Assessing the NPT Review Conference
Dubai - The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference recently ended a month-long series of meetings without agreement. The vision for a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East has been championed by and invested in heavily by the international community and, in particular, the League of Arab States (LAS). The undeclared nuclear arsenal of Israel and, more recently the suspected activities of the nuclear programme in Iran have proved major stumbling blocks in the process, along with failure to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict and establish an independent Palestinian state.
Most recently, uncertain political conditions in the region post-“Arab spring” have hindered the willingness of Israel to participate in the process even though its undeclared nuclear arsenal is of redundant value from a strategic military power context.
After years of preparatory meetings, discussions and negotiations to define and address basic aspects of the process, Arab states — led by Egypt under the LAS — are growing tired and frustrated. The United States increasingly faces a credibility crisis as a committed and impartial stakeholder in the process due to its special treatment of Israel. After the United States vetoed a proposal by Egypt (joined by the United Kingdom and Canada) at the Review Conference, Israel made a public display of its appreciation to the United States for its support.
The proposal by Egypt wanted to do away with the facilitator and the three conveners of the process - the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia - and instead empower the UN secretary-general to hold the conference within six months from conclusion of the Review Conference (with or without Israel, or any other state for that matter).
It also proposed one working group be set up to address the scope, limits and interim measures of the process and another to work on implementation, verification and compliance. For the United States, the proposal and its expectations unfairly singled out Israel and were deemed unrealistic. For Arab states, if the process for establishing a WMDFZ in the Middle East is going to achieve any progress — and soon — it will need to change.
The latest Egyptian proposal was somewhat audacious, but unlikely to succeed. The idea was instead to pressure Israel as well as make a clear statement of intent. For Arab states, continuing on the current path with an open-ended process looking for unanimity does not work. A WMDFZ in the Middle East cannot be achieved until and unless it addresses Israeli nuclear capabilities, along with chemical and biological weapons and their delivery systems.
If the United States is not going to facilitate the process intensely or position itself to move it forward more seriously by pressing Israel to engage other stakeholders in the process, then the message from Arab states is that they will seek alternatives.
The Arab perspective is that a WMDFZ in the Middle East is increasingly moving out of reach. Serious stock-taking among Arab leaders is questioning the utility of their policies and whether, or for how much longer, they can afford to invest in the process. Indeed, the strategic costs associated for Arab states with the broader issue of non-proliferation but if a WMDFZ in the Middle East is not viable and the international non-proliferation regime cannot meet its stated objectives then where does that leave the security interest of Arab states in, say, 2030?
The Arab perception is that there are double standards in the international non-proliferation regime: States that have built a large nuclear arsenal, such as Israel and Iran, whose status as a threshold nuclear weapons state is effectively being formalised, are rewarded with special treatment. Arab states, on the other hand, have found no capable or willing partner to drive this process forward materially and tangibly and we may be witnessing an aggressive final push from Arab states to realise a WMDFZ in the Middle East before they, too, give up on the idea if these efforts lead, again, nowhere.