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Cooperative and competitive approaches to a Middle East WMD Free Zone

  • Peter Jones

    Professor, University of Ottawa; Executive Director, The Ottawa Dialogue

    أستاذ بجامعة أوتاوا

All Middle East states have agreed to the creation of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ). There are, however, significant differences over how to get there.1 This paper approaches the issue on the basis of reflections on the nature of different kinds of confidence-building, arms control and disarmament negotiations. More specifically, it places such negotiations within a framework of ‘cooperative’ vs ‘collective (competitive)’ security. It draws on the author’s experiences in negotiating arms control agreements and confidence-building measures in Europe and the Middle East, when he was a Canadian government official, and several decades of work on regional security issues at the Track 1.5 and Track 2 levels.

The thesis of the paper is that a Middle East WMDFZ will only come about as a result of an inclusive, cooperative approach to negotiations. This, in turn, requires the achievement of an inclusive, cooperative approach to basic security in the region, which is about much more than WMD and will require a reframing of regional security through a long process of confidence-building. Yet, most discussions, whether official or unofficial, about the creation of a Middle East WMDFZ have essentially been based on a highly competitive conception of security. Before getting to this, however, it is necessary to explore the ideas of ‘cooperative’ and ‘competitive’ arms control.

Cooperative vs competitive arms control

As discussed in other papers in this series, the concepts of cooperative and collective security are distinct. Consequently, arms control and disarmament agreements negotiated under either paradigm will exhibit very different characteristics. Briefly, cooperative security is a condition whereby the states of a region have agreed, despite having important differences, to establish a set of regional norms of conduct and mechanisms to promote implementation and build trust over time. Collective security, on the other hand, is a condition whereby some states of a region are banding together in alliances to deter or resist perceived threats of aggression from a state, or states, which they view as a security competitor.


Though usually used to describe approaches to security, these concepts can also be used to describe different approaches to confidence-building measures (CBMs), arms control and disarmament agreements. The negotiation and implementation of such agreements will take on different characteristics depending on which paradigm prevails. Moreover, certain types of agreements require one paradigm or the other; trying to negotiate them under the incorrect paradigm will only lead to failure and frustration. A competitive approach to arms control and disarmament involves a negotiating style which is antagonistic and lacking in trust. This type of negotiation takes place in an environment characterized by ‘sides’ seeking to achieve security in the face of perceived threats and looking to rely on themselves and allies. Arms control is an adjunct to self-reliance, but does not replace it. There is an assumption that cheating will take place – verification thus becomes a critical aspect of such talks. By contrast, a cooperative approach to arms control and disarmament features a security environment in which levels of trust are rising and where there is a growing assumption that the participants believe that mutual security gains are possible through cooperation. The notion of ‘sides’ confronting each other is not so prevalent. Rather, there is a notion of states participating in a process, working together on the basis of a certain level of trust in each other’s basic security policies and motives in seeking an agreement.

By way of example, the end of the Cold War featured the achievement of various agreements. Two of these illustrate the basic issues in play: the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (known as CFE); and the Open Skies Treaty. The CFE Treaty (signed in 1990 and entered into force in 1992) places limits on the numbers and deployments of conventional forces of members of the two Cold War alliances in Europe.2 The treaty has a long and complex history, beginning in 1973 as the Mutual and Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) talks.3 This was a classic Cold War arms control negotiation wherein each side sought to achieve gains in security within a highly competitive overall security environment which saw arms control as an extension of security competition by other means. The Open Skies Treaty (signed in 1992 and entered into force in 2002), by contrast, was the first significant cooperative security agreement of the post-Cold War era. Though it took some time for the negotiators of the agreement to adapt, schooled as they were in Cold War negotiating styles, the regime’s basic philosophy requires the participants to cooperate in order to achieve the aims of the Treaty: an enhancement of mutual trust through greater and cooperative transparency. It was only after these talks transitioned to a more cooperative approach and ditched the alliance-to-alliance structure in response to the end of the Cold War, that the Treaty was achieved and then implemented.4

Of course, both the Open Skies and CFE Treaties have faltered in recent years, as the security situation in Europe has deteriorated. In both cases, this proves that arms control and CBM agreements are not, in themselves, capable of substituting for the lack of a desire, at the most fundamental level, to build a more stable relationship. Moscow’s willingness to use a disingenuous approach to implementing these agreements, by treating them as vehicles to achieve short-term objectives, shows that no such agreement can survive the lack of a basic desire to abide by commitments.

