Many people see the idea of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East as a utopian dream but the tensions and hostilities there only make the initiative more crucial, writes CND general secretary
Recent tensions in the Middle East have brought into focus the urgent need for robust regional agreements which outlaw the possession and use of weapons of mass destruction. Next week the nuclear non-proliferation treaty preparatory committee meets. It is part of the primary international legal framework for global non-proliferation and disarmament and there is an item on their agenda that the world should take note of: creating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.
The concept of a WMD-free zone is seen by some almost as a utopian dream. Indeed, many people react with surprise when they are told that these zones do already exist over vast tracts of the globe, including South America and Africa. They are constituted not only by resolute regional diplomacy and binding legal frameworks, but by a shared commitment to ensure genuine security and stability for future generations.
The situation in the Middle East presents the most urgent case for a WMD-free zone. It has been suggested that regional political instability means that such a framework could not be developed until peace is achieved. But this is topsy-turvy logic. Not only do the tensions and hostilities in the Middle East make this initiative all the more crucial, but creating a WMD-free zone would necessarily involve developing intra-regional cooperation. Indeed, the process would include landmark face-to-face negotiations; frank discussions about security concerns; growing diplomatic confidence and opening channels of communication; ultimately, building the foundations of peace in the region.
What is more, this is achievable: steps towards a WMD-free zone in the Middle East are already underway. But without resolute international support we have no hope of reaching this vital goal. At the non-proliferation treaty review conference in 2010, 189 member countries voted for a United Nations-sponsored conference to take place on this issue in late 2012. Convened by Finland, this gathering seeks to bring together every state in the Middle East, including, significantly, Iran and Israel.
Amid escalating tensions over Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions, action must be taken to stem the tide of nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. Already, states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt have signalled that if Iran successfully develops nuclear weapons, they too might feel compelled to obtain their own nuclear arsenals. Prince Turki al Faisal, a member of the Saudi royal family and former intelligence chief, stated in January that unless a nuclear weapons free zone is established in the Middle East, the region could see a nuclear arms race. The implications do not bear thinking about.
However, diplomatic pressure challenging nuclear proliferation can only be credible if existing nuclear weapons states are serious about their own disarmament commitments. Instead, we are currently seeing the United States chastise Iran, while at the same time committing to spend around $700bn on nuclear weapons over the next decade. Similarly, unlike Iran, Israel is not even a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and is widely acknowledged to possess nuclear weapons. That this is tolerated by the west gives an indication of the double-standards which make much of the world incredulous when it comes to preaching to non-nuclear states.
The two goals must go hand in hand – and there has never been a more crucial time to act. Genuine diplomatic attempts to create a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, ensuring that all parties come to the table, must be combined with transparent and verifiable steps towards disarmament from nuclear weapons states. At times like this, the international community must not only learn lessons from the past, but provide models for the future.
Kate Hudson is general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament