Principles for a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East

Rose Gottemoeller
Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security 
Panel - Security Challenges: Regional Perspectives
Amman Security Colloquium
Amman, Jordan
November 11, 2015

Thank you, Ms. Lufi for the introduction and to my fellow panelist, Assistant Secretary General Ducaru, for his remarks.

Thank you for this invitation to the Amman Security Colloquium and for this opportunity to speak on the beautiful campus of the University of Jordan. I love to speak at universities, and it is great to see so many talented young people here.

I wanted to touch on the most immediate nonproliferation issues in the region right now and that is the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that will verifiably prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The United States and our international partners concluded this historic deal after nearly 20 months of intensive negotiations. It will effectively cut off all of Iran’s potential pathways to acquiring enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

The Plan came into effect on October 18 and participants are now working to implement their respective commitments.

This agreements cuts off Iran’s path to uranium enrichment and plutonium enrichment by reducing existing stockpiles and putting barriers in the way of new production. The agreement also puts in place the toughest transparency and verification requirements ever negotiated, providing the best possible check against a secret pathway to a bomb.

The JCPOA is bolstered by Iran’s continuing obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT, to never produce nuclear weapons and if at any time Iran is in material breach of the JCPOA, the sanctions that brought them to the table can be quickly snapped back into place.

It should be noted that this deal does not alter U.S. basic policies or any of our commitments to our friends and allies in the Middle East, nor does it alter our commitment to regional security more generally. The fact that we have reached a deal over Iran’s nuclear program does not mean that we are going to ignore Iran’s destabilizing activities.

We will continue to counter Iran’s support for terrorism and for proxies that destabilize the region. Constraining Iran’s nuclear program and preventing it from acquiring a nuclear weapon is an important part of stopping Iran from playing an even more destructive role in the region.

The JCPOA provides the best opportunity to resolve our concerns with Iran’s nuclear program peacefully and to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon – a goal we share with the entire international community.

Now moving beyond the Iran deal, one of the most important and long-standing security challenges for this region is the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zone. We are now at a crossroad on this particular issue and we have two paths. The first is to assume that the region is incapable – because of politics and distrust – of creating a zone. The second is to accept that this region can and must create this zone.

Regions across the globe have managed to overcome disputes and differences to create nuclear weapon “free zones” and there is no doubt that such zones, when properly crafted, can play an important role in contributing to international peace, security, and stability.

The United States has long supported the goal of a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems, and we have worked actively over the past five years to fulfill a commitment we made at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference to convene a conference on the establishment of a Middle East WMD Free Zone.

Of course, we are also adamant that any conference related to a zone and the zone itself must emanate from the region and be based on arrangements freely arrived at by the regional states themselves.

While there is no one-size fits all approach to this and the region itself must do the heavy lifting, outside parties can help with the process.

To this end, the United States collaborated closely with the two other NPT depositaries (the United Kingdom and Russian Federation), along with the United Nations to facilitate direct regional dialogue aimed at reaching consensus on the agenda and modalities for the proposed conference. I want to commend the role of the Government of Finland, and in particular Ambassador Laajava as the conference facilitator for his tireless work.

These efforts culminated in five rounds of multilateral consultations held in Glion and Geneva, Switzerland, which we believe yielded important progress in several areas.

First, and most importantly, for the first time since the 1990s, Israel and Arab states held face-to-face meetings to substantively discuss regional arms control and non-proliferation issues. These meetings, while informal, made tangible progress in narrowing the gap among the regional states.

Through the consultative process, Arab states contributed ideas and commentary on conference modalities, and Israel’s position evolved significantly. Despite early concerns regarding participation in an NPT-originated process to which it was not a party, Israel attended the consultations at a senior level, and eventually expressed its readiness to attend the proposed conference once regional states reached consensus on an agenda and other arrangements. Israel made clear, and we agree, that such a forum is urgently needed in order for regional states to address common security challenges. Unfortunately, the NPT Review Conference this spring did not produce consensus recommendations on how to advance the issue over the next five year review cycle, leaving no clear path ahead toward convening the proposed conference or furthering the goal of a zone.

As I said, we are at a crossroads now and this region can choose collectively to make this goal a reality.

The various parties will disagree on the reasons for this lack of consensus, but rather than waste energy assigning blame, now is a time to look forward. Recriminations over the outcome of the Review Conference will not advance this issue; we need to think hard about the tough decisions that will be needed to move this process forward, building on the achievements made during the Glion and Geneva consultations.

From the start, we have approached this effort fully cognizant of the enormous complexity of making such a zone a reality. On a technical level, the creation of a zone that extends to all categories of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical, biological, as well as their delivery systems – has never been attempted elsewhere in the world and presents a unique set of verification challenges. Much work has been done by various organizations to advance this technical topic, and that work should continue.

Politically and strategically, the Middle East poses a number of factors not present in other regions of the world that have created nuclear weapon free zones, including the non-recognition of Israel by the majority of regional states, the regional tendency to resort to international pressure rather than direct engagement, and a host of complex security and compliance issues.

Conceptually, the parties view the role of arms control and regional security in very different ways. Arab states consider a zone treaty to be a predicate for better relations and improved security among states in the region. For Israel, it’s the reverse, with confidence building and security as the necessary precursor for achievement of a regional zone. It will be necessary to find ways to bridge this divide for any process the parties may consider.

Despite these challenges, again, progress is possible if all parties work in a mutually fair and collaborative manner.

First and foremost, a successful zone can only happen through direct, face-to-face dialogue among the regional states themselves.

Every other nuclear-free zone in the world has been created through direct dialogue among regional states. Unfortunately, the approach in the Middle East has been exactly the opposite: avoiding direct regional dialogue and asking P 5 states – more precisely, the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia, with support from the UN – simply to impose a Zone. Direct dialogue among states is even more important in the Middle East, due to the serious lack of trust in the region, which is deeply seated and reflected in the stark difference of views regarding how to advance regional arms control.

We have privately and publically encouraged the regional parties to resume direct discussions, so that the gap between the regional states can be bridged and the proposed conference convened.

We are willing to support discussions in various formats, but believe that progress may be more achievable in a smaller format, which would allow for deeper discussions of the issues.

Other approaches, including actions aimed at coercing or isolating regional parties through international fora like the UN or in technical agencies like the IAEA, will not advance a WMD-free zone in the region and will continue to prove counterproductive. As such, the United States will continue to strongly reject such efforts.

Finally, the U.S. position is unwavering – we support a Middle East WMD Free Zone, but we are firm in our belief that the impetus for further progress such efforts must come from the countries here in the region.

All regional parties must now show the political will to resume the process of building a zone through consensus, direct dialogue, and a broad-based agenda.

No one should be under the illusion that this process will be easy. This is an enormously complex, long-term goal, which will require that essential conditions be in place, including a comprehensive and durable peace in the region, and compliance by all regional states with their arms control and non-proliferation obligations.

It can seem daunting, but as Secretary Kerry emphasized, the idea of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East is “a hugely ambitious goal and fraught with challenges, but ambitious goals are always the ones worth pursuing.”