Analysis: Who’s afraid of a nuke-free zone in the ME?

Without Iran’s participation in a regional arms-control process, Egypt’s proposal is meaningless.

saudi arabia nukes 311 (photo credit: BLOOMBERG)
saudi arabia nukes 311
(photo credit: BLOOMBERG)
According to recent reports, the US, Britain and France are considering backing an Egyptian proposal that will be submitted to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference next month, advocating the initiation of negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) for the Middle East.
As an indication of its determination to push forward this agenda, Egypt has already let it be known that it intends to block all other decisions at the review conference if its proposal is not accepted. Egyptian pressure in this regard – which is all about targeting Israel on the nuclear issue – is certainly not new, and Cairo’s uncompromising approach was a major factor in the failure of the previous NPT review conference, held in 2005.
What is new, however, is the possibility of a more accepting attitude toward the proposal on the part of important Western states – first and foremost the United States – in light of President Obama’s desire to advance his global nuclear disarmament agenda.
The Egyptians are pushing their proposal on the basis of a resolution on the Middle East that was passed at the NPT Review and Indefinite Extension conference held 15 years ago. Interestingly enough, however, the 1995 resolution did not specify a zone free of nuclear weapons only, but rather called for the creation of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the region – namely, a region free of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, as well as their means of delivery (long-range missiles).
Egypt’s current pinpointing of the nuclear issue is a departure from the original resolution, and a setback as far as advancing a more realistic regional agenda is concerned. With all types of weapons of mass destruction spread throughout the region, there is no justification for stepping away from the WMDFZ formulation. Indeed, it was none other than President Mubarak who in 1990 first proposed including all weapons of mass destruction (and not only nuclear weapons) when considering regional arms control efforts. With all due respect to Obama’s nuclear disarmament agenda, the regional complexities of the Middle East have not changed since that time.
It is also noteworthy that establishing a WMDFZ is not a question of a simple decision or short-term negotiation. It’s a long-term process. Advancing this goal would necessarily entail regional security dialogue that would have to address not only weapons but the quality of relations among the regional participants. In a regional dynamic, the control of weapons cannot effectively be considered outside the context of inter-state threats and security interests, especially in a tension-ridden region such as the Middle East. This is the advantage of the kind of regional dynamic implied by discussion of a WMDFZ over joining an international nonproliferation treaty – where the individual state’s security concerns and interests are not taken into account.
The negative implications of the Egyptian agenda come primarily from the political setting within which Egypt is advancing it. Egypt is most likely hoping to cynically abuse Obama’s keen desire for a positive outcome for the NPT review conference in order to force concessions from him. And if Obama gives in to the blackmail attempt, and then decides to pressure Israel in turn, he could risk taking tensions with Jerusalem too far, causing real damage to US-Israeli relations. The fact that Israel will not be present at the conference does not help matters.
If, however, we consider for a moment the essence of the proposal – for a WMDFZ, not a NWFZ – the idea itself should not necessarily raise sharp objections in Israel. First of all, Israel has consistently advocated regional processes rather than joining international treaties, as the preferred means of advancing arms control goals. Only in the context of a regional arms-control dialogue can Israel ensure that its security concerns and relations with other states are taken into account. Israel can therefore consider the idea favorably while emphasizing that it will necessarily take a very long time because of the inextricable link between discussion of weapons and improvements in regional atmosphere.
Israel should also remind all concerned that a meaningful regionaldialogue can only take place when all of Israel’s enemies are present –first and foremost, Iran. There is no other option. But will Iran agreeto sit down with Israel and discuss threat perceptions and securityinterests? Will it agree to take part in a process ofconfidence-building?
Without Iran’s active participation in a regional arms-control process,Egypt’s proposal – whether for a NWFZ or a WMDFZ – is meaningless.
The writer is director of the Arms Control and Regional SecurityProgram at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel AvivUniversity.