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Why a WMD free zone is needed in the Mideast

A Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the MENA region has long been supported by many states

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

With the P5+1’s recent announcement of a decades-long plan to monitor Iran’s nuclear energy and research, some Arab states are announcing the intention of exploring nuclear capabilities because they do not trust Iran. The idea of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) would help build confidence in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region and is critical at this time as it would seek to zero out any nuclear intent by Arab states. It’s time to go beyond the WMDFZ as a mere catch-phrase.

A WMDFZ in the MENA region has long been supported by many states, not only because of the Iranian nuclear program but also because of Israel’s nuclear weapons. It seems that in the last few years, the topic of a WMDFZ in MENA has dropped off the radar.

Pursuing a nuclear deterrent

The reason why is due to reporting that some MENA states are actually pursuing a nuclear deterrent because they do not trust Iran. Now with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in Lausanne last week, there is obviously a key focus on the Islamic Republic’s break out capacity. Perhaps five years from now, in 2020, we may see a region with nuclear weapons programs and weapons to boot. Thus, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) needs a dramatic update to take in account the vivid changes afoot in the evolving security environment.

Of course, a WMDFZ covers much more than nuclear pursuits; there are also the chemical and biological aspects

Dr. Theodore Karasik

It is now critical to engage MENA countries, which are now engaged in a unity military campaign in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthis, to remember that the NPT is still a regional requirement. Talk of acquiring nuclear weapons from Pakistan does not build confidence. In fact, there seems to be a nuclear research race going on in the region. Russia is building nuclear plants in Egypt and Jordan, and South Korea is active in the Arabian Peninsula. French nuclear companies Areva and EDF are in Saudi Arabia. Other Arab states are likely to follow suit.

The NPT, ratified in 1970, is the main pillar of any anti-nuclear proliferation. This year, state parties to the NPT are to gather in a Review Conference to ensure that NPT norms and standards are being followed. They have a tough assignment ahead of them.

Great debate

With the signing of the JCPOA, there is now a great debate over the timetables included in the documents and exactly what was agreed to in Lausanne. There is still a long way to go and the Arab states are, as noted above, weary of Iran’s intent. As such, with Israel amazingly looking like it is going to side with other MENA states regarding the Iranian discussions, it is imperative now to bring up the WMDFZ issue as Israel is not a signatory to the NPT. We have to ask ourselves whether the entire NPT regime will be tossed on the ash heap of history. If so, there needs to be a new push in the WMDFZ realm of ideas.

Of course, a WMDFZ covers much more than nuclear pursuits; there are also the chemical and biological aspects. Syria, of course, acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Egypt still has not signed the CWC and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). With Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s push for a Joint Arab Reaction Force, we need to remind ourselves that military alliances evolve, as do their weapons and stockpiles as technology becomes better and smaller.

Another component of a WMDFZ is the development of short and medium-range ballistic and cruise missile systems. Of course, JCPA does not deal with this issue. Iran is brimming with these systems. Significantly, missile system proliferation seems to have been shelved in the last year to achieve the JCPA. Almost a year ago, former U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to attend a ministerial of the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Defense Dialogue. He encouraged the council to designate a quarterly meeting hosted by the Air Force component of U.S. Central Command as “the GCC’s primary military forum for regional air and missile defense policy.” Nothing happened.

Now, America’s push for a Gulf Ballistic Missile Defense System is on the back burner and likely to be cut back given Washington’s new emerging friendship with Iran.

The boosting of existing agencies and programs in the MENA region is paramount in the new regional security order after JCPOA where a WMDFZ is considered. Nowhere is this more important than in MENA-based energy programs.

As Abdelmajid Mahjoub, director-general of the Arab Atomic Energy Agency (AAEA), noted last November 2014 that the use of atomic energy in Arab countries has been “significantly increasing” over the last decade. Mahjoub noted that Arab countries were able to benefit from atomic energy in healthcare, industrial quality assurance, agricultural development, water resources management, environmental protection and electricity generation.

He added that the AAEA plays a major role in helping these countries “develop the infrastructure and the needed capabilities for nuclear and radiological safety and security.” Consequently, it will be important to empower, if you will, the AAEA in terms of a new round of a MENA-based WMDFZ.

Empowering key players

Another party that needs to be empowered is The Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) based in Jordan. SESAME focuses on research in disciplines such as molecular environmental science, x-ray imaging and clinical medical applications, and participation is open to all scientists in Middle East. Its current members are Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, and the Palestinian Authority. With the current crises in the MENA region, SESAME should be reorganized and rebooted.

The role of Turkey in a MENA WMDFZ is also required. Although Ankara did not want to associate itself with such a mission because of its NATO membership, Turkey is now undergoing a Neo-Ottomanist revival that signals that it wants to dominate the region politically and economically, especially via pipeline politics. Although there is no evidence that Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pursuing nuclear capability, we cannot rule it out in the current atmosphere. But we must remember that Turkey wanted a leadership role within the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative, an ad-hoc group established by ten non-nuclear weapon states in the wake of the 2010 NPT Review Conference. That role, however, was in a different security context.

Overall, the notion of a MENA WMDFZ is in serious need of attention. The WMDFZ process in MENA is not expected to address all existing and future security dilemmas in the region. However, this abandoned approach needs to be dusted off and thought out in the new regional context. Sooner, rather than later, would be preferable.

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Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.