The second session of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction was supposed to be held on November 16–22, 2020. However, due to restrictions of COVID-19, it was postponed to November 29 –December 6, 2021. Much has changed since the first session of the Conference held in 2019. The balance of power in the Middle East region has changed, and administrations in Israel and Iran have changed. One thing has not changed: the Middle East has never had a WMD-free zone.
As a follow-up to the 2019 Conference, the participating countries adopted a political declaration proclaiming an open commitment, with the participation of all invited States, to continue the elaboration of a treaty establishing the WMD-free zone based on agreements concluded by region states. It was stressed that the conference welcomed all initiatives, resolutions, decisions, and recommendations on the zone. They believe that the establishment of the WMD-free zone will greatly enhance regional and international peace and security, and the work of this Conference in drafting the treaty will help to build confidence in the region. All states of the region were invited to support the declaration and to participate in the next sessions of the Conference.
A turning point in the Middle East was the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE in 2020. For the first time since 1994, the Arab State established diplomatic relations with Israel. The following was signed “Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic, Peaceful and Friendly Relations” with Bahrain. In October, with Sudan, in December, with Morocco. Economic, cultural, energy, and other relations were officially given green light. The agreements included paragraphs on comprehensive cooperation in the field of international security. At the 65th GC of the IAEA, Israel emphasized that the “Abraham Accords” is the way forward for meaningful direct regional dialogue. The Israeli leadership has openly expressed its desire to cooperate with any state in the Middle East to enhance nuclear security and to promote the peaceful use of nuclear technologies. However, the existing fundamental contradictions have not gone away, and it was not possible to mitigate them with the “Abraham Accords”.
On 25 June 2021, in the run-up to the 65th IAEA GC, the Ambassador of the Republic of Tunisia, on behalf of the Arab States members of the IAEA, submitted a request to the Director-General to include the item “Israeli nuclear capabilities” in the agenda of the session:
“While all the Arab States have acceded to the NPT and shown their continuing readiness to take practical steps towards the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, Israel continues to defy the international community by downplaying the significance of the Treaty, refusing to become a party to it and refusing to place all its facilities under the Agency’s comprehensive safeguards, thus exposing the region to nuclear risks and posing a threat to security”
Israeli stumbling block
Israel has never recognized, nor denied, the existence of nuclear weapons. The leadership resisted several international calls for the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, including those resulting from 1995, 2005, and 2010 NPT. The reason is clear: Before speaking of such a zone, states of the Middle East must establish peaceful relations.
“Israel attaches great importance to the non-proliferation regime and shares its objectives. Nevertheless, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East has demonstrated that the NPT does not provide a legal remedy against the inherent security challenges in the region, especially regarding the repeated violations of the NPT by several States parties. Accession to the NPT was not an objective in itself. Calls for universal joining the NPT should also be assessed in the light of the views of some in the region towards the State of Israel, the existence of which has not been recognized by the several Arab States; and the position of Iran, which openly and explicitly called for the destruction of Israel”.
From Israel’s explanation of the vote “Against” for the establishment of the WMD-free zone
The Israeli leadership emphasizes that the establishment of the WMD-free zone must come from within the region itself. It should be based only on arrangements freely arrived at through direct negotiations among the Middle East States. Such a zone cannot be imposed from outside and cannot emerge before conditions are created for it.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also claimed that Israel would never sign the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) because that would not protect against regional nuclear proliferation. We should not expect Naftali Bennett to change rhetoric. The inclusion of the item “Israeli Nuclear Capabilities” in the agenda of the IAEA GC was described as a politicized step contrary to the spirit of the IAEA.
Position of the U.S.
In the address to the Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2021, President Joe Biden identified the risk of global proliferation of nuclear weapons as a central issue for his administration and stressed the need for diplomacy and cooperation on this issue at the international level. The White House’s first official document, March 4, 2021, “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” defines nuclear weapons as an existential threat that the renewed American leadership must confront. The focus of the effort is on Iran: retaining it among the NNWS and returning it to the negotiating table on the JCPOA. Although the question of US participation in the next WMD-free Zone Conference remains open, the “golden time” of Netanyahu and Trump, when the US and Israel worked in unison to undermine the process of creating the WMD-free Zone, came to an end. The Biden administration is taking a more sober approach towards Israel.
For Israel, the KPI of the policy on the WMD-free zone is the launch of a direct regional dialogue on a wide range of security issues. It is the process of regional normalization that, in the view of the Israelis, could be the first step towards real progress on the WMD-free zone. In this context, Israel continues to benefit from maintaining tensions around the Iranian nuclear program and from contributing to the establishment of anti-Iranian security architecture in the region. But, as the example of an anti-Israel resolution at the IAEA shows, this does not mean that Israel’s nuclear capabilities will be forgotten even in the saddest scenario of the Iranian nuclear program and JCPOA arrangements.