The issue of the establishment of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East has being discussed for many years. The UN General Assembly following the proposal by Iran and Egypt first endorsed calls for the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) in a Resolution approved in December of 1974. Moreover, from 1991 onwards the IAEA General Conference has also adopted annually without objections a resolution calling for the application of full scope safeguards on all nuclear facilities in the region “as a necessary step for the establishment of the NWFZ.”
One of the most important steps taken by the world community was the decision of the 1995 NPT Review Conference for “the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems.” This decision was a part of a package of decisions that resulted in the indefinite extension of the NPT.
At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, State Parties were able to agree for the first time to five practical steps to make progress towards implementing the Resolution of the NPT Review Conference – 1995 on the Middle East. The United States, Russia and the United Kingdom, the treaty depository powers and sponsors of that Resolution, committed to work together with the UN Secretary General to convene in 2012 a regional Conference to discuss the issue. November 23, 2012, the US issued a statement postponing the December 2012 Conference. As a result, the Conference has never taken place.
In 2018, the UN First Committee adopted a Resolution introduced by Egypt on behalf of the Arab League for the UN Secretary-General to convene a Conference on the establishment of a WMDFZ in the Middle East in 2019 and every year thereafter until a zone is achieved. Israel, Micronesia and the United States voted against the resolution and 71 countries abstained. November 18-22, 2019 in New-York, the Conference took place. It adopted Political Declaration in which it declared solemn commitment to pursue in an open and inclusive manner the elaboration of a Treaty on WMD free zone in Middle East on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by consensus by the States of the region. Moreover, the Conference decided that its annual sessions shall be held for a duration of 1 week starting on the third Monday of November of each year, unless otherwise decided.
Despite extensive international support and the catalogue of resolutions endorsed including by all regional states, practical progress has been stymied by sharp disagreements between countries in the region over the terms and the sequence of steps leading to the establishment of such a zone. Reflecting differing perceptions of threat and security concerns existing in the region, Israel has closely linked discussions on the establishment of a WMDFZ with the existence of durable peace and compliance with international obligations by states in the region. Arab states have said that no such linkage should exist and that the establishment of a WMDFZ would contribute to peaceful relations.
Russia, as the successor of the Soviet Union, took and continues taking considerable efforts to facilitate the establishment of a WMDFZ in the Middle East. Even at the Soviet time, on January 21, 1958, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) published a proposal to create in the Middle East an area free of nuclear and rocket bases.” The initiative also endorsed the establishment in the Middle and Near East “a zone of good neighborliness and friendly cooperation between states.”
Then, in 1990, due to support of Russia and the US, meetings of the Multilateral Working Group on Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) in the context of the post–Gulf War Madrid peace process brought Israel and all its immediate Arab neighbors, as well as other Arab countries (except for Libya and Iran) to the negotiation table for the first time, under the auspices of Russia and the United States. Though some moderate confidence-building measures received tentative agreement, overall the talks failed due to the profound differences between the parties, notably Egypt and Israel, regarding nuclear disarmament, general arms control and peace.
As far as the Middle East Resolution adopted by the 1995 NPTREC is concerned, it was a compromise between the co-sponsors – Russia, the US and the UK – and the Arab states on the issue of the indefinite extension of the NPT. The resolution endorses the Middle East peace process, calls upon all States of the Middle East that, without exception, to accede to the Treaty as soon as possible and to place their nuclear facilities under full-scope IAEA safeguards. The Resolution urges all States in the Middle East to take practical steps aimed at making progress towards the establishment a WMD free-zone. Finally, the Resolution calls upon all States Parties to the NPT, and in particular the NWS, to extend their cooperation and to exert their utmost efforts with a view to ensuring the early establishment by regional parties of a MEWMDFZ and their delivery systems.
In 2009, during the preparation for the upcoming NPT Review Conference, Russia proposed a meeting of states concerned with the situation so that they could appoint a special UN coordinator in the issue to collect proposals from states in the region and present his conclusions. Then Russia called on all states in the region to place their nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards – that call echoes the existing international requirements and is addressed mainly to Israel. Moreover, Russia encouraged all states in the region to accede to the CTBT. Finally, Russia called on the Middle East states to abandon the creation and development of sensitive elements of the NFC.
On May 8, 2009, Russia also stated that it supports holding a Conference to “consider the prospects” for implementing all aspects of the Resolution, but Russia would like such a Conference to address all WMD. These ideas and approach helped reinvigorate the discussion. As a result, the 2010 NPT Review Conference accepted the Russian ideas as a basis for further progress on the WMD-Free Zone. One of its tangible results was the Conference’s final document on the Middle East.
More specifically, the 2010 NPT Review Conference final document called on the UN Secretary-General and the three co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution, “in consultation with regional states, to convene a Conference in 2012, to be at tended by all states in 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.”
