Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is high on the regional and international agenda. Fear of a nuclear arms race in the region driven by tensions between Iran and Israel, and continued mistrust surrounding the Iranian nuclear programme, threaten preparations for the upcoming conference on a Nuclear and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone to be hosted by Finland at the end of 2012.

A grave danger looms in the Middle East. If Iran achieves the capability to produce nuclear weapons, it would most likely lead to further nuclear proliferation in the region. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt consider themselves threatened by any Iranian nuclear weapons capability, and have each indicated that this might provoke them to pursue their own production capacity.

Following the tumultuous Arab Spring, the Middle East is undergoing a period of heightened instability. Regime change in Egypt and North Africa, and the continuing uncertainty in Syria which is known to have a serious arsenal of unconventional primarily chemical weapons, continue to amplify tensions in the region. The emergence of a nuclear arms race in the region would not only exacerbate an already precarious situation but also threaten regional and international security.

Nuclear Weapons Free Zone
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was formulated in 1968, and it entered into force in 1970. Its objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and further the goal of nuclear disarmament. It has been ratified by 190 nations, with notable exceptions including India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

To date, nine Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZ) treaties have been negotiated and signed between 1961 and 2009. They cover, in the order that they were signed, Antarctica, Outer Space, Latin America/Caribbean, Seabed, South Pacific, ASEAN, Mongolia, Central Asia and Africa. Regions that lack a NWFZ are Europe, the former Soviet Union, the North Pacific, South Asia and the Middle East.

There are two unique elements in the quest for a NWFZ in the Middle East. One is that, unlike in all of the other treaties, it is defined as a quest not only for a nuclear free zone, but as a quest for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone. This is due to the existence and the precedence for the use of chemical weapons in the region, alongside the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation. The other unique element is that the quest for a WMD Free Zone is tied to the thus-far elusive quest for comprehensive peace in the region.

The emergence of a nuclear arms race in the region would not only threaten both regional and international security, but exacerbate an already precarious situation

The creation of a NWFZ in the Middle East was first placed on the agenda at the United Nations in 1974 by Egypt and Iran, yet the most serious attempt to discuss the creation of a WMD Free Zone took place at the post-Madrid Conference ACRS (Arms Control and Regional Security) Talks between 1992-1995. Thirteen Arab States participated, with Israel, a Palestinian delegation, and a number of extra-regional entities also in attendance – although not Iran. The Egyptian delegation said that the creation of a WMD Free Zone had to precede comprehensive peace, while the Israelis comprehensively disagreed and the talks broke down.

At the 2010 NPT Review Conference held in New York, the Arab states insisted that a Middle East NWFZ had to be placed on the international agenda. Otherwise, they suggested that they would reconsider their commitment to the NPT, and thus endanger the entire nuclear non-proliferation regime. It was agreed a conference in 2012 devoted to a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East should be held.

US President Barack Obama, following his speech in April 2009 in Prague in which he outlined a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, agreed to assume responsibility for this conference together with the UK, Russia and the UN Secretary General. They were entrusted with the role of finding a host country and a facilitator for the process.

This was not an easy task. It took over a year to identify Finland as the host country, and Finish Under-Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava as the facilitator. Other contenders, Canada and Holland, which had been under serious consideration, were rejected because they were considered to be “too pro-Israeli”.

A UN monitor inspects mortar shells for chemical leakage. Throughout the 1980%u2019s and 90%u2019s Iraq under Saddam Hussein was suspected to be harbouring large stockpiles of WMD. UN Photo/76180

Regional Players

In particular, the participation of Egypt and Syria, and especially Iran and Israel in the Helsinki Conference is crucial.

Egypt, having been a strong advocate of the creation of a NWFZ in the Middle East since the beginning of the discussion on this topic in the 1970’s, is unlikely to shift its position.

Given its arsenal of chemical weapons and current instability, Syria remains at the centre of discussions on security issues in the Middle East. However, its state of ongoing civil strife casts serious doubts on any capacity that Syria might have to show commitment to the cause of the creation of a NWFZ in the region. Furthermore, another issue that may unexpectedly impose itself on the agenda is the fear of a total collapse of the current Syrian regime and the fate of its chemical and biological weapons.

Iran’s participation in the Helsinki Conference would allow Tehran to shift international attention away from its nuclear enrichment programme and redirect it towards Israel’s nuclear hegemony.

Israelis, on the other hand, share similar, if opposing, concerns as the Iranians. They can be expected to participate should the talks not solely be focused on their nuclear status in the region but instead also invoke Iran’s nuclear programme and other weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems in the region.

The major sticking point, however, is likely to continue much in the same vain as previous rounds of negotiation. The unresolved Middle East conflict continues to be a major argument used by Israel to resist demands that it signs the NPT and open its nuclear reactors for international inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This argument extends also to the creation of any nuclear or WMD free zones.

Very few Israelis are aware of the fact that the official Israeli government position is actually in favour of a WMD Free Zone – but after comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace is achieved. The challenge facing the Helsinki 2012 Conference is to find a formula which will enable the beginning of a process of creating a Middle Eastern WMD free zone, alongside the quest for Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab comprehensive peace, without mortgaging the issue till the conflict is resolved.

Contrary to the official Israeli position, many peace activists believe that Israel uses the Middle East conflict argument to maintain its hegemony in the region, regardless of the practicality of using WMD in any future confrontation in the region.

More challenges abound. The timing of the Helsinki conference vis-à-vis the US presidential elections due in November 2012, is unfortunate and bound to limit crucial US involvement and focus needed to drive results and Israeli participation.

This, combined with a stalled Middle East peace process and the buildup of the Iranian nuclear programme, has led many observers to believe that the conference will not cumulate in agreement on decisive action. Instead, it will try to maintain the momentum of the process by leaving the door open for follow up meetings and consultations.

Disarmament for Peace
The forthcoming 2012 Helsinki Conference on a Nuclear and WMD Free Zone in the Middle East is a historic opportunity, not only to achieve an agreement on the creation of such a zone, but also to set in motion a process leading towards a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace settlement.

Bernd W. Kubbig, a Senior Research Fellow of the Frankfurt-based Peace Research Institute in Germany, has emphasized that “confidence and security-building measures need not strictly precede steps that tackle the armaments themselves”.1

Instead of focusing on the traditional question of “nuclear disarmament first” versus “regional peace first”, he highlighted the fact that “peace and disarmament are mutually reinforcing, and share a common goal enhance security for all.”

Peace and disarmament go hand-in-hand. With the participation and commitment of all parties, a positive outcome to the Helsinki Conference may be a critical step towards a more stable and peaceful Middle East.