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About the future of the Middle East WMDFZ with Dr. Hanna Notte

Hanna Notte

Interview with Dr. Hanna Notte, Senior Research Associate, Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, about the future of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction

From your point of view, what are the main objectives of the second session of the Conference on MENWMDFZ?

The main objective in convening the second session of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction (MEWMDFZ) is to maintain the momentum of the so-called “November process” under UN General Assembly auspices, i.e., convene the conference as mandated and agreed. Another goal is to have a civil exchange at the conference and ideally discuss those thematic issues that negotiations toward a zone treaty will have to eventually address. In other words, the conference will aim to move from a general to a thematic debate, inter alia building on the two informal workshops on lessons learnt from other NWFZs that were convened, based on the request of the first conference that took place in November 2019.

According to what criteria will you assess the “success” and “failure” of the second session of the Conference on MENWMDFZ?

Certainly, real success would require all regional countries, without exception, being present at the conference, ideally joint by the UN Security Council Permanent Five, including the United States. Since this is not viable at this time, the conference should still be considered successful if participating parties manage to cover, in a comprehensive fashion, the most essential thematic issues and threat perceptions that require addressing for a treaty to be negotiated and for a future zone to be viable. The thematic debate should identify the core issues related to the zone that should be further discussed in future conferences. Agreement on the conference’s rules of procedures, which the parties failed to converge on during the first session in November 2019, would also clearly constitute success. Conversely, the conference should be judged a failure if the debate stays at an artificial level, characterized by participating states delivering national statements and, worse, engaging in recriminations, without tackling the core thematic issues and threat perceptions, as well as how to address them. While I said above that agreement on the rules of procedures would be a welcome success, I personally would not judge the conference a failure in the absence of such agreement; the rules of procedure are less crucial than the quality of the thematic debate.  

How the outcomes of the Conference will correlate with the upcoming NPR Review Conference?

If the conference is judged a success, according to the criteria suggested above, I would expect there to be “less heat” around the MEWMDFZ issue at the NPT Review Conference in January. Egypt in particular will likely see a reduced need to make the zone the predominant issue in the RevCon debate, if the November conference is perceived to have resulted in meaningful progress on the substantive issues. That said, Egypt will still likely insist on a reference to the zone issue in the Final Document, in line with its historical position of keeping the MEWMDFZ issue alive in multiple international fora, and adamant to preserve its success of making the zone an integral part of the NPT Review Process back in 1995. Conversely, should the November conference stay below expectations, one would expect Egypt to take a strong stance on what should be included in the RevCon’s Final Document in reference to the MEWMDFZ. Beyond the zone issue, other Middle Eastern actors might engage in additional bargaining on the Final Document; Iran, for instance, depending on where things stand with the JCPOA and consideration of Iranian non-compliance at the IAEA Board of Governors, might well insist on an omission of criticism vis-à-vis Tehran in the Final Document, in order for lending its support for a consensus document. 

How do you opine Israel and the United States will participate in the second session of the Conference on MENWMDFZ? If so, what position Israel and the United States will take?

The United States has already affirmed their non-participation, as has Israel. The two countries’ positions on the November process—explicated in multiple statements both before and after the first conference in November 2019—remain unaltered, notwithstanding the changes in government in both countries since. In my assessment, there is no reason to expect these principled positions to change anytime soon.

In your opinion, can we expect more flexibility from Israel under the Bennett government in discussing regional security issues?

There is currently an informal dialogue underway between Israel and a number of Gulf states on regional security measures, building on the Abraham Accords that were concluded during the Trump administration. That dialogue touches, among other issues, on missile defense cooperation and space. Yet, beyond such dialogue aimed at enhancing various dimensions of regional security in a bilateral or multilateral fashion with select states, when it comes to the question of a comprehensive dialogue on a regional security architecture—let alone toward a MEWMDFZ—the Israeli government’s position has been historically consistent and remains unchanged. According to that position, the format of such a dialogue, including its terms of reference, mandate, rules of procedure, and agenda, need to be negotiated with Israel’s direct participation and agreed with Israeli consent. On that front, I do not expect Israel’s position under a Bennett government to change. Regarding Israel’s position in dealing with other regional security problems, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is still too early to tell how policies will shape up—the verdict is still out.

Traditionally, the leading role among the Arab states in the discussion of WMD-free zone issues is played by Egypt. At the same time, according to some American experts, among the Arab states there is some fatigue from Cairo's monopoly on this issue. Is it so?

Egypt has historically led and will continue to lead, on this topic. Other Arab states have significant nonproliferation interests in seeing a WMDFZ come to fruition in the Middle East region, yet also emphasize, at times, complementary and competing priorities. I expect this dynamic to continue. 

What role in ensuring security in the Middle East did the so-called? the Abraham Accords Under the Trump Administration?

The Abraham Accords are a welcome development, as noted above, having spurred informal dialogue between Israel and a number of Gulf States on regional security issues. They denote one development, among others, that indicate a perceived need and willingness among regional states to take greater responsibility for their own security and stability in the region, on the back of a recognition that the United States is shifting attention to the Indo-Pacific. Another welcome development in this regard are the ongoing talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That said, these developments are all in their infancy, so one needs to see how they progress further. And I should also say that, at the end of the day, regional security will likely only be achieved in a comprehensive and sustainable way with the Iranians, rather than against them, so the Abraham Accords can only go so far in spurring a positive dynamic in the region.


The interview was conducted by Sofya Shestakova, Intern, Nuclear Nonproliferation & Russia Program, on November 6, 2021