The prime purpose of the NPT and its review conferences is to bring the international community together in a joint enterprise to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons and work towards eliminating nuclear weapons in their entirety. This project requires states to participate in good faith.
The last NPT Review Conference in 2010 included a commitment to hold a conference on a Nuclear Weapon and WMD Free Zone in the Middle East in 2012. This was a major outcome from the Review Conference, and was seen as essential to reaching the necessary consensus for the final document – up there in influence alongside the several disarmament commitments entered into by the Nuclear Weapon States (which also have seen little progress since 2010). The reason it had such potency was because the 1995 consensus decision to indefinitely extend the NPT itself had been dependent upon a parallel Resolution to establish a nuclear weapon and WMD free zone in the Middle East, with little action in the intervening 15 years. The fact that this conference did not take place in 2012, and still has not, was always going to be a source of bitterness and recrimination at this Review Conference, now in session in New York.
The Arab states and Iran place the blame squarely upon Israel (and the protection it enjoys from the United States). Israel sits in the region, outside the NPT and therefore sees itself as unbound by its obligations or decisions. It has possessed nuclear weapons since the late 1960s, and refuses to attend the conference on the basis of terms agreed by NPT parties in 2010. Others have expressed frustration with what they see as the inflexible approach shown by the Arab states in refusing to move from the terms agreed by all NPT members (but not Israel) in 2010, and most notably not to broaden the issues involved to include regional security (and by implication Israeli security). In turn the Arab states feel that further flexibility on their part in this matter gives too much ground on issues they have already negotiated in the NPT context, and to those states already in far stronger strategic positions (being nuclear armed states that threaten regional security in a far more direct manner). They argue that insecurity is no good reason to possess nuclear weapons or to block agreements on verifiably eliminating them from the region – quite the contrary.
The consultation meetings called by the Facilitator in Switzerland (2013-14) involving Israeli and Arab states (the first also included the Iranians) were valiant attempts to agree on the scope and modalities of a Helsinki Conference on the basis that all states needed to be involved, and that Israel had its own conditions to their involvement that needed adequate consideration. Whilst some claim there had been substantial progress at these meetings, Arab states saw little chance of the breakthrough necessary because they saw Israeli demands as stalling tactics and an effort to neutralize the momentum, and pulled out of the process in late 2014. This decision has tended to polarize opinion between the Arab League and their
detractors, who see no alternative than to negotiate openly and flexibly with the Israelis.
It remains unclear at this stage just how influential the failure to meet in Helsinki will be on the outcome of this Review Conference. What is clear is that the Arab Group and the Non-Aligned Movement have announced a new set of proposals. Anticipating the criticism that they could be accused of an unconstructive blame game, they have explicitly talked of ‘looking forward’ and have coordinated to make specific proposals.
In a bid to move on and to establish a process, they recommend placing the process in the hands of the UN Secretary General, holding the first conference within six months of this Review Conference, and then annually thereafter. They also propose establishing two on-going working groups looking at the necessary steps to establish a zone and at the verification and implementation mechanisms.
This proposal to hold the conference within 6 months whilst the Israelis object to the limited scope and modalities agreed in 2010 may be seen by many as unrealistic, and has certainly raised attracted some opposition at the Review Conference, even amongst those previously sympathetic to the Arab position. It certainly gives no ground to the Israelis.
But on the other hand, if there is to be any hope of a positive outcome to this Review Conference sceptics will need to come up with their own new, constructive and specific proposals that have a hope of progressing the WMD free zone process in a manner that not only respects Israeli sovereignty but also the grievances of Arab states. This requires recognition of the deep sense of frustration, unfairness and betrayal felt across the Arab world, but particularly in Egypt. Egypt gave up any ambitions to develop a nuclear weapon capability many years ago, but we cannot afford any complacency when it comes to its close ally, Saudi Arabia.
A long and inconclusive process on the WMD Free Zone will not only squander opportunities to strengthen the NPT and security within the Middle East, but could lead to further proliferation. So far, there are no credible alternatives to the NAM/Arab Group’s plan forthcoming, beyond returning to Switzerland for more of the same.