The Middle East WMDFZ – a competitive or a cooperative exercise?

To transpose the cooperative/competitive arms control paradigm to the question of a Middle East WMDFZ (and Middle East arms control more broadly), this paper contends that a zone will only be achieved as a result of a cooperative process, and as part of a wider cooperative approach to basic security in the region – at least as regards the development and possession of such weapons. Of course, there is no other WMDFZ anywhere in the world, but several Nuclear Weapon Free Zones (NWFZs) have been established by treaty. These include the zones established by the Treaties of: Tlatelolco (1967 – Latin America and the Caribbean); Rarotonga (1985 – South Pacific); Bangkok (1995 – Southeast Asia); Pelindaba (1996 – Africa); and the Central Asia Treaty of 2006. Additionally, other specific geographical regions have been denuclearized through treaty agreements, including: the Antarctic Treaty of 1959; the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (and the Moon Agreement of 1979); and the Seabed Treaty of 1971.5

In all cases, these zones were achieved over time, within a security environment wherein regional states believed that a cooperative approach could be taken to the security issues raised by nuclear weapons. Even if there were other sources of competition between them, those within these regions who began the process of developing their NWFZ believed that they could cooperate on the nuclear weapons issue. Others joined when they reached this view. Those who created these zones also wanted to cooperate in order to prevent their regions becoming areas wherein the Great Powers extended their nuclear rivalry.6

And yet, much of the discussion on achieving a WMDFZ in the Middle East, at both official and unofficial levels, has been intensely competitive for several decades. The ACRS process, for example, became a competitive bargaining exercise between sides over the nuclear issue.7 Some Track 1.5 and Track 2 exercises have been more aimed at developing proposals intended to isolate a given actor over the nuclear issue (be it Iran or Israel, depending on the exercise), rather than developing ideas which could help to slowly change the region’s dynamic towards more cooperative approaches. The official JCPOA8 negotiating track was largely a competitive security exercise. Beyond the Iran question, other regional arms control proposals aimed to create the conditions for a WMDFZ by requiring that all states sign the relevant multilateral disarmament agreements, and outlined strategies to pressure outliers like Israel into coming around. These are perhaps satisfying for those steeped in the traditional diplomacy of the region, but they have not advanced the agenda. Nor are they ever likely to do so.9

Moreover, the region’s basic dynamic is changing. The perceived rise of Iran as a regional threat with a potential nuclear dimension has caused a number of states to re-think their regional diplomacy. While it is far too early to speak of these emerging relationships as ‘alliances’, there is certainly a degree to which several Arab states increasingly perceive Israel as a positive within the competitive security environment that they see emerging. The isolation of Israel over security issues seems less likely than before as a result. Of course, these developments are fluid and subject to change if the Arab states involved come to regard the new hardline Israeli government’s policies towards the Palestinian issue as too toxic for their own public opinion to accept. But the so-called Abraham Accords, and their underlying idea of a security relationship between Israel and key Arab states, have broken a long-standing taboo. It is no longer impossible to imagine a security relationship between Israel and Arab states (whether that relationship is declared or implicit). An approach to negotiating a WMDFZ which has as its primary tactic the isolation of Israel seems increasingly out of touch.

A way forward?

A regional WMDFZ will not be achieved until a fundamentally different security concept emerges in the region. This suggests that the way forward is not the exclusive reliance on competitive diplomatic efforts to isolate and pressure specific countries – be it Iran, Israel or any other state. Nations faced with those sorts of pressures over things they regard as fundamental to their security do not tend to give in. They dig in their heels. Rather, the way forward consists of steps towards the creation of an atmosphere within which at least some states of the region begin to see their security, at least on some levels, as an indivisible thing on which they must cooperate to achieve their goals. Much thought has been given as to how this may be done, and the kinds of incremental measures which will be required over a long time to achieve it, both in terms of traditional security and (increasingly) on social, economic, environmental and political levels.10 In this context, work to develop and promote a truly inclusive, cooperative regional security system is integral to the achievement of a Middle East WMDFZ.

