On a public level, the fundamental question of the Middle East WMD debate has always been about Israel’s policy of retaining a nuclear option and the impact this policy has had on the decisions of other regional states to pursue other WMD options as a possible counter to Israel’s decision. Certainly, this was the point of view espoused by many Arab states, most notably Egypt, in the talks held by the Arms Control and Regional Security Working Group (ACRS) of the multilateral peace talks.(1)
While there is obviously a connection between Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity and the nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs pursued at various times by several other Middle Eastern states, the idea that this is the only reason for those programs seems far-fetched. Indeed, Israel’s nuclear policy may in some cases serve as a convenient public shield for other programs which may have gone ahead regardless of Israel’s status. In looking closely at the chemical and biological weapons programs of other regional states – and at the actual cases of use of such weapons – one sees a pattern of development and use for reasons largely having to do with inter-Arab and Arab-Iranian conflicts, as well as with internal security in some countries.
On the specific question of nuclear arms, it is important to note that Israel has never said that it would not discuss nuclear weapons issues in the Middle East. Rather, the Israelis have said that they would discuss these issues in the context of a wider dialogue on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the region, and when all of the relevant states were part of the process. The Israelis, however, refused to give a specific point at which such talks could begin, either in terms of timing or of a set of conditions which would have to be fulfilled to allow for talks to commence. In the meantime, the Israelis believed that discussions of other security questions could take place.
In many ways, Israel’s broader goal in ACRS seemed to be to hold discussions with those Middle East countries prepared to recognize Israel’s existence, discussions which would convey to them that Israel’s ambiguous nuclear status was no longer meant to act as a threat to them. This is a more subtle variation of Israel’s deterrent strategy and perhaps reflects that state’s evolving position in the Middle East. No longer is Israel concerned about an existential military threat from its immediate neighbors or even ‘the Arabs’ as a group. Today, the existential threat to Israel is perceived to come from a group of states on the periphery of the region which Israel believes are prepared to threaten the use of weapons of mass destruction against it in support of their wider regional aims.
Thus, for Israel, the task is to keep its nuclear and other military options open until its relationship with these states has changed, while simultaneously conveying to other regional states with whom Israel now has emerging relations through the peace process that Israel’s nuclear and conventional capabilities are not meant to be a threat to them as long as they continue to develop relations with Israel. In effect, Israel seems to be striving toward a more subtle kind of deterrence, a policy which keeps the nuclear option open, but only in respect of certain states in the region as opposed to all of Israel’s neighbors, as was the case when Israel first began to work on the creation of a nuclear option.(2) The ACRS was part of this broader strategy of conveying the new deterrence policy to Arab states prepared to coexist with Israel, and Israeli expectations of the ACRS’ purpose was intimately bound up with its utility as a vehicle for putting forward this view to those in the Middle East with whom Israel wants to develop a more normal relationship.
For many other Middle East countries, however, acceptance of such a goal implicitly recognizes the notion that official arms control discussions would, in a way, justify Israel’s continuing nuclear ambiguity. This is held to be unacceptable for three reasons:
First, there is the political unacceptability of such a posture, which tends to confer a special status in the region upon Israel.
Second, such a posture implies that the positive trend in Arab-Israel relations begun in the peace process will continue indefinitely. Israel’s more selective deterrent posture only heralds a removal of the threat to the Arab states participating in the peace process so long as they continue to accept Israel as a member of the region, whatever actions it may take in future. Apart from anything else, this tends to put any relief Israel’s neighbors may receive from the nuclear threat on a kind of Israeli sufferance, a politically unacceptable position for Arab states.(3)
Finally, the Egyptians argued in ACRS that Israel’s refusal to give up a nuclear option holds a threat to all states in the region, even those with whom Israel now wants to develop a relationship in which its nuclear and military potential is not such a deciding factor. The logic of this argument is that Israel’s nuclear option is used as a justification by others in the region for their continuing Weapons of Mass Destruction programs, even though it seems clear that these programs have other rationales as well. Though the chemical, biological, alleged nuclear and missile programs of those such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria are nominally (and to some extent genuinely) aimed at Israel, they also threaten other states in the region. This, in turn, forces those other states to embark upon programs of their own, thereby placing the region as a whole in a position of a continuing escalatory spiral.
Of course, it is likely that other states in the region, especially the above-named four, would continue various programs whether Israel renounced nuclear ambiguity or not. These programs are probably perceived to meet other needs vis a vis their security in the region. Indeed, if one looks at the history of the actual use of such weapons in the region over the past forty years – as opposed to their declared purpose in terms of the Arab-Israeli question – one sees that Arab-Arab and Arab-Iranian disputes have been at least as great a motivating force for the creation of these capabilities as any difference with Israel. For example, the actual use of chemical weapons in the region suggests that these same states have developed these weapons for use against each other (Iraq against Iran and Egypt against opposing factions in Yemen, for example) and as a means of internal control of minorities (Iraq against its own Kurds). In effect,these weapons are not just part of the pan-regional security complex, but are also intimately bound up with a variety of sub-regional security issues. Some of these sub-regional issues are only peripherally related to the Arab-Israeli dispute, if at all.