Russia was optimistic regarding the Conference. For instance, Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov noted that “we will work hard to make sure that the Conference on the Establishment of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East is held in 2012, in accordance with the goals set out in the Final Document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference. We believe that despite the obvious difficulties it is entirely possible to hold a successful Conference.” According to Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia tried to get its message across that both Iran’s and Israel’s active participation in the Conference would meet the interests of the two states themselves. For instance, if Iran refuses to take part in the Conference, this would be viewed as evidence that Iran’s nuclear program is not exactly peaceful. Russia came with initiative to establish the facilitator’s Group of Friends. It was not a detailed proposal, but it was an attempt to make preliminary consultations between the facilitator and the states of the region truly multilateral. As Ulyanov described, theoretically all the countries in the Middle East could become members of the group.
Despite the decision to postpone the Conference, Russia in its statement highlighted that the new dates for the Conference should be fixed as soon as possible. Later, at the Second Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference, Head of the Russian Delegation Mikhail Ulyanov stated that “the co-sponsors of the Conference did not have the authority to postpone it. Russia never gave its consent to postponing the dates. No collective decision concerning this matter had been taken by the co-sponsors.”
At the Preparatory Committee of the 2015 review cycle, Russia’s position is that the Conference on establishing the WMD-Free Zone must be held within the stipulated time frame, and that Iran and Israel must both take part. Sergey Ryabkov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, said: “The focus of the efforts should be that without exception all countries of the Middle East take part in the Conference. Otherwise, it will hardly be possible to make sure that the dialogue among the countries of the region is dynamic.”
During the 2015 Review Conference Moscow tabled its own proposal on the way forward with a MEWMDFZ. It differed markedly from the joint paper that the three depositary states had submitted earlier and endorsed major elements of the Egyptian proposal. to terminate the mandate agreed at the 2010 Review Conference and replace it with a new process, under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General. The document can be summarized in several points:
The US, despite serious concern in Israel that it would accept the final document, for the sake of NPT consensus, did not accept it. The 2015 Review Conference failed to adopt the Final Resolution.
At the first session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 Review Conference, Russia submitted its working paper on the WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East. In comparison to the 2015 working paper, the tone of this paper includes a considerable scope for possible consensus. The document says that the mandate of the 2010 action plan is valid, and that the Conference on the establishment of a MEWMDF remains a relevant, worthwhile and achievable goal. According to the paper, preparatory meetings should preferably be attended by all states of the region and conducted on a regular basis as frequently as needed. The Conference should be held well before the 2020 Review Conference. The language includes one very important provision for Israel, “it is advisable to devote one session of the Conference to several specific aspects of regional security.” However, those items should be within the context of the 1995 Resolution.
Debate on the issue of the establishment of a WMDFZ was December 22, 2018, when the UN General Assembly took a decision to convene a Conference on taking forward a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East in 2019 and every year thereafter until a zone is achieved. Participating States agreed that the Conference will be held from 18 to 22 November 2019. Russia is going to take part in the Conference. Moreover, it is convinced that ” the November Conference on the WMD-Free Zone could move the process from the dead point. ” Russia calls upon all States in the region and all depositaries of the NPT to participate fully in it, thereby reaffirming their commitment to strengthening the NPT regime.” The Russia believes that if this Conference is held successfully, it will have positive impact on the outcome of the 2020 Review Conference.
WMD-Free Zones have been viewed as effective means to perform a variety of disarmament and nonproliferation tasks, such as to spare zonal states from the use or threat of use of WMD, to reduce the danger of mass destruction war, and to create a framework for regional co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
As far as Russia is concerned, the country has facilitated and continues facilitating the establishment of such a zone in the Middle East through numerous channels. It always takes active actions and makes concrete proposals during Review Conferences, Preparatory Committees and on the margins of other negotiation sites in order to encourage the states of the Middle East to revitalize their efforts aimed at ridding the region of WMD. At the same time, it is obvious that such Russian actions to be really effective ones have to be joint measures of Russia and the USA, or to be just parallel with the American efforts, and, by all means, such actions have to be accompanied with real desire all states of the Middle East to establish a WMD-Free Zone in the region.
There are a number of ways through which the Russian Federation and the United States could promote the process of the establishment of such a zone, but the cooperation on this issue depends on the general development of the bilateral relations. For instance, Russia and the US could establish a forum for the Middle East to discuss security-related issues that could lay a foundation for a future WMD-Free Zone. It could be an analog of an arms control and regional security (ACRS) working group that had been already working in 1990s, and where the US and Russia chaired six sessions. The plenary sessions focused primarily on confidence-building measures and brought together 13 Arab States, Israel, and a Palestinian delegation. Reactivation of such a forum will mitigate contradictions between the states of the region and, consequently, facilitate the process of the establishment of a WMD-Free Zone. At the same time, joint involvement of the Russian Federation and the United States in the work of such a forum will contribute to the improvement of the bilateral relations as well.
 Ulyanov, M.//Twitter. URL: https://twitter.com/amb_ulyanov/status/1198005065660977152?s=12.
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