Time for a WMD-free Middle East?

Time for a WMD-free Middle East?

Paolo Cotta Ramusino - Selim Can Sazak
As a region in turmoil, the Middle East is a focal point in world politics. Unfortunately, among the region’s many problems, too little attention is paid to how to positively address one of its most serious: Eliminating the region’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD), nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

For each of this kind of weapon, there is an international agreement either forbidding or limiting them. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Biological Weapons Conventions (BWC) forbid the possession of these weapons to the states that are party to these conventions. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) instead distinguishes between parties that are allowed to have nuclear weapons (the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France) and parties that are not. The problem, however, is that several key countries are not parties to the relevant agreements. The situation of the Middle East is particularly critical as Syria and Egypt are parties neither to the CWC nor the BWC, while Israel is also not a party to the NPT. In fact, Israel is the only country in the world that is not a party to any one of the three treaties (or conventions) that deal with WMDs. By comparison, North Korea is at least party to the CWC.

Not only are these countries are not parties to the treaties dealing with WMDs, but more disturbingly some of these countries have possessed and/or are in possession of WMDs. Israel is estimated to possess 100 to 200 nuclear weapons. Syria’s chemical weapons and their potential/alleged use during the Syrian Civil War are also a major source of concern. In the recent past, Saddam’s Iraq used chemical weapons, first against Iran in the 1980s and then against its own Kurdish population in Halabja in 1988. Iraq’s alleged possession of chemical weapons and the possible existence of a nuclear weapon program was used as the main justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, even though these allegations were later proved to be false.

It should also be noted that the use of chemical weapons by Iraq against Iran, resulting in ten-thousands of Iranian casualties, has never been officially condemned by any international institution and has laid the ground for a sense of embitterment and injustice among Iranians. Considering the allegations that Saddam’s WMD program was made possible with Western technical assistance, it is not difficult to see why.

Now, the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria is being used as a possible motivation for a change in the nature of Western support to the Syrian opposition towards an increased military involvement in the conflict. Remembering how unilateral military action - as in the case of Iraq - undermines the credibility and authority of the international system, revisiting the concerns of non-Western actors like Russia on Syria is essential if one wants to progress towards a peaceful solution. Most alarmingly, it seems that we are moving toward a further intensification of one of the most serious challenges for regional stability in the Middle East, rather than searching for a difficult, but necessary, path towards a ceasefire and an eventual compromise. Without a swift and comprehensive solution, not only Syria but the entire region will be forced to pay a bigger price, as will Turkey.

In this unstable regional environment, ridding the Middle East of WMDs has long been a logical priority and once the dust of the Syrian civil war clears, it will grow more important. The idea of eliminating nuclear weapons in the Middle East was first voiced in 1974, then championed by Egypt and Iran. Since then, however, the various efforts to implement this idea have not come to fruition. Finally, at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, it was decided that the three depository states of the NPT (the U.S., the U.K., and Russia) would convene, together with the Secretary General of the U.N., a conference in 2012 to initiate a process leading to the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. The conference, however, is yet to be held and under the current circumstances, its future prospects remain unclear. Particularly instrumental in this outcome was Washington’s short-sighted belief, mostly influenced by Israel, that its monopoly of nuclear weapons in the region is a source of security itself. Israel’s nuclear weapons do not provide any real and concrete security guarantee. Indeed, they undermine Israel’s own security - as well as the region’s - by creating a force disparity and prompting other countries, as in the case of Iran, to seek parity by building their own nuclear weapons.

Security is a collective matter and in the Middle East, it is time to recognize that the security of all would be much better assured with WMDs for noone.