Despite notes of caution and a lack of concrete offers, Presidents Obama and Rouhani set the stage for increased engagement at the UN last week. With calls for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East reaffirmed, Israel's game plan will be central.
All eyes were on the UN last week, as Presidents Obama and Rouhani took historic steps towards breaking the long-standing mutual mistrust between the US and Iran, and the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria. A negotiated deal on the future of Iran’s nuclear program and the verifiable removal of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile from the region would, of course, be hugely significant achievements in and of themselves. But these two developments, if they happened, could also create wider (helpful) waves across the region – including fostering progress on a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East, a process which states parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed up to back in 1995, but which has yet to begin.
It is too early to tell whether the geo-political plates are truly shifting on nuclear weapons issues in the Middle East – but recent developments are certainly encouraging. The formal statements made by Presidents Obama and Rouhani on 24th September at the General Assembly continued to sound clear notes of caution and lacked concrete offers, yet they set the stage for increased engagement. Speculation followed as to whether the two leaders might even meet – which, after 35 years of frozen relations, would have been a significant symbolic step. In the event, a handshake was deemed premature (and could have been politically costly for President Rouhani back home), but arrangements were made for Secretaries of State John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif to meet, which they did on Thursday 26th September. On Friday the two Presidents spoke by phone about the prospects of reaching a negotiated agreement on the question of Iran’s nuclear program. Topping it off with an increasingly fascinating display of 21st century diplomacy, Rouhani subsequently tweeted “@BarackObama” about the discussion.
Mistrust between the two parties unquestionably runs deep and there will be those, not least in US Congress and the Iranian establishment, who will urge caution, either viewing this initial progress a trap or wanting to throw a spanner in the works of any diplomatic rapprochement; but last week’s tentative steps may just have started to shift the needle, and are a reassuring indication that change can be possible – on even the most intractable issues – if the will and environment allow.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council passed a resolution on 27th September calling for full and verifiable destruction of chemical weapons in Syria. UN inspectors confirmed that chemical weapons had been used in Damascus on 21 August and, in response to international pressure, Syria has since signed up to the UN Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to hand over its stockpile to the international community. Challenges are sure to remain on enforcement and verification, but this is a welcome step in the right direction.
We also witnessed the UN’s first-ever High Level Meeting on Disarmament on 26th September. Delegations (including Iran, on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement; Myanmar on behalf of ASEAN; the Netherlands on behalf of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative; and Egypt, on behalf of the New Agenda Coalition) used the occasion to call for urgent action to establish a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East, among other things.
The idea of a WMD-free zone in the region has been formally on the table in NPT Review Conference discussions since the early 1990s, when it was first raised by Egypt. In 2010, states parties to the NPT finally agreed on terms of reference for a conference on how to establish such a zone. The conference was anticipated to take place in Helsinki in 2012, but as a result of the deep mistrust across the region, never materialized. The revised date of December 2013 has also been looking shaky, despite the best efforts of the conference’s facilitator, Finnish Ambassador Jaakko Laajava.
Questions around the future of Iran’s nuclear program have been a cause of significant uncertainty – but the current overtures may help to move past that. However, Israel’s game plan will be central. Israel currently stands outside the NPT and is widely believed to hold a substantial and modern nuclear arsenal. Their active participation in discussions and negotiations over a WMD-free zone in the Middle East will be critical to making sustainable progress. Their response to developments in Iran and across the region is not yet clear – Prime Minister Netanyahu has continued to hold a hard line about recent movement by Iran; his visit to Washington D.C. today may give a clearer indication of his future intentions.
Within the region, Egypt has long played a leading role within the Arab League in pushing the non-proliferation debate forward, focusing largely on the universality of the NPT and the need for all states in the region to be held to the same standards. But recent domestic turmoil in Egypt has, understandably, taken priority in the minds of its policy-makers, potentially hindering their ability to continue playing a strong foreign policy role – or, at least, limiting their diplomats’ access to necessary political backing. Egyptian Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmy, has strong experience on the non-proliferation portfolio and has actively participated in events to discuss the potential for a WMD-free zone in the region (including a roundtable hosted by BASIC in Istanbul in March). He is well placed to reassure Egyptian leadership on how to move forward; but under the current circumstances, it is unclear how much attention the government will, in practice, be able to give to the issue.
Meanwhile, the Gulf States are starting to find their own voice within the Arab League on nuclear issues. Iran’s nuclear program has not only sparked concern around safeguards and the acquisition of nuclear weapons, but has also brought with it questions around nuclear safety and security and the transport and storage of fissile material across the region. These shared interests may give impetus to developing a regional process that meets the multiple challenges arising from energy choices.
Joint leadership between the Gulf States and Egypt could provide powerful leverage. It would require assertive, strong and politically astute diplomacy alongside the US, the Europeans, Russians and other NPT states; but it may even be possible to use that regional influence to bring both Iran and Israel to the table.
Significant uncertainty remains over the direction regional dynamics in the Middle East are taking: emerging avenues in the Iran debate and the subsequent Israeli reaction, Syrian compliance with its new commitments, and the foreign policy repercussions of Egyptian domestic politics will all be critical in determining how far the region will be willing and able to go in moving towards a WMD-free zone. But these developments could all represent an opportunity for big-picture engagement that better acknowledges the links between these issues and the broad, legitimate concerns of all actors in the region. Agreeing the concept of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East region was a massive achievement. The states in the region, with support from partners across the world, now need to take hold of these opportunities to actually deliver on it.