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Time is Ripe to Act on Middle East Weapons

Vienna Austria

Op-Ed Essay, published in the Financial Times

The writing is on the wall: the Middle East is fertile ground for proliferation concerns. Despite progress in obtaining greater transparency on the nuclear programmes of Iran, Iraq and Libya, a deep sense of insecurity remains. The symptoms are everywhere in the region: the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to fester. Regime change is talked of as the most efficient route to democracy. The situation in Iraq, and its regional security implications, remains far from certain. Tensions with the west have increasingly become subtly - and not so subtly - associated with Muslim culture.

More countries in the Middle East have refused to sign global treaties banning nuclear, biological and chemical weapons than in any other region. In the absence of a comprehensive settlement, Israel refuses to discuss its purportedly sizeable nuclear arsenal and shrugs off repeated requests to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). This and the accompanying sense of insecurity have served as an incentive for countries to arm themselves with equal or similar weapons capacity. A recent poll by the Arabic-language Al-Jazeera website showed that more than 80 per cent of respondents favoured acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Arab world. But this mini arms-race has made no one feel more secure. In addition, the increasing sophistication of clandestine programmes, greater access to nuclear and other weapons technology and the increasingly evident black market for illicit acquisition of designs, components and expertise increase the prospect that extremist groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction.

If we had any doubts before, it should be clear now that the Middle East situation is unsustainable. If we do nothing, catastrophe is only a matter of time. A great deal of rhetoric has emerged over the idea of making the Middle East a WMD-free region. The establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone has been the topic of UN resolutions for 30 years, with support from all parties, including Arab states and Israel. In 1991, the Security Council decided to disarm Iraq's WMD programmes as a first step "towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from WMD..." In the 1995 decision to extend the NPT indefinitely, a key ingredient to reaching consensus was the agreement to pursue a nuclear-free Middle East. A similar commitment was made in the recent declaration in which France, Germany and the UK facilitated greater transparency in Iran. Yet little meaningful work has been done. The creation of a WMD-free Middle East was not even discussed in the Camp David agreement, nor was it mentioned in Israel's peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. The only time that Middle Eastern countries sat together to discuss the issue was in the arms control working group that emerged from the Madrid peace process - and even then, early disagreements aborted that effort.

The current situation, though complex, represents a window of opportunity. The WMD programmes of several countries are being neutralised. The time is ripe for countries of the region, and the international community, to begin a serious dialogue towards creating a WMD-free Middle East zone. Such a zone would need several elements: a clear definition of the geographic zone of application; universal membership by countries in the region; an international system of verification and control to monitor compliance; a regional mechanism for mutual verification and co-operation; and security assurances from the UN Security Council to assist any country in the region whose security is threatened.

Creating the blueprint for such a structure would almost certainly bolster the ailing peace process. In the end, any enduring peace in the Middle East will only be achieved through an inclusive and comprehensive approach to security, which should include a ban on WMD, limitations on conventional armaments and appropriate security and confidence building measures. Any attempt to achieve security for one country at the expense of insecurity for others will ultimately fail. Progress on arms control and security arrangements need not occur in perfect symmetry or phasing with the peace process, but they should be pursued in parallel, where and as possible. Progress on either front will reinforce progress on the other. Carpe diem! -- Mohamed ElBaradei is Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency; Sir Joseph Rotblat, a nuclear physicist, was the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1995.


Last update: 26 July 2017