To some extent, it is the classic ‘chicken-and-egg’ dilemma; which comes first – steps to develop an inclusive cooperative security regime or steps to pursue regional disarmament? This tends to be how the regional debate has progressed over the decades, with proponents of the ‘disarmament first’ argument positing that isolation and pressure will bring around the recalcitrant nations of the region. But the disarmament first argument is a false dichotomy for at least two reasons. First, despite rhetorical support for the isolation agenda, it is quite obvious that it has not worked, particularly in the case of Israel. Second, it is now obvious that the issues of cooperative regional security and disarmament cannot be pursued sequentially but must move forward together. A WMDFZ, much like existing NWFZs, cannot be accomplished in a competitive security environment wherein states feel the need to resort to collective security measures and other forms of ‘self-help’ on WMD issues. A zone can only succeed in an environment wherein states are able to begin to see that inclusive cooperation over key security issues will lead to the creation of an environment where they can eventually regard WMD options as no longer a necessary resort. In the meantime, of course, substantive exploration and work can and should go forward on various levels regarding the details of how such a zone might one day work, in concert with efforts on the broader question of forming an eventual inclusive, regional cooperative security system. This is the pathway which offers some chance of success – although even this will be a long road.

This article is part of a series for the ‘Building a Cooperative Regional Security Architecture in the Middle East’ project, a partnership between Chatham House’s MENA Programme and the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles.


[1] The literature on this subject is wide and varied. See, for example: United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) (n.d.), ‘Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone’, https://unidir.org/programmes/middle-east-weapons-mass-destruction-free-zone; and Davenport, K. (2018), ‘WMD-Free Middle East Proposal at a Glance’, Arms Control Association Fact Sheet, Dec. 2018, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/mewmdfz

[2] Falkenrath, R. (1994), Shaping Europe’s Military Order: The Origins and Consequences of the CFE Treaty, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

[3] Keliher, J. (1980), The Negotiations on Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions, Elmsford: Pergamon Press.

[4] Jones, P. (2014), Open Skies: Transparency, Confidence-Building, and the End of the Cold War, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

[5] See United Nations (n.d.), ‘Overview of Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones’, United Nations Platform for Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones, https://www.un.org/nwfz/content/overview-nuclear-weapon-free-zones

[6] See Dawn, R. and Kane, C. Z. (2020), ‘The ways and means in which nuclear-weapon-free zones contribute to regional peace, stability and other political objectives’, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), July 2020. For basic facts relating to the existing NWFZs in the world see, Davenport, K. (2022), ‘Nuclear Weapon Free Zones at a Glance’, Arms Control Association Fact Sheet, March 2022, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/nwfz 

[7] The ACRS process (Arms Control and Regional Security in the Middle East) has been subjected to a wide variety of interpretations over the years. For a sample of the range of these views see: Landau, E. (2001), ‘Egypt and Israel in ACRS: Bilateral Concerns in a Regional Arms Control Process’, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies Memorandum No. 59, June,2001; Jones, P. (2015), ‘The Arms Control and Regional Security Working Group: Still Relevant to the Middle East?’, in Mueller, H. and Muller, D. (eds) WMD Arms Control in the Middle East: Prospects, Obstacles and Options, London: Ashgate publishers; and Taha, H. (2021), ‘Misremembering the ACRS: economic imaginations and nuclear negotiations in the Middle East’, Global Affairs, 7(3).

[8] Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal.

[9] For an example of this approach, see Al Assad, W. (2022), ‘The Quest for a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East: History, Lessons Learned, and the Way Forward’, Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, 5(1).

[10] For a sample of the studies done on such a regional system see: Jones, P. (1998), Towards a Regional Security Regime for the Middle East: Issues and Options, Stockholm: SIPRI, revised and re-published in 2011; Kane, C. and Murauskaite, E. (eds) (2014), Regional Security Dialogue in the Middle East: Changes, Challenges and Opportunities, New York: Routledge; Hanna, M. W. and Cambanis, T. (eds) (2018), Order From Ashes: New Foundations for Security in the Middle East, New York: The Century Foundation and the Brookings Institution; Colombo, S. and Dessi, A. (eds) (2020), Fostering a New Security Architecture in the Middle East, Rome: Foundation for European Progressive Studies and Istituto Affari Internazionali; and Jones, P. (2022), ‘A Middle East Cooperation and Security System: Has the Time Come?’, Middle East Policy, 29(1), Spring 2022.