One of the major successes of the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference was the plan to convene a meeting of interested countries to discuss the prospects of a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) free zone in the Middle East. For the past few months there has been endless speculation as to whether states in the region would attend the conference. Israel has yet to make public its decision to attend, but they will have plenty of time to decide.
On November 23, the State Department released a statement announcing the conference had been postponed. The statement concluded that the turmoil in the Middle East was not conducive to a productive conference but once the circumstances improve, it will be rescheduled. In a press briefing the following week, State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland clarified that all of the states involved in the conference agreed that it could not take place; this is not a unilateral move by the United States but a consensus of organizing parties.
From its inception, this conference was not intended to be a solution to problems in the Middle East. While it is an important step, its loftiest goals would be to open pathways for dialogue among countries in the region. The ideal outcome would be increased frequency and quality of diplomatic contact. These improved relations can lead to confidence-building measures which would in turn help to mitigate the current security challenges in the Middle East.
For the months leading up to this conference, skepticism steadily mounted because of concerns over revolutions in Egypt, Yemen and Libya, Syria’s civil war, Iran’s nuclear program and its conflict with Israel. In July 2012 the spokesperson of the Arab League announced full participation; however, as the civil war in Syria raged on, it was unclear how such a state would even send a representative. Syria’s chemical weapons program poses a threat to its people and the implications of Syrian attendance on regional peace and security would be reassuring to outside nations. On the other hand, the longevity of the current regime is tenuous at best. This conference is the beginning of a sustained effort in which Syria must be actively involved throughout the process.
Egypt first proposed the idea of a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East over twenty years ago. Now, it is grappling with the effects of its own recent revolution. Although Cairo was instrumental in negotiating the Israel-Hamas ceasefire, it still faces severe domestic unrest. Egypt will not be able to fully participate in the conference until it at least establishes a formal constitution from which to work.
Moreover, Iran refuses to halt their nuclear program, much to the chagrin of the international community, especially the United States.
In order for the conference to take the first step toward a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, Iran and Israel need to be willing to come to the table and rationally discuss both of their nuclear programs. Israel and its allies worry that such a discussion would consist of finger pointing at the Jewish nation for being the only nation in the region to possess nuclear weapons, a fact which Israel has never formally admitted.
Besides the concern about the Iranian nuclear program, deemed an existential threat by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv is also troubled by the manner in which the conference began. Israel is one of four nuclear weapons states outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The plan made at the NPT Review Conference in 2010 for the WMD free zone meeting, while well-formulated, did not include one of the biggest players in the region. Israel therefore has reservations about signing on to something that they were not a part of in the first place.
It is hoped that there will be a renewed effort to hold this conference, and the world can progress towards a safer Middle East. This process will require commitment of all the parties involved to make a good faith effort in negotiations and start normalizing diplomatic relations.