Toward New Arms-control Thinking

No discussion of regional arms control and security can advance without the active and meaningful participation of all states in the Middle East.

The final document from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May includes a clause on a conference to be convened in 2012 on making the Middle East a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone (WMDFZ ). The clause was adopted in the wake of massive pressure by Egypt, which threatened to block a consensus on the entire final document if its demands were not accepted.

Whether or not the United States was pressured by Egypt into accepting this idea, recent indications are that it has become committed to helping realize it. This does not mean that the U.S. necessarily likes the idea, or that it will accept additional Egyptian efforts to pressure Israel. But Israel's working assumption should be that the Americans are not going to actively resist the idea either.

A clear indication of the American position became evident in the leadup to the International Atomic Energy Agency's annual conference in September, when the Arab states - led by Egypt - pushed for a resolution calling on Israel to join the NPT. The U.S. made tactical use of the proposed 2012 conference as a means of convincing some states to vote against the resolution. The American argument was that pressuring Israel with an IAEA resolution would lower the chances that it would agree to take part in the proposed conference on a WMDFZ. Thus, while the U.S. was signaling that pressure on Israel in the nuclear realm was not acceptable, it also lent implicit support to the conference itself.

At present, planning of the proposed conference has not proceeded beyond the idea stage. The lack of definition may be an opportunity for Israel to take a more active stance in the process of shaping the event's parameters and conceptual logic. Indeed, Israel's positions in this regard should be raised clearly in conversations with the U.S. Moreover, if construed correctly, the conference need not necessarily be a negative development.

One important issue touches upon the overall framework of this event. Because the idea of the 2012 conference was raised in the final document of the NPT review conference, it creates in the minds of some a link between discussion of a WMDFZ and the NPT. Egypt's interest in this regard is no secret: It would like this connection to be strongly reinforced. Creating an inextricable link would better serve its argument that there is no way to discuss WMD in the Middle East without Israel joining the NPT. Egypt fought hard to have the idea included in the final document of the 1995 NPT review conference, and insisted on its inclusion again this year.

But the idea of regional talks on WMD arms control is neither conceptually nor historically linked to the NPT frame, and a strong case should be made for decoupling the two. The most obvious reason is that a WMDFZ deals with all categories of weapons of mass destruction - including biological and chemical ones - and not nuclear weapons per se. Even more important, discussing WMD arms control in a regional framework necessitates a different kind of thinking than what is advocated by international disarmament treaties like the NPT. The international treaties focus on the weapons, whereas the regional context encourages attention to state interests, security concerns, and the quality of inter-state relations. Without building up a measure of mutual acceptance and stability in the regional sphere, there is no way to address reductions in weapons.

Historically, the relevant experience to draw upon is that of the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS ) working group that was active for four years in the early 1990s as part of the multilateral track of the Madrid peace process. It was there that a concept for regional dialogue was developed and began to be implemented. The lessons of this experience should serve as an important guide for moving forward. The idea of a WMDFZ for the Middle East has also been a longstanding item on the agenda of the various Euro-Mediterranean dialogs, with the same message of building confidence and improving inter-state relations as an essential first stage.

In light of deteriorating relations among the states of the Middle East over the past decade - and especially with Iran's developing nuclear program and blatant displays of regional hegemonic tendencies - this logic has only been strengthened. No discussion of regional arms control and security can advance without the active and meaningful participation of all states in the Middle East. Iran and Syria in particular must be willing to sit down and discuss regional issues with Israel. No less can be accepted as a baseline for a regional conference on such sensitive security concerns.

Finally, it must be recognized that what is proposed entails a very long process. Moreover, once regional are initiated, an entire range of additional regional issues might surface through the multilateral dynamic, as happened in all the multilateral working groups active in the early 1990s. Power politics and regional rivalries are almost certain to affect the talks, sometimes in unexpected and unpredictable ways. All this must be recognized and factored in by the conveners of the talks, who will have a central and very difficult role to play. Regional dynamics - especially in an area like the Middle East - are anything but easy to navigate, and whoever assumes the external facilitating role must take into account the enormity of the challenge, and be fully up to the task.

Dr. Emily Landau is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies. A longer version of this article first appeared as an INSS Insight, in anticipation of the Institute's conference "Israel, Arms Control and Regional Security."