WMD Free Zone in the region now.

Today, with growing turmoil in the Middle East, setting up a collaboration leading to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons in the region appears out of the question. A major contributing factor to the hesitation is that Israel is the only Middle East state in possession of nuclear weapons. Another is the sunset clauses in the 2015 JCPOA that remove limitations on Iran’s safeguarded nuclear program after 2030. A further source of concern is the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA in May 2018 and the re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran. Finally, there is the growing alliance of Saudi Arabia with other Arab states to confront Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions.

What is left at the table is the distinct possibility of the Middle East states forging an agreement on creating a Chemical and Biological Weapons Free Zone – free just of chemical and biological weapons and their means of delivery. Nuclear weapons would be handled separately at some later, quieter time. Agreeing on banning chemical and biological weapons is easier because, in the first place, no state admits to having them.

Nevertheless, in Syria’s ongoing civil war, the use of chemical weapons to spread sarin, sulfur mustard gas and chlorine has received wide attention. Even after acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in October 2013 following release of sarin gas on the town of Ghouta that August, the Syrian military is accused by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which implements the CWC, of using chemical weapons, particularly chlorine gas. In addition, Iraq is accused of having used the chemical nerve agents tabun and sarin and mustard gas during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.


THE 1993 CWC prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of chemical weapons and requires their destruction. It has an extensive verification regime via the OPCW. On the other hand, the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which bans the production and stockpiling of biological weapons and their means of delivery, does not have effective oversight and verification components.

Full adherence to the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions is a prerequisite for membership in the Middle East Chemical and Biological WMD Free Zone. Currently, Egypt is the only country that has neither signed nor ratified the CWC, and Israel has not ratified it. In addition, Israel has neither signed nor ratified the BWC, and Egypt and Syria have not ratified it.

For complete transparency in the proposed Chemical and Biological Weapons Free Zone, more must be known to ascertain the complete absence of clandestine chemical and biological weapons programs in zone-member countries. Currently, estimates of undeclared chemical and biological weapons programs vary by country: for Egypt, an alleged stockpile of mustard and nerve agents, but no biological weapons program; for Syria, a stockpile of chlorine remaining after accession to the CWC and unknown biological capabilities; for Iran, an offensive chemical weapons program – at least until 2003 – and an advanced biotechnology sector with dual-use – weapon and medical – biological capability; and for Israel, the scientific capability to produce both chemical and biological weapons, but no evidence of active programs.

A conference immediately organized to oversee the formation of the Middle East Chemical and Biological WMD Free Zone would be held under the auspices of either the UN or a regional organization, with the participation of essential regional countries and outside sponsors. An essential feature of the Free Zone organization would be a comprehensive verification regime under a zone verification umbrella to assure the complete absence of chemical and biological weapons in the zone.

Establishing a zone among the countries of the Middle East that is verifiably free of chemical and biological weapons is possible now, despite the increasingly unstable political environment. For the sake of a safer regional and global strategic environment, this opportunity should not be lost.

Yonah Alexander is the director of the Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Milton Hoenig is a nuclear physicist and consultant. They have co-authored the books ‘Super Terrorism: Biological, Chemical, and Nuclear’ and ‘The New Iranian Leadership: Ahmadinejad, Terrorism, Nuclear Ambition, and the Middle East.’


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