Disarmament Education and Epistemic Community: A Weapons of Mass Destruction- Free Zone in the Middle East
For many years, the institutions of the international community have set
the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (ME WMDFZ)
as an objective: adopted annually by consensus in the United Nations
General Assembly since the 1980s; incorporated in United Nations Security
Council Resolution (UNSC) 687 in the aftermath of the liberation of
Kuwait; reiterated by the Security Council in 1992 in the Heads of State
and Government Statement from the Security Council; restated in Security
Council Resolution "UNSC" 1540 on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation and most recently in UNSC 1883. The global Nuclear Non-
Proliferation Treaty (NPT) meeting in 1995 passed a resolution on the
Middle East affirming the goal of the Zone as a pillar of global stability, and
this was reaffirmed by consensus of more than 180 nations again in 2000.
In September 2007, Mohammad El-Baradei, then the director-general
of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nobel peace
laureate, expressed his regret that:

Pursuant to the mandate given to me by the [IAEA] General
Conference, I have continued my consultations with the States of
the Middle East region on the application of full scope safeguards
to all nuclear activities in the Middle East, and on the development
of model agreements as a necessary step towards the establishment
of a Middle East Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ). However, I
regret to say that, as in the past, I have no progress to report on either
front. The General Conference has also asked me to organize a forum
on the relevance of the experience of other regions with existing
nuclear weapon free zones - including confidence-building and
verification measures - for establishing such a zone in the Middle
East. Consultations with concerned States of the region have not
produced an agreement on the agenda for such a forum, a forum that
in my view could be a positive step forward towards the initiation of
dialogue among the concerned parties on this important issue.1

In April 2009, the joint statement from the 19th Gulf Cooperation
Council and the European Union (GCC-EU) Joint Council and Ministerial
Meeting reaffirmed "support for the realization of the Middle East, including
the Gulf region, as a zone free from all weapons of mass destruction."2
Israel, of course, is also formally committed to "a mutually verifiable zone
free of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems" in the
Middle East.3 Within the IAEA's deliberations and resolutions on Libya,
Syria and particularly on Iran, it is stated formally that resolutions of issues
with these states are part of a process leading towards a ME WMDFZ.4
Nations have debated the Zone in Vienna at the IAEA discussions on Iran
throughout the previous years and will, in all likelihood, continue to do so
for the foreseeable future.
Yet there is little forward-thinking discussion of the issue in the public
domain, in the region or elsewhere, as called for in these resolutions. The
resolutions themselves do not get mentioned in the reports of the press
services on which the world relies so heavily. At its worst this is a form of
censorship, at best it is a world weary and cynical self-fulfilling prophecy
that nothing will happen, so nothing is worth reporting, so no one knows something could happen. There is a real need to build a strong international
epistemic community through both private discussions of the core themes
and public policy offensive aimed at raising the issue in international forums.
At the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), we are running
such a project intended to help fill this vacuum in diplomacy and public
debate. That is the purpose of what is called informal, multi-track, or new
diplomacy. The project is small but an example of how such an issue, which
is of passionate concern within SOAS's regions of interest, can engage
with the diplomatic community where there has been no or little interest
in dialogue from the West.5

