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Mahmoud Karem

Today's Six Challenges Before the WMDFZ in the Middle East

Summary: A year has elapsed and little progress occurred towards establishing a nuclear weapon free zone and other weapons of mass destruction in the middle east.  The question therefore, is for how long will this stalemate continue, and what are the root causes of/for this delay?  We have an annual UNGA consensus resolution on the issue, an agreement in 2010 to hold the conference, yet we cannot advance one step forward.  We therefore need to rehash, this present predicament and propose recommendations on the way ahead.  But we also need to return to the underlying reasons for this delay. 

A paper by:  Mahmoud Karem

A year has elapsed and little progress occurred towards establishing a nuclear weapon free zone and other weapons of mass destruction in the middle east.  The question therefore, is for how long will this stalemate continue, and what are the root causes of/for this delay?  We have an annual UNGA consensus resolution on the issue, an agreement in 2010 to hold the conference, yet we cannot advance one step forward.  We therefore need to rehash, this present predicament and propose recommendations on the way ahead.  But we also need to return to the underlying reasons for this delay. In my view we can single out six challenges and reasons.

I- Lack of political will. 

Historical lessons in this analysis are opportune. Some argue that convincing and including Israel into any nuclear disarmament negotiations is practically impossible.  Israel has chosen the path of “nuclear ambiguity”, “nuclear veto”, and the path of possessing a large arsenal of nuclear warheads as a guarantor of its national security.  A potent leverage card not only with its neighbors but also with the West and other international actors.  Israelis claims that no government is willing or even capable to take this path because it will lose credibility and even confidence, and that Israeli defense forces remain the major player in this regard.  So in other words any decision on the nuclear disarmament issue will never be taken by a civilian government, and shall always remain with the military.  Israelis sees many inherent dangers surrounding Israel and do not feel ready to relinquish this superior status in light of these dangers from terrorism and other groups or sources of “existential threat”.  Nuclear ambiguity has become for Israel, a Guarantor.

Arabs argue to Israel, our neighbor in our same region, that we are facing the same threats from all these challenges combined, and that an Israeli advanced nuclear status is obsolete and even useless in this regard. All these calls to Israel however, went unheeded.  Following a decision in 2010 to convene a conference 2012, and only a few weeks before that event in Helsinki (please see the mandate below), the US announced the conference deferral.[1]  This singular announcement gave a wrong message.  Some wondered whether it was done with the acquiescence of all the co-conveners and if so why wasn't it announced collectively and simultaneously by the three?  Even the role of the Facilitator was under scrutiny and criticism from many quarters.  Some asserted that he was not well tuned to the intricacies of our region including respect for religious holidays. Take for instance what some Arabs posit that since the invitation of the Facilitator dated August 16, 2013, to meet in Vienna after the deferral of the convening of the conference in December 2012, for a preparatory meeting, the letter of invitation from the Facilitator did not contain any terms of references, nor did it contain solid or agreed to elements as the ones enshrined in the 2010 mandate.  The invitation also came during a holy religious holiday making the circulation of the invitation more and more difficult.  This generic letter was discussed in an Arab high official disarmament task force meeting on August 28, and the general consensus in this meeting was not much different from the one outlined above.  At this juncture I wish to state a personal opinion.  I believe in the good intentions of Mr. Laajava, and I believe that he tried his best.  However, these repeated mistakes withdraw from the support he enjoyed from the Arab group.

Nevertheless, the Arabs at the time decided to continue engagement in good faith, requesting a UN umbrella for the proposed conference, upholding the 1995 indefinite extension package with its integral ME resolution, plus the 2010 conference terms of reference, encouraging the active role of the Facilitator and the co-conveners as well as requesting a precise new date for the set conference.  The wisdom at the time was to convene a preparatory meeting in the UN in Geneva, the end of October 2013.  In proceeding, a great deal of time and effort was lost over the venue of the meetings.  The Arabs wanted to hold the meetings in UN premises under a UN flag, but stated, at the time, that they were still ready to attend any meeting with terms of references that were symbiotically linked to the 2010 mandate, without opening the door for a process to renegotiate that mandate.  Others wanted a less informal meeting that had no UN linkage, and so the serene village of Glion in Switzerland was chosen.  The 2010 mandate levied a special responsibility on the three Co-Conveners.  In this regard their “procrastination” as seen from one angle has been strongly denied by them.  The Co-Conveners assert that they have done everything possible to ensure the success of the convening of the conference as registered in 2010.  They repeatedly argue that they support the initiative as well as the convening of the conference but Arabs and Israelis must first sit down together and negotiate the conference agenda.  However, a series of hypothetical questions linger in the mind of many Arab parties. I shall list some of these points to elucidate this dilemma:

