Research Director, International Security

The Helsinki Conference process established by the 2010 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is the most significant opportunity to increase stability and prevent nuclear catastrophe in the Middle East that has presented itself in recent years. If states fail to take this opportunity, the consequences will be severe.

Tina Marouf, operator at Baghdad's al-Mansour hotel, stands at the reception under clocks showing the time in New York, London and the Iraqi capital. Photo by Nicolas Asfouri / AFP / Getty Images.Tina Marouf, operator at Baghdad's al-Mansour hotel, stands at the reception under clocks showing the time in New York, London and the Iraqi capital. Photo by Nicolas Asfouri / AFP / Getty Images.

The Helsinki Conference process established by the 2010 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is the most significant opportunity to increase stability and prevent nuclear catastrophe in the Middle East that has presented itself in recent years – coming at a time when the Iranian nuclear capabilities issue is being seriously and sustainably addressed, and when the instability in the region is all too plain to see. If states fail to take this opportunity, the consequences will be severe. Now is a time for leadership. Serious efforts to forge an agreement between Israel and Egypt would make all the difference and could help the region’s security in a time of considerable danger.

However, progress towards a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) free zone in the Middle East has been sporadic. A deadline of December 2012 was not met and no follow-on date has yet been announced for the Helsinki conference. There are three main scenarios that could play out in the period leading up to the next NPT Review Conference in April 2015. They are:

  • a Helsinki conference that has a successful outcome and leads to a process towards a WMD free zone negotiation that includes regional security measures to support the zone,
  • a Helsinki conference that results in no positive outcome and no follow-on process, and
  • no Helsinki conference before the 2015 Review Conference.

In the event of a successful Helsinki conference before 2015 there are a number of proposals to develop the zone.

  • Begin regional negotiations through a set of working groups or committees that divide the workload into nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, biological weapons, means of delivery including missiles, supportive measures/confidence- and security-building measures, wider regional security issues, and verification and other technical measures. 
  • Install capacity-building measures to implement and verify the WMD free zone, such as training inspectors, developing common methodologies and learning how to use technical instruments for monitoring.
  • Involve civil society and the general public in the debate, and foster a wide discussion among all segments of the societies in the region, including young political leaders, young scientists and young journalists.

In the event of a failed or abandoned Helsinki conference it may still be possible to undertake the following measures.

  • Revamp the 1991 Madrid peace process and the multilateral tracks that it established which led to the Oslo Peace Accord and the Israeli–Jordanian Peace Treaty and see if the approach taken at that time could be adapted for today. This will require Egypt and Israel to enter into direct negotiations in order to get the ball rolling.
  • Revert to the UN Security Council to request a consideration of Resolution 687 that established the ceasefire in Iraq in 1991, which contains references to the Middle East WMD free zone.
  • Employ the UN General Assembly by building on the UN resolution that has been adopted annually calling for the ‘Establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region of the Middle East’.
  • Establish a building-blocks approach aiming to establish a zone through a set of parallel or sequential commitments to sign and ratify the extant treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Other measures could include a highly-enriched-uranium-free zone, separate agreements on non-attack of nuclear facilities (including cyber attacks), missile tests launch notifications, nuclear security assurances and transparency measures.