Nuclear Weapons and WMD

Jonathan Schell wrote with respect to the nuclear threat after the end
of the Cold War that we, as he put it, "have the gift of time."6 We have
squandered that time. U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons remain primed and,
in contrast to the mythical weapons in Iraq, actually are ready to destroy
life on earth in less than 45 minutes. And yet more states have acquired
nuclear weapons. The international community has been unable to prevent
what then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called an "illegal war" in Iraq,
ostensibly over WMD.7 The debate on Iraq's WMD capability exemplifies
a continuing confusion of technical terminology.
In discussions (on the Zone in particular) nuclear weapons and all
WMD are often conflated. It is important to distinguish between either a
WMD-free zone or a nuclear weapons-free zone.8 For some, the unique
power of nuclear weapons requires that they be addressed separately along
with their present sole possessor in the region, Israel. For others, broader
ownership of chemical and biological missiles requires combating WMD
as a whole. As Jan Prawitz has noted, "as a concept, weapons of mass
destruction have more and more replaced nuclear weapons."9 Indeed, the
phrase has come to be used purposefully to obscure the qualitative difference
- there is no question that a chemical or biological weapon is comparable
to a nuclear weapon, either tactically or strategically. This change of focus
has occurred in conjunction with non-proliferation and lately counterproliferation,
eclipsing disarmament in both policy areas and academic
research and teaching. It has allowed for a creeping "quasi-legitimization"
of possession of nuclear weapons or WMD. In this way nuclear weapons
become wrapped up in the WMD problem, which in itself is defined as
being "over there."
Yet self-styled realists would have us believe that a world of nuclear
or WMD "haves" and "have-nots" is a sustainable world, even if not a just world. They offer us deterrence, where people are so rational and
considered that we can have a world filled with nuclear and other WMDs
and yet never have a regional or global nuclear war.10 This is not realism;
it is a naïve delusion. These realists argue that the world is so dangerous
and the other people in it so devious and evil that we can never have useful
disarmament agreements.11
Finally, the option of pre-emptive military and even nuclear strikes
as a means of counter-proliferation is often put on the table. This was the
argument for invading Iraq and has been debated with respect to Iran since
the Bush era. Under New Labor in the United Kingdom, nuclear strike
options against overseas terrorism became official policy.12 But imagine the
world if the United States president, or Israel, or others seeking to act, used
pre-emptive attacks to successfully destroy Iranian capabilities and perhaps
to change the Iranian regime. Imagine the consequences on international
politics, on opinion in Egypt, in Turkey and elsewhere. Regime change,
opinion change, radicalization is a two-way process. And it then becomes
more likely that a disastrous and avoidable war in Iran will be added to the
disastrous and avoidable war in Iraq.
Albert Einstein observed that "the splitting of the atom has changed
everything except our way of thinking and thus we drift towards unparalleled
catastrophe."13 Perhaps more than 60 years later we have finally turned the
corner in the way that we are thinking. The effect that, first, the Hoover
Group of Kissinger, Schultz, Nunn and Perry and, since, Obama, have
had on the discourse of a nuclear-weapons-free world is staggering.14
This legitimization in the public realm of a desire to see nuclear weapons
abolished is a refreshing antidote to the degradation of non-proliferation
policies and disregard for disarmament under the Bush administration. In the
UK, Her Majesty's government has also embraced this 21st century agenda
and there is a renewed sense of hope in Parliament as a new cross-party
group champions this approach.15
The Obama administration has a great opportunity to take an evenhanded
approach, incorporating a more broadly realistic component in
policy to the Middle East by recognizing the strategic implications of the
proposed Zone for inter-state regional security. It goes without saying
that the participation of Israel in the Zone is essential: for Israel to really
be convinced of the Zone's viability could take a change in U.S. policy
that might come from both public pressure and awareness of the issue.
Alternative methods could include incorporating Israel into security
mechanisms such as the NATO alliance or the Organization for Security
and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE ), or by pursuing unilateral actions such as ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), in tandem with
Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others (including the U.S.).

The Zone: Realistic or Idealistic?