1 Why did the co-conveners delay implementation of the 1995 Middle East Resolution, which was the basis of the indefinite NPT extension decision, till the 2010 NPT review conference?
2 How serious were the conveners in negotiating the 2010 M.E Decision that called for convening a conference devoted to the establishment of the said zone before 2012?
3 Was it a delaying tactic not to convene the M.E conference till 2012 and then postpone it
4 Why did the co-convenors not abide by the mandate contained in the 1995 resolution and the outcome of the 2010 decision related to the Middle East Conference
5 Why did the co-convenors not oppose the extortion exercised by Israel by imposing new elements to the mandate of the 2010 NPT Review conference?
6 Is there any other serious threat to humanity and to the security and safety of the peoples of the Middle East other than the Israeli Nuclear Weapons
Can the Co-conveners accept to proceed on the basis of the 2010 mandate to call for the conference, while deferring their proposal for a process that includes “regional security”, at this stage?
Please explain the lack of effort and interest in convincing Iran to participate fully in the process, and what measures are the Co-Conveners taking with Iran in this regard including those discussed during the negotiations that took place with Iran and 5+1?
9 Amidst the assertions that you need positive, fresh, concrete, new consensus based, and result oriented ideas for a “New Beginning”, what are your “Fresh, concrete, new consensus based, and result oriented”, ideas in this regard?
10 Please explain your vision for a new structured process, UN role, a co-conveners assertive role that transcends simple administrative requests for convening meetings, the basic responsibilities of a new Facilitator, in an agreed to time frame?
How can you prevent the process of “Stocktaking of past practices?” from short circuiting the process, by repeating old positions, and inflammatory rhetoric? 
 In case of the resumption of the process can this be done, this time, in UN premises in Geneva or Vienna?

My conclusion on this part is that I predict the continuation of attempts to empty the 2010 NPT REVCON of its terms of reference because of lack of political will by some parties.

II- Insistence on shelving any kinds of real and viable negotiations in the nuclear field while not objecting to any measures in the field of regional CBM's, and especially missiles. This warrants a strong Arab precautionary process of early consultations given the fact that the first prep-com will convene next year.

Mr. Scheinman, the distinguished US Presidential envoy on nonproliferation, just reminded us of what he feels on the necessity of a “Regional middle east Conference”.  What we need to know from him is whether the terms of reference on nuclear disarmament shall be integrated, or not, in this proposed regional conference. May I remind you of what transpired in ACRS which is similar to this present debate.  For many years the Israelis feared that if the door was to be opened for negotiations on the nuclear file, this will constitute a dangerous “slippery slope” for the state of Israel.  As a result, they opted to request negotiations on collateral disarmament measures like confidence building, and refused under any circumstances to discuss the nuclear disarmament option.  This reminiscent scenario led to the collapse of ACRS. 

III- Possible Change in US policies on the Iran deal with a new US administration, which will divert attention from our Arab initiative, become an element of pressure on our cause, and an element of instability in our region.

But there are two conflicting interpretations of the Iran deal signed in July 2015.

A de-Jure interpretation that underscores the fact that it is a good treaty…etc. This de-jure scenario is well supported by evidence presented by the IAEA inspection missions to the extent of stating that Iran has complied, even making its provisional approval of the additional protocol irrelevant.

The second scenario operates from a milieu or de-facto approach focusing on the physical circumstances in which the Treaty is being implemented which is not in favor of, and in fact critical of, Iran’s policies in the region.  Those operating from this axiom refer to Iran’s war by proxy, smuggling of weapons into Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, as well as the threat from Iranian Missiles. These same scholars also refer to uninterrupted Iranian attempts at regional Hegemony and export of its revolution. It seems to them that the Iran deal freed Iran to do “mischief” in our region, as some notable GCC scholars advocate!

This has forced these same scholars to warn against the release of financial assets to Iran, and the economic implications of lifting of sanctions which have not yet been achieved.  The fact that more than 150 billion $ will be freed to Iran, raises regional worry from Iran’s neighbors, that this financial clout may be wedded with Iran’s policy of instigation of war by proxy, to destabilize regional actors including Saudi Arabia.

