Saving the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone Process

By Karim Kamel – Those who greatly oppose the idea of the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (MEWMDFZ) and those who strongly want to impose it are ready to engage in a finger-pointing process about why the Helsinki Conference has not taken place by the 2015 Review Conference (RevCon) of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). If both sides proceed with this outlook, the MEWMDFZ initiative, the people of the Middle East, as well as the NPT as a whole will suffer. Moreover, at such challenging times, when global governance is being challenged with outbreaks of conflicts in the Middle East and Europe, a failed RevCon will hurt the legitimacy of the NPT and the international system and its commitment to pursue the Zone.


In 2010, members of the League of Arab States (LAS) were hopeful that a process to create a MEWMDFZ was going to start in 2012, as agreed in the final document of the 2010 NPT RevCon. Few months after the adoption of the final document, and even before the appointment of a facilitator and a host government, a massive wave of uprisings swept the Middle East region. Until this day, dust has not settled, several of the 2010 rulers are not in power anymore, regimes are under significant pressure, and it is unknown what the final results of the uprisings will be. What is certain, however, is that challenges facing the region are now more immense than in 2010, and current strategic necessities and threats have shifted.

There are massive challenges facing regional parties, such threats by non-state actors, water and energy scarcity, economic hardships and rising unemployment. These challenges have immediate implications and require instant attention, resources, as well as political capital to resolve. This has resulted in the MEWMDFZ issue being put on the backburner by regional governments. In this context, it is understandable that amidst these challenges, it was hard for regional parties to push the MEWMDFZ issue forward; one which requires leadership backing, making concessions as well as allocating time and resources.

In light of this reprioritization, a number of NPT member states perceived the Arab states’ positions in the informal consultations on the MEWMDFZ Conference as stern, unrealistic, and ignorant of the fact that such a process requires making concessions and engaging in a constructive dialogue. Furthermore, according to the co-conveners of the MEWMDFZ conference (namely U.S., U.K., and Russia), particular LAS member states have been behind failing to agree on an agenda and a date for the Conference when agreement was almost within reach during the consultations.

On the other hand, LAS members take the co-conveners at their word, and argue that they knowingly sponsored the 1995 resolution and agreed to the final document in 2010 and their role as co-conveners, so they understand that this is an international obligation which needs to be met “as is.” They also started to claim that the facilitator was not active enough and was trying to expand his 2010 mandate by trying “too hard” to appease Israel, concede to Israel’s positions which go beyond the 2010 mandate.

In this regard, we have a huge gap in views. And in preparation for the 2015 RevCon, parties are proceeding with a zero-sum game mentality, which is usually a recipe for failure in diplomatic settings.


It is recommended that all parties should not be tempted to engage in a finger-pointing process and demolish what was achieved so far with regard to the Zone –internationalization of the Zone process and serious commitment and work by the facilitator and the co-conveners to organize the MEWMDFZ Conference. Most believe that the issues that were discussed in the informal consultations are the ones that would have to be addressed in any other process that could lead to WMD disarmament and nonproliferation regime in the region.

All sides will have to recalibrate their current strategies as we approach the 2015 RevCon. The LAS should be committed to a regional WMDFZ negotiations process that eventually will bring Israel to disarm its nuclear capabilities, thwart Iran’s and prevent others from acquiring or maintaining WMD capabilities, including non-state actors.

On the other hand, the facilitator and the cosponsors should start working closely with the LAS to start softening their posture of blaming the facilitator and the co-sponsors or Israel. The facilitator can work with the co-conveners to prevent turning the blame toward certain LAS members because such building of antagonism will only further intimidate these states and reinforce their threat perception.

Going Forward

The MEWMDFZ initiative is the only one currently on the table to create sustainable security architecture in the region by disarming WMD capabilities and preventing others from acquiring them. Furthermore, the Middle East has the backing of the international community to start such process. If the vision, legitimacy and momentum of such process are lost, parties of the region will go back to square zero before the 1995 Resolution was approved.

It is clear that many in the region and outside have been working hard to ensure the Conference’s materialization, and it is understandable that many who care about the initiative have a degree of frustration. On the other hand, it is also fair to say that if such conference was to take place, most understand that it will not be a one-time event, but rather initiate a regional negotiation process. It is simply because other challenges in the region currently take precedence, that any concessions, which at the end of the day need to be made by responsible leaders, are very difficult to sell at home.

At this point, all those preparing for the NPT RevCon have an opportunity to either save the existing process, and with it the chances to eventually achieve complete disarmament and nonproliferation in the Middle East, or completely demolish it. Going forward, we have an opportunity to at least save what we have, and proceed after the 2015 NPT RevCon when the cloud of instability passes and allows regional leaders to be involved in such negotiations. In order to minimize both sides’ losses and save the process, going into the NPT RevCon 2015, it is suggested to consider the actions below.

Action Items

1.  Initiate a meeting with the participation of key regional parties (Egypt, Jordan, LAS, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Israel) and the co-conveners of the postponed Conference aimed at formulating language for a document to be adopted at the 2015 NPT RevCon that reinstates the goal of creating a MEWMDFZ by NPT members and extends the 2010 mandate. The document should take into account the challenges of the past years, and note that regional countries were unable to  reach an agreement, but they are committed to continue the process

2.  Broker an agreement between concerned parties to refrain from engaging in a finger-pointing process in the next RevCon and participate in a constructive dialogue about what could be done to create the atmosphere and the capacities conducive to establish the zone

3.  In line with the proposal made by former Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, request all regional states to submit letters to the UN Secretary General declaring support for the Zone and stating as part of the Zone process their intentions to ratify at a future date, in a coordinated manner, all relevant arms control instruments


These action items are not a silver bullet, and they do not guarantee the success of the process, but rather save what was achieved so far, especially in this atmosphere where the tough posturing can be detrimental to the MEWMDFZ and the NPT at large.

In order to create consensus around the suggested action items, the facilitator will need to lobby key people at foreign ministries, the LAS as well as the co-conveners.

Karim Kamel is program associate for the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at The Social Science Research Council.

This post was originally published on the Arms Control and Regional Security for the Middle East Blog on April 21, 2015. 

Photo: Andre Gustavo Stumpf