In this general context, consideration of the Zone can start to move
from the hypothetical to the practical. In this atmosphere of a nuclearweapons-
free world, there may be indications of a change in global trends
that could favor ridding the Middle East of WMDs and, if so, we would
be foolish indeed not to have helped prepare the ground that might enable
governments to act.
While it is obvious that a vast majority of experts and practitioners
share the set of values embodied by the Zone (i.e., greater regional peace
and security resulting from the verified destruction and non-production of
all WMDs) there is discord over the steps the major stakeholders envision
taking toward achieving this. The politico-security problems that have
beset the region for the entire period since the Zone's inception could be
ameliorated through the careful application of the as-yet-untried security
architecture.16 However, this is not to say that all experts agree that the Zone
would prove a realistic medium-term goal. A key debate is "the chicken or
the egg" - in other words, can a disarmament regime successfully precede
a peace settlement in the region or must peace come first? Many believe that
the deep-set cultural and security issues must be addressed and brought to a
level that would allow for the balanced negotiation of the proposed Zone.
Informally, Israel, as one of the key parties in the peace settlement
and the only regional state possessing nuclear weapons, would only seek
a solution which sees itself relinquish its nuclear weapons if accompanied
by wide-ranging political and economic reform of both the Occupied
Palestinian Territories and indeed Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements.
Yet here may lie the single largest impediment to the progress of a Middle
East-wide NW/WMDFZ within these parameters, as the previous attempt
at a comprehensive approach, the Arms Control and Regional Security
(ACRS) talks of the mid-1990s, taught: "By making the discussion of
regional security a subset of the peace process, which had a distinct Arab-
Israeli focus, ACRS conceived of the Middle East in those terms as well."17
We feel that this is a lesson well worth taking heed of. There are many
other security issues within the region, not least as Iran forges ahead with
its nuclear energy program, and the Israel-Palestine conflict is but one in a
historically volatile region. For example, if the West responded and sought
reaffirmation from Iran of its earlier offer to join the Beirut Declaration,
this might be the basis of a broader settlement.18

The other side of the coin places the Zone and its attending confidenceand
security-building measures (CSBMs) as the very key to bring a new
impetus to the Arab-Israeli impasse. This narrative is the driving force behind
our project - there are clear arms control and disarmament precedents to
draw on which inspire optimism. After all, not only have the existing NWFZs
proved largely successful,19 but other treaties and conventions have capably
reduced tensions and provided security structures which ultimately have led
to greater political and economic harmony. Presidents Ronald Reagan and
Mikhail Gorbachev showed us that even deadly adversaries can verifiably
scrap their weapons. United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) and
Hans Blix in Iraq showed us that, even in the quintessentially hard cases, UNsupervised
verification can carry out effective disarmament. The Conventional
Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear
Forces (INF) Treaty, and the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and
Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) agreement are all precedents and
potential models that could prove invaluable for the Middle East.20
Of course, the link between the balance of WMD and conventional
weaponry, along with regional stability, does create a difficult point of
departure.21 However, in saying so, we do accept that the application of a
NWFZ or indeed the WMDFZ has not been tested in a situation as politically
precarious as the Middle East. Simply, we believe that this is exactly the
context in which such a Zone, and the institutional and organizational rules
and norms resulting from it, is at its most beneficial. WMDFZ (and NWFZ)
are one component of an overall disarmament regime, but in their content
are the most comprehensive of measures.22
A strong verification and monitoring system must lie at the heart of
the Zone, coupled with robust sanctioning for transgressions.23 This is a
fundamental in the working of any regime - a regime that would support
the security aspirations of all states involved - which otherwise simply
relies on trust, a commodity not in great supply in the region. Practices
developed from the implementation of the verification system not only
help build trust over time in the security policies and intentions of states,
but can aid in the exchange of peoples and information involved in cultural
acclimatization (or normalization) - this is crucial in reducing uncertainty
in the system thereby facilitating cooperation. Discussions may revolve
around whether this would comprise an international body (involving the
expertise of the IAEA, Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the
Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
Organization (CTBTO) amongst others), or setting up a regional secretariat,
but either way it should involve officials and scientists from the region to
facilitate the above exchange.24

While the verification system would provide the best means of
providing reassurances as to the intentions and actions of states there are
other confidence- and security-building measures that can be introduced to
create the conditions for the implementation of the Zone. Ensuring Israel
would be willing to participate is important, but it is also important that
the Arab states and Iran be given reciprocal assurances from Israel and
extra-regional states. There are many small steps based on tried and tested
methods from European templates that can be taken - for example, the
Open Skies Agreement is quite readily extendable to all states in the region,
and there are a number of CFE-style mechanisms that are transferable. By
exploring the practical application of these CSBMs to the Middle East
region, we hope to encourage states to accept the reality that there are
existing frameworks for achieving regional stability that can be translated
into short-term cooperative success.
Solutions to the Iranian proliferation problem, as well as the longstanding
Israel-Palestine question, will not be supplied through states
seeking goals tied to self-interest and competitive advantage. Rather,
cooperation and dialogue (formal and informal) will lead to the resolution
of short-term problems and provide long-term solutions. The issue is of
course complicated by states seeking to develop a civilian nuclear energy
cycle as Iran is doing, and perhaps others will follow suit. This leads to
further suspicions of covert nuclear weapons programs and what other
regional states see as their "right to balance," ultimately resulting in what
the Bahraini ambassador alluded to in his address to the September 2007
SOAS conference as a "Middle East mushroom field."25 A multi-polar civil
nuclear energy Middle East will surely over time produce more interest
in regional solutions. With IAEA safeguards, in particular, the additional
protocol, combined with the lessons from UNSCOM, which provides the
highest benchmark for verification practices, an ultimately high level of
assurance for all states should placate fears over WMD development.

Ways Forward?

Formal endorsement by the UN Security Council and General
Assembly has not been sufficient to produce political momentum towards
creating a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. Much
needs to be done to reignite an interest in better approaches to problems
of conflict in the region, and to provide food for thought in dealing with
the problems, such as the international community has been experiencing
with Iran since 2003. By engaging in informal and public diplomacy,
states have the opportunity to interact with experts from the academic and non-governmental worlds to discuss theoretical and practical propositions
relating to the Zone. Central aspects of this approach are the promotion
of public policy development and the involvement, not just of regional
scholars, but experienced "outsiders" in this issue is vital for defining and
refining approaches to achieving the ultimate goal.
A key error for states across history has been to overestimate their
freedom of action in respect to the dominant powers. Today's elites make the
same error in thinking that nuclear weapons need not change their behavior.26 In
view of this analysis, prospects for the Zone free of WMD in the Middle East
must rely on breaking the mold of strategic, statist and historical perspectives
that have characterized approaches to the issue in this region. The chickenor-
egg problem must not be allowed to spiral into a game of chicken, where
any side is too cautious to make any substantive positive moves.
Loosely based on the ACRS talks of the 1990s, a new security dialogue
could be drawn up with a mandate to negotiate the Zone, specifically
including the nuclear issue at an early stage and involving all states in
the region.27 This could be pursued under the auspices of the UN, perhaps
a conference sponsored by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon or even the
Security Council. A crucial factor would be not to allow for the isolation of
Israel over the nuclear issue (as would happen under the NPT) but, as stated
above, this entire process would have to be done with minimal reference
to the Middle East peace process. A comprehensive approach would
incorporate concerns over conventional balance of arms, where historically
Israel has prevailed in military superiority, and possession of WMD.
One approach is to extend and build on previously agreed effective
arms control and disarmament agreements. The SOAS research program
on Disarmament and Globalization has developed a Strategic Concept for
Regulation of Arms Possession and Proliferation: It includes the ideas of
extending, even globalizing, the European Conventional Armed Forces in
Europe Treaty (CFE) and the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and
Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) inspection regime applied to Iraq.
Taken together these agreements offer templates that might be applied in the
Middle East or globally or in other regions. The thoroughness and rapidity
with which these regimes came into effect is salutary when considering the
prevailing view that progress must always be slow and incremental.
A regional security architecture would naturally take stock of the
progress in the Arab-Israeli peace talks and it is not to be expected that
the situation would be ripe to begin this in the very near future. However,
this is not to excuse any effort being made to prepare for the scenario. The
May 2010 NPT Review Conference process will be crucial in gauging possibilities. The continued feeling of the Arab states of being "tricked"
into acceding to the NPT following the 1995 Indefinite Extension and
Middle East Resolution must be seriously addressed - that is to say, there
is a certain expectation in many quarters that the nuclear weapon states
(NWS) must make good on their large burden of responsibility. Pursuing
the WMD-Free Zone is the most salient option available to states of the
region and one the Western powers should vigorously pursue.