In 2017 Presidential elections will take place in Iran.  The question here is how will President's Rohany election 2017 become a factor.  Will voters blame him for a nuclear deal that failed? Will he pay a heavy price and appear before voters as a leader who gave in without securing national interests? Already economic indicators are not in his favor and his bet on the release of 150 billion US dollars may have backfired.

Mr. Scheinman reminded us also of the symbiotic link between the Iran deal and the principles and provisions of the NPT.   Missing in his argument is an important point.  Part and parcel of the NPT treaty is its article VII which underscore the right of states parties to the NPT to conclude regional arrangements to establish NWFZ's.  Despite all that the Iran deal itself was null and void of any reference to article VII and the principles of establishing NWFZ in the middle east.  Regional actors expected that the Iran deal would include a clear and present reference supporting the establishment of a NWFZ in the middle east.  This never happened, giving the indication that the deal may have been negotiated in the absence of any consideration to a well-established regional initiative, supported by Iran, that has been core for a consensus resolution on the UN agenda since 1980.

For all these reasons combined, some assert that Israel shall remain the sole beneficiary of a deterioration in Saudi / Iranian relations, which the Iran nuclear deal exacerbated.

IV- Calls for a new approach and proactive thinking away from the traditional zonal approach. Recently we have heard repeated calls for other incremental initiatives such as reciprocal accession to the CTBT by Israel and Egypt, a prohibition of nuclear testing in the ME, and a new Treaty on prevention of attacks on nuclear installations in the ME. 

Mr. Zerbo DG of the CTBTO argued a short while ago that it was time to think outside of the box, and that an UNGA resolution as old as 1974 will never stay forever.  He also argued that this kind of a diplomacy of linkage led to noncompliance in Iraq, Syria, Libya...etc. and that it was time for a fresh new beginning and new initiatives such as a regional ban on nuclear testing.

To this argument I say that an Israeli unsafeguarded military nuclear program in the ME, establishing a nuclear veto in the ME since the early 1960"s, the presence of an expired reactor that has never been under safeguards; Dimona, created sufficient impetus for other parties to seek parity sometimes through non-nuclear means.

He says that a regional CTBT signing is a step by step approach that will stop wasting another 40 years in efforts that do not yield results.

I tell him that testing is one aspect of the principles of establishing any treaty or a nuclear weapon free zone where the principles are, global and standardized.  In all such zones in Latin America, Tlatelolco, Africa or South Asia the basic principles have always been the same: “never to manufacture, deploy, store, sell to others, place on territories of 3rd parties, testing"... etc. None of these treaties singled out testing as the one and most important pillar of that zone!  In fact, most of these treaties went on to invite parties to:    

“Pending the establishment of the zone, not to develop, produce, test or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or permit the stationing on their territories, or territories under their control, of nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices.” 

Hence the generic principles are more coherent and more stringent than testing. I say this in response to what he said that a zone free from nuclear testing can be an alternative for a ZFWMD in the middle east.

V- The need for a concerted, unified Arab position in 2017 

This was not present unfortunately in the review conference of 2015. The Arab group appeared at the time divided in New York. Arabs must assess why this dysfunctional policy and outcome happened despite years of a plethora of high official’s meetings in the headquarters of the League of Arab States (LAS).  An ESCWA report issued last week argued that Arabs may be too busy with the fallout of the Arab Spring unrest of 2011, which cost the region's economies an estimated $614 billions of growth because of regime change, continued conflict and falling oil prices. In this context the LAS needs a machinery to think outside of the box and in this regard I believe that the formation of a group of “wise men” by the Secertary General of the LAS which will start its meeting in Cairo on the 8th of December, 2016, may come up with new, and fresh ideas on how to move forward.

VI- How to harness the benefits from first Committee UNGA resolution L.41 for the Arab cause.

On 27 October 2016, the First Committee of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted a resolution deciding to start negotiation of a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons in March 2017. An overwhelming majority of states (123) voted in favor (including North Korea) while 38 voted against and 16 abstained.[2]  Not all Arab states voted in favor of that important initiative. The question to those three Arab states is whether their vote of abstention or absence will auger well with a solid Arab call for nuclear disarmament in the middle east. 

In all cases it must be clear in all Arab preparatory meetings and group of ambassador’s meetings that supporting such an initiative is crucial for the Arab cause of regional nuclear disarmament.

