The NPT should not become a prisoner to regional politics in the Middle East

26.02.2013

 

On February 21, a news article spread across the internet that countries in the League of Arab States might boycott upcoming NPT review process events, including the second Preparatory Committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference scheduled for the end of April – beginning of May, as a result of the fact that a conference on the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East not convened in 2012, nor was a date even set, as had been agreed upon in the Final Document of the 2010 Review Conference.  

Strictly speaking, it’s not entirely clear what the author of the article means by “boycott.” There is no official translation of the document to which the author refers, so naturally there are questions as to how it should be interpreted. The wording of the document appears cautious – it says that Arab states should consider the possible steps that they can undertake in various disarmament fora. This will be discussed further at the League Ministers meeting in March 2013. Nonetheless, it is understandable that Arab states, and Egypt in particular, are dissatisfied and feel the need to express their dissatisfaction. Egyptian and other Arab experts repeated on more than one occasion in 2012 that their participation in the nonproliferation regime is contingent upon progress toward forming a WMDFZ in the Middle East.

The first thought that comes to mind is that this kind of jolt to the process is necessary, and, if you will, it comes at just the right time. The presence of WMD in the region is a threat to all, including, and perhaps especially, to Israel. Demanding that we “solve fundamental security issues” as a precondition for removing WMD from the region gets us nowhere. The risk of further WMD proliferation in the region is incredibly high, yet the most vocal proponents of global zero are the ones who continue to put preconditions on the negotiations.

The positions of Russia and Arab states on the timing of the WMDFZ conference are very similar, if not fully aligned – the conference should take place as soon as possible. Russia could also benefit from the expedited convening of the conference, given that our relationship with the Arab world has soured a bit and an extra reason for more intense dialogue wouldn’t hurt.

On the one hand, any kind of boycott is like lighting a match around flammable materials – it has the possibility to get out of hand and stray far from where it started (for example, Iran could follow the lead of the Arab states). On the other hand, the 2015 NPT Review Conference is only two years away – it is time to stimulate the process of forming a WMDFZ while there is still time, and the PrepCom is a good place to raise concerns (and better to do so now rather than later). 

However, there is a line that should not be crossed – the nonproliferation regime and functionality of the NPT review process must not become a prisoner to regional politics in the Middle East, which is exactly what has happened to the WMDFZ conference. 


It is unacceptable for any NPT member states to threaten the NPT review process, a global security forum, as a means of trying to solve regional political issues. By making that sort of announcement, formal or not, countries of the Arab League are shifting the blame for their WMD problems to other states that should be there merely to help them find a solution. However, there is a line that should not be crossed – the nonproliferation regime and functionality of the NPT review process must not become prisoner to regional politics in the Middle East, which is exactly what has happened to the WMDFZ conference.

The NPT is referred to as a deal between nuclear-weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) – the former agree to work on disarming while the latter promise to not proliferate, and both sides evaluate each other’s progress at the Review Conferences. But that interpretation, which follows the logic behind the Arab League’s statement, does not correspond to the reality of today, where WMD materials and technology have become much more accessible. Additionally, the link here between nonproliferation and disarmament has a particular regional context – the proliferation of WMD materials and technology is just as threatening to the security of all states in the region as the possession of nuclear weapons by one of these states.

The complete elimination of WMD is the ultimate goal of a series of steps dealing with not only regional security, but also reducing the risk of the proliferation of dangerous materials and technologies. The Helsinki conference was supposed to either map out the first steps or at least design a mechanism to develop these steps.

The cancellation or rescheduling of the WMDFZ Conference is not a reason to question the entire nonproliferation system. If a mechanism doesn’t work in a particular instance, it doesn’t mean that we should give up on the goal, it means that we need to figure out how to adjust the mechanism so that it does work.

It seems that a necessary condition for convening the Helsinki should be its depoliticization – that is, turning it into an objective, technical discussion, a discussion of concrete steps toward reducing the risk of WMD proliferation and developing of the beginnings of arms control for the region.

That sort of substantive, depoliticized discussion is possible if Middle Eastern states take responsibility for nonproliferation in the region, if they realize the true scope of the dangers they are dealing with and accept that it is in their best interest to set politics aside and deal with these threats.  

It is important that the co-sponsors of the 1995 resolution work on increasing the Middle Eastern states’ responsibility for the future of nonproliferation in the region. The new leaders coming to power in the Middle East have not yet made WMD issues a priority.

At the moment, the U.S. and Russia are considering how they might apply best practices from their experiences under the Nunn-Lugar agreement to the Middle East, and an analogous discussion will take place in the G8 with respect to the Global Partnership.

One way to increase the responsibility of the political elite in the region could be to develop multilateral WMD threat reduction programs, with the equal participation of specific countries and their specialists. This should not be yet another “gift” or compulsory action for the G8 or Russia and the U.S. Rather, they should be indigenous programs run by the states of the region and, preferably, financed on their own, but with the participation of partners who are able to share best practices from their own experiences. 

     

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