1. Mohamed El-Baradei, Introductory Statement to the Board of Governors (Vienna,
September 10, 2007), at
ebsp2007n013.html (accessed 16 November 2007)
2. Joint Statement from the 19th GCC-EU Joint Council and Ministerial Meeting,
Muscat, April 29, 2009 Section 4.5, 'Non-proliferation of WMD', available at
3. See "Statement of Israel to the 53rd General Conference of the International Atomic
Energy Agency," available at
4. The IAEA Board of Governors reports are available on the website
The most recent statement endorsing the Middle East WMD Free Zone is available
16_en.pdf (September 17, 2009).
5. See our website for information on the research program.
6. Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now
(Metropolitan Books, 1998).
7. Kofi Annan, remarks to the BBC, September 16, 2004, available at (accessed 16 November 2007).
8. Even within individual documents, of the IAEA, for example, both are mentioned
in the same paragraph with little qualification.
9. Jan Prawitz, "A Brief Sketch of the Proposed Zone," in International Relations
22:3 (September 2008).
10. See for example, Kenneth Waltz, "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May
Better," Adelphi Papers, Number 171 (London: International Institute for Strategic
Studies, 1981).
11. See for example, Colin Gray, House of Cards: Why Arms Control Must Fail (Cornell
University Press: Ithaca, New York, 1992).
12. UK Ministry of Defense, The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter, July
2002, section 2, p.12: 21. "The UK's nuclear weapons have a continuing use as a
means of deterring major strategic military threats, and they have a continuing role
in guaranteeing the ultimate security of the UK. But we also want it to be clear,
particularly to the leaders of states of concern and terrorist organisations, that all
our forces play a part in deterrence, and that we have a broad range of responses
available. We must influence leaderships by showing that we are prepared to take
all necessary measures to defend ourselves."
13. Quoted in Ralph E. Lapp, "The Einstein Letter That Started It All", New York Times Magazine, August 2, 1964, p. 13.
14. "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," Shultz et al, Wall Street Journal, 4 January
2007, available at
(accessed 24 November 2009); Remarks of Senator Barack Obama A New Beginning,
Chicago, IL on October 2, 2007, available at
presidential/obama_remarks_a_new_beginning (accessed November 24, 2009);
and Remarks by President Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,
April 5, 2009, available at
In-Prague-As-Delivered/ (accessed November 24, 2009).
15. See for details.
16. Although practically all of the southern hemisphere land mass is covered by nuclear
weapons-free zones, there is no example of a WMD-free zone. The NWFZ examples
do provide fine templates of how the putative zone would work.
17. Peter Jones, "Arms Control in the Middle East: Is It Time to Renew the ACRS?"
UNIDIR Open Forum (2) (2005).
18. The Beirut Declaration, made on the occasion of the 14th Ordinary Session of the
Council of the League of Arab States, March 28, 2002, available at http://imeu.
19. While the Tlatelolco Treaty in South America is the only NWFZ de jure in force,
the six others all carry such a normative weight that they can be said to be de facto
in force.
20. See contributions to the "Forum on a WMDFZ in the Middle East," in International
Relations 22:3 (September 2008).
21. Acknowledged in the initial Middle East WMDFZ proposal by President Hosni
Mubarak to the UN Conference on Disarmament, UN Doc. CD/989 (20 April,
22.The majority of NWFZ treaties contain provisions which ban states from the
development, manufacture, stockpiling, acquisition, possession, or control of any
nuclear explosive device within the zone. The principle of a WMDFZ would be
to widen the scope to include all CW, BTW or radiological weapons in the above
23. Further discussion of the verification and monitoring aspects can be found in the
VERTIC contribution to the International Relations Forum of September 2008,
op. cit.
24. See generally, Hasenclever et al., Theories of International Regimes (Cambridge:
CUP, 1997)
25. Address of HE Khalifa bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa, ambassador of the Kingdom
of Bahrain, to the London conference on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East,
available at
26. On this point, in an excellent historical context, see Campbell Craig, Glimmer of
a New Leviathan (Columbia University Press: New York, 2003),
27. On these key failings and other problems of the ACRS talks see Jones op cit. n.4,
and Michael D. Yaffe, "Promoting Arms Control and Regional Security in the
Middle East," Disarmament Forum issue 2, 2001, pp.9-25.

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