But, the Egyptians argued in ACRS, Israel’s retention of a nuclear option tends to place these WMD activities in the context of the Arab-Israeli dispute, even those which are not even aimed at Israel,thereby making it impossible to address other WMD threats in the region.Israelis, of course, would reply that if these programs are only partly aimed at Israel, they will probably continue whether Israel renounces its nuclear potential or not. The only achievement of an end to Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity in the absence of real and lasting peace in the entire region would be to place Israel in a position of even greater threat from these weapons.
THE DIFFERENT PURPOSES OF WMD IN THE MIDDLE EAST
If it is the case that WMD capabilities have been developed in the region for sub-regional purposes beyond the Arab-Israeli dispute a difficulty exists in trying to convene formal arms control talks within a process which takes the Arab-Israeli dispute as its point of departure. Simply put, arms control requires, to a certain extent at least, that a basis for trade-offs exists between various weapons-systems and the purposes of those weapons systems. Such trade-offs do not have to be equal. In the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) agreement in Europe, for example, the Russians gave up far more in terms of numbers of individual weapons than NATO did. But the process needs to produce a situation whereby the functions which the weapons are supposed to fulfil are amenable to trade-offs such that a situation of equal and enhanced security prevails once the process has concluded an agreement.
Put another way, one is striving to create a new security framework by manipulating the various weapons types on all sides into a situation whereby a balance of security is attained. This may involve trade-offs which are different on each side, as their forces are differently composed and deployed. The result is not meant to be equal forces, but equal and enhanced security within an improved relationship. However, if one side retains capabilities for purposes which are so fundamentally different to those of the other side that they cannot be reconciled within a broader formula of trade-offs, arms control becomes much more difficult if not impossible. This is because the alignment of political and military functions between different weapons which is such a part of arms control becomes more difficult to accomplish.
The situation is made even more difficult if there are more than two participants in an arms control process and if the various members of the process believe that they have different regional and sub-regional threats to address. Trying to bring diverse forces into some kind of alignment such that an equal security trade-off is possible (even though it might not be a numerically equal trade-off) is very difficult even in a bilateral negotiation. In a situation where multiple actors are involved – and many of them believe they face diverse, distinct threats – trying to bring different military capabilities into some sort of alignment which will foster arms control is a daunting task.
A further level of complexity is introduced if regional actors have different friendly or highly antagonistic relationships with important outside powers. In the latter case, retention of a WMD capability may be aimed at raising the costs of an outside power’s regional intervention. Once again, a justification for the retention of WMD is introduced which has the effect of complicating any arms control trade-offs based upon an agreement over equivalent functions of weapons.
In the Middle East case, if it is true that Israel’s nuclear ambiguity is aimed now at only select regional states, complications arise in trying to trade that capability off unless all of those states are at the table. Similarly, though they may claim that their own WMD and missile programs are aimed at Israel, many other states in the region probably have multiple purposes for those programs – often involving each other, perceived threats from extra-regional powers, and even internal threats. Thus, even if Israel were to announce that it is prepared to renounce nuclear ambiguity, this would not necessarily mean that all other WMD programs in the region would halt.
The question for arms control involving WMD in the Middle East is thus not how to capture the particular project of one country, be it Israel or any other, but how to develop a security framework within which these systems can begin to be brought into line in terms of their essential functions. It will probably also be necessary to develop a wider political situation of reconciliation in which those functions will begin to be reduced to a bare minimum of last resort, rather than as an active part of various actors’ arsenals and military planning, as is presently the case in some countries. Only then can trade-offs start to be realistically considered. In order to create a situation whereby such a congruence of functions can develop efforts will have to be made to examine why each and every regional country that has WMD capabilities feels it needs them.
This concept of ‘functional equivalence’ between different weapons systems as an important part of setting the stage for arms control requires further elaboration.(4) In a strictly arms control sense, functional equivalence means that there must be a degree of symmetry between the military and political functions which each side in an arms control negotiation assigns to given types of weapons. This symmetry provides the currency required for both sides to consider the trade-offs which are the essence of formal arms control. This does not necessarily mean numerical equality, as different states may have deployed these weapons differently. It also does not necessarily mean that only the same types of weapons can be functionally equivalent.
History contains many examples of states trading off different types of weapons within arms control talks. The trade-off between destroyers and submarines which was part of the inter-war naval arms control process in the 1930s, is one example. The trade-offs between various strategic systems which were at the heart of the agreement reached by US President Gerald Ford and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev at Vladivostok (which became the basis of the SALT II Treaty) is another. In each case, the key point was that the sides came to a conclusion, largely a political conclusion, that these different weapons performed a military role which was essentially equivalent and thus were able to begin arms control talks to limit them in a mutually satisfactory way.
However, ‘functional equivalence’ does not, by itself, explain why arms control has been possible in some cases and not in others.
In each case, it would seem that the ability to achieve an agreement that certain weapons should be treated for arms control purposes in a ‘functionally equivalent’ way was part of a wider political rapprochement which itself made serious consideration of arms control possible.
Towards a New Approach to WMD Discussