What a Simulated Conference on a WMD-Free Middle East Highlights About Real Life

By Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova – At the 2012 Conference on a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)-Free Zone in the Middle East, convened by Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, together with the United Nations, representatives of states in the region adopted a declaration, establishing a committee to “identify…elements of a treaty establishing a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems in the region of the Middle East.”


The committee is to be composed of representatives of all states in the region and work in consultation with the co-sponsors of the 1995 Middle East Resolution as well as the other two nuclear-weapon states, China and France. Conference participants requested the Facilitator to convene the meetings of the Committee in 2013 and report on its deliberation to the follow-on conference, which would take place in 2014.

All right, this did not actually happen – not yet, at least. However, a group of 25 United Nations Disarmament Fellows – young diplomats from all over the world – played out the last hours of the planned Middle East conference during a half-day simulation in New York on October 23, 2012. The simulation’s outcome may be too ambitious compared to what the “real” 2012 MEWMDFZ Conference is expected to achieve, considering that many observers still doubt if it would even convene this year (or ever). Certainly, to run a simulation one has to suspend the disbelief, and in this case, we assumed away one of the biggest perceived obstacles: getting all relevant states to attend. The simulation’s scenario thus was that all the Middle Eastern states, including Iran and Israel, showed up and did so in good faith, working toward a meaningful outcome. Unrealistic as they may appear, such exercises help explore what can be achieved if more political will is in place and, at the same time, highlight some of the more problematic aspects of reality.

Below are some reflections from the simulation, and lessons that, hopefully, we can all learn as preparations for the 2012 Middle East conference are still under way. The simulation was organized by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS).

Agreement in Advance: In view of time constraints, the “delegates” received in advance a draft text of a declaration to serve as the basis for negotiations on the last day. The participants did their homework: held consultations and developed proposals on amendments ahead of the simulation. Considering that the real conference will be only two-three days long, it is hard to expect it to be much of a negotiating forum. In May 2012, at the NPT PrepCom, Russia said that states already should have been working on the outcome document for the Middle East Conference. Whenever the conference actually convenes, participants will have to secure at least a basic agreement on its outcome in advance. The document might be (indeed, is most likely to be) very short, but states would need to do a lot of talking to get to that one agreed page.

Dialogue and Ownership:  The “facilitator” assumed an exceptionally active role in the simulation, literally serving as a mediator and negotiator at times. Some states in the region might actually be expecting the real facilitator to be as active – bring parties together, propose his own solutions, and table draft language. It only highlights one of the major problems, though – that of the regional actors not talking directly to each other and being all too willing to have someone shuttle between them and take the pain of reconciling the differences. Unlike the simulation, the role assumed by the facilitator in real life is less intrusive and direct dialogue along with greater regional ownership is required for any kind of process to succeed.

The Role of Leaders: Active as the “facilitator” was, adopting a final document at the simulation would have been impossible without “Egypt” that was able and willing to lead the Arab League and directly engage with Israel and Iran. Once again, the simulation underscored the central role of Egypt as the country to which others look for leadership and vision of what the conference should accomplish, what kind of process to establish, and what next steps could be. In real life, such leadership has been lacking in recent months and it is not evident that Egypt has a clear idea of what it wants from the Helsinki meeting.

Understanding Iran: Playing “Iran” in a simulation can be either frustrating or strangely liberating and fun, because no one seems to know what to expect from this actor. Beyond avoiding the role of isolated spoiler and taking the blame for potential failure, what does Iran really think about, and expect from, this potential conference? Iran has recently announced its decision to attend the conference, but, as before, qualified its position by stating that the meeting should be held under the “NPT rules of procedure” – which could mean that states not party to the NPT (Israel) cannot participate other than in an observer status. Without the Arab states embracing such a view, though, will Iran actually stand in the way of convening the conference with full Israeli participation on these grounds? If, after all, the conference is convened, what kind of outcome would be of interest to Iran? And, apart from the Finnish facilitator, who is engaging with Iran to understand its views and to bring it on board?

NPT and Regional Security: The final declaration adopted at the simulation did not mention the NPT, even though the 2012 Conference is mandated by an NPT document and derives its terms of reference from the 1995 Middle East Resolution adopted at the NPT Review and Extension Conference. The simulation’s declaration also did not refer to any mechanism to address regional security concerns or implement confidence building measures. In real life, the two issues – NPT and regional security – are at the heart of disagreement between the Arab states, Iran, and Israel about priorities and ways to work on them. Israel is against linking the conference to the NPT process, while the Arab states and Iran have so far insisted on the connection and demanded that Israel accede to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state. Reconciling these positions would be crucial for achieving agreement in Helsinki, and so far it is unclear how much willingness there is to consider moving the process away from the NPT umbrella, or whether Israel could accept the connection to the NPT if the broader regional security issues are addressed within the same process.

Negotiating simulations can provide space for greater flexibility, imagination, and compromise. Specifically, by skipping over roadblocks such as lack of political will and direct communication between the major actors, simulations can help look for practical solutions that otherwise seem completely beyond reach. At the same time, simulations can raise new questions and draw attention to challenges that are overlooked or overshadowed by immediate concerns. In the case of the 2012 Middle East Conference simulation, assuming all parties’ participation and goodwill – the most immediate concern about the conference today – brought to the fore a number of other difficult issues. In this sense, the Middle East simulation held up a mirror to a rather harsh reality but did not leave the participants without hope.

Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova is a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.