These in my view are six challenges that must be addressed by us all.


[1] The Middle East, particularly implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East

1. The Conference reaffirms the importance of the Resolution on the Middle East adopted by the 1995 Review and Extension Conference and recalls the affirmation of its goals and objectives by the 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The Conference stresses that the resolution remains valid until the goals and objectives are achieved. The resolution, which was co-sponsored by the depositary States of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America), is an essential element of the outcome of the 1995 Conference and of the basis on which the Treaty was indefinitely extended without a vote in 1995. States parties renew their resolve to undertake, individually and collectively, all necessary measures aimed at its prompt implementation.
2. The Conference reaffirms its endorsement of the aims and objectives of the Middle East peace process, and recognizes that efforts in this regard, as well as other efforts, contribute to, inter alia, a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons as well as other weapons of mass destruction.
3. The Conference takes note of the reaffirmation at the 2010 Review Conference by the five nuclear-weapon States of their commitment to a full implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East.
4. The Conference regrets that little progress has been achieved towards the implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East.
5. The Conference recalls the reaffirmation by the 2000 Review Conference of the importance of Israel’s accession to the Treaty and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards. The Conference reaffirms the urgency and importance of achieving universality of the Treaty. The Conference calls on all States in the Middle East that have not yet done so to accede to the Treaty as non-nuclear-weapon States so as to achieve its universality at an early date.
6. The Conference stresses the necessity of strict adherence by all States parties to their obligations and commitments under the Treaty. The Conference urges all States in the region to take relevant steps and confidence-building measures to contribute to the realization of the objectives of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East and calls upon all States to refrain from undertaking any measures that preclude the achievement of this objective.
7. The Conference emphasizes the importance of a process leading to full implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East. To that end, the Conference endorses the following practical steps:
(a) The Secretary-General of the United Nations and the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution, in consultation with the States of the region, will convene a conference in 2012, to be attended by all States of the Middle East, on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the States of the region, and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon States. The 2012 Conference shall take as its terms of reference the 1995 Resolution;
(b) Appointment by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution, in consultation with the States of the region, of a facilitator, with a mandate to support implementation of the 1995 Resolution by conducting consultations with the States of the region in that regard and undertaking preparations for the convening of the 2012 Conference. The facilitator will also assist in implementation of follow-on steps agreed by the participating regional States at the 2012 Conference. The facilitator will report to the 2015 Review Conference and its Preparatory Committee meetings;
(c) Designation by the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution, in consultation with the States of the region, of a host Government for the 2012 Conference;
(d) Additional steps aimed at supporting the implementation of the 1995 Resolution, including that IAEA, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and other relevant international organizations be requested to prepare background documentation for the 2012 Conference regarding modalities for a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, taking into account work previously undertaken and experience gained;
(e) Consideration of all offers aimed at supporting the implementation of the 1995 Resolution, including the offer of the European Union to host a follow-on seminar to that organized in June 2008.
8. The Conference emphasizes the requirement of maintaining parallel progress, in substance and timing, in the process leading to achieving total and complete elimination of all weapons of mass destruction in the region, nuclear, chemical and biological.
9. The Conference reaffirms that all States parties to the Treaty, particularly the nuclear-weapon States and the States in the region, should continue to report on steps taken to implement the 1995 Resolution, through the United Nations Secretariat, to the President of the 2015 Review Conference, as well as to the Chairperson of the Preparatory Committee meetings to be held in advance of that Conference.
10. The Conference further recognizes the important role played by civil society in contributing to the implementation of the 1995 Resolution and encourages all efforts in this regard.

This achievement is the result of a long campaign initiated by civil society organisations and initially supported by a handful of governments. It capitalised on the momentum generated by a series of international conferences on the potential catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons (at Oslo in 2013, Nayarit, and Vienna in 2014). It followed the meetings of an Open-Ended Working Group convened by the UN General Assembly in Geneva in 2013 and 2016, where the nuclear weapons ban was discussed among many other measures to take nuclear disarmament forward. The main motivation of the proponents of the prohibition was that, because any nuclear weapon detonation (including accidental or terrorist) would cause mass casualties among civilian populations, it would thus violate international humanitarian law as previous arms control and disarmament treaties have shown, once an international norm is established and widely supported, it can act as a powerful incentive or create will we become too consumed in our efforts at the expense of the other cause”.

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