Middle East WMD Free Zone

The objective of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East was put forward by Egypt in 1990. It built on a 1974 UN General Assembly resolution from Egypt and Iran for a nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East, but also reflected horror at the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein amid growing concerns about biological and chemical weapons programmes in the region.  

In 1995 a Resolution on the Middle East pledging to work for a WMD free zone was adopted by consensus by States Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in conjunction with decisions to strengthen and extend the NPT indefinitely.  After 1995, Egypt encouraged all remaining Arab states to become NPT parties. Frustrated by lack of further progress, Egypt worked with the League of Arab States and civil society (including the Acronym Institute) on a proposed action plan, which was negotiated at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.  After tough negotiations, it was agreed that a Facilitator would be appointed and a Conference held in 2012 under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General and the NPT Depositary States (Russia, the United States and United Kingdom).  The aim of the 2012 Conference would be to involve all States in the Middle East on the “establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction”.  Ambassador Jaako Laajava was appointed in October 2011 as ‘Facilitator’ for the conference, with the intention that it be held at Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, the capital of his native Finland

Ambassador Laajava spent over a year preparing for the conference by conducting behind-the-scenes meetings with the various countries in the region and as 2012 progressed it became apparent that the planned conference would likely take place after the November 2012 US elections, most likely in mid-December.  However, at the end of November the US announced that the conference would not occur in December without specifying when, or indeed confirming whether, it would take place.  Russia meanwhile issued a statement saying that the conference had been postponed adding that it should be held before April 2013 when the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference was to take place.  Postponement was criticised by the Arab League and by Iran which had earlier in the month indicated its intention to attend the December conference.  Israel however had used a September speech at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to express its strong opposition to the conference and although it had not explicitly ruled out its participation, given the importance attached to ensuring the participation of all relevant states in the region, Israel's unwillingness to engage would have made holding the conference in December untenable.

Since then the conference has failed to materialise, prompting Egypt to walk out of the 2013 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in protest and Saudi Arabia to reject its seat on the UN Security Council in October 2013 citing lack of progress towards a Middle East WMD Free Zone as a key reason.  The Arab states view the 2012 Conference as the start of a determined process towards ridding the region of all WMD, and whilst the future of the conference is now somewhat uncertain, the issues that led to the decision to convene it remain.  Thinking ahead to a reinvigorated process, paving the way for a Middle East zone free of WMD will require consideration on:

- scope and definitions: what weapons and programmes are to be covered, and how to deal with dual-use capabilities and technologies;
 - verification, implementation and institutional embedding: whether to rely on international institutions such as the IAEA and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) or to establish a regional implementing organization with its own verification and inspection powers;
 - timelines for adhering to existing treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) as well as the relevant agreements relating to safety and security of nuclear materials, terrorism etc.
 - interim measures, confidence building, and agreed timelines for the elimination and destruction of existing nuclear, chemical and biological arsenals;
 - security assurances from nuclear-armed states or a broader international assurance against the threat or use of WMD in the region.

In view of the histories and linkages that make security and disarmament efforts so problematic in the Middle East, progress in the region will require that nuclear weapons are delegitimized and devalued globally, and that broader issues relating to peace and security are addressed, including an end to military occupation and terrorist attacks, improvements in democracy, human rights and the lives and conditions of people in the region, as well as some form of just and durable political solution for Israelis and Palestinians that entails full respect and recognition of the rights of both peoples to security, nationhood and a homeland with agreed borders.

Further information on the context within which the proposal for a Middle East WMD Free Zone exists can be found on the Regional Challenges page in the Directory.

Middle East WMD Free Zone Related Content

10 March 2014

Israel and Arab states held their third round of exploratory talks in the Swiss resort of Glion last month that are focused on establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, according to a participant.

The discussions, largely kept from the public eye, are being held under...

Dr Rebecca Johnson
1 May 2013

In a dramatic act that signalled its frustration with the “unilateral postponement” of an agreed 2012 Conference on the Middle East, Ambassador Hisham Badr announced his delegation’s walk-out “to protest this unacceptable and continuous failure...