The Pursuit of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East: A New Approach

Tomisha Bino

In an article for Chatham HouseTomisha Bino argues that the stalemate over negotiations on a WMD-free zone damages not only relationships and trust between states in the region, but also the strength and credibility of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. A new approach is needed.


  • At the 1995 Review Conference (RevCon), states parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) decided to extend the time frame of the treaty indefinitely. This decision was made possible in part because Arab states were given assurances, through a resolution sponsored by the three depositary states of the NPT (Russia, the UK and the US), that those party to the NPT would pursue the goal of establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.
  • Over 20 years later that goal remains a distant possibility, despite several attempts by the signatories of the NPT to further the process. The most notable effort was the decision to hold a conference on the WMD-free zone (WMDFZ) in 2012, which has been postponed indefinitely.
  • There are clear differences in the desired outcomes of the states involved in the process, which view the WMDFZ proposal as a means to an end. However, the differing ends they seek are disparate enough to warrant considering a new approach.
  • Egypt wants to close the gap in WMD capabilities between the states in the Middle East, and has specifically highlighted Israel’s nuclear programme. At the same time, Israel sees the negotiations as an opportunity to engage directly with the Arab states and pave the way for the normalization of ties between them.
  • To progress beyond the current stalemate the states involved should create an additional forum, away from the NPT review process, to discuss the aim of establishing a WMDFZ and restore the original link between a WMDFZ and the Middle East peace process.


  • A parallel regional process: The fact that negotiations have taken place primarily under NPT auspices has limited their scope to the international arms control regime, although they were initially conceived as part and parcel of the Middle East peace process. This constraint has gradually eroded the connection between the WMDFZ and the peace process, and has contributed to the current deadlock.
  • The stalemate damages not only relationships and trust between states in the region, but also the strength and credibility of the NPT. Inability to make progress on the Middle East WMDFZ means that other issues, such as disarmament, are held back owing to the inability to reach consensus at NPT RevCons.
  • The Arab states, under the leadership of Egypt, have been the initiators of the Middle East WMDFZ process within the NPT and progress on that is unlikely to change unless they initiate a regional process that would include Israel – and this would also help ease the pressure to achieve specific successful outcomes from the NPT RevCons. The states involved could consider creating a complementary regional forum without undermining the NPT, to work towards the creation of a WMDFZ. This parallel process would be possible only with the direct involvement of the Arab states and Iran. The former have long viewed the UN resolution on the WMDFZ in the Middle East as the fourth pillar of the NPT and hence they can only consider a process initiated or accepted by them as legitimate.
  • In practical terms, the Arab states could put forward a proposal at the 2020 RevCon stipulating that the deliberations on the WMDFZ resolution of 1995 within the NPT RevCons should be suspended while the parallel, regional process is under way, and should only be addressed in NPT meetings (PrepComs and RevCons) in the form of reports from the parallel regional process.
  • More transparency from all those involved: For any meaningful progress to materialize, and to foster trust, the states involved must be more transparent with regard to their WMD dual-use capabilities, as well as their desired outcomes from the WMDFZ process. Negotiations on the latter have been held back by the inability to address states’ nuclear, chemical and biological capabilities openly.
  • Renewed investment in the Middle East peace process: At the heart of the delays on establishing the WMDFZ is the absence of direct and official talks between the Arab states and Israel. The main hurdle to this is the abandoned Middle East peace process. The international community, Arab states and Israel all stand to benefit from the revival and success of this process and thus must engage more actively to achieve this end.
  • Keeping up diplomatic momentum despite competing priorities: The numerous conflicts in the region make it difficult to focus diplomatic capacities and create the essential political will to push the process forward. Many states in the region are involved in at least one conflict. Greater stabilization efforts are needed to create an environment that is more appropriate for serious negotiation. The current political environment, in which several crises and their causes are interwoven, means it is no longer possible for states to expect that their foreign policy mode of operation, in which they address issues separately and consecutively, is effective or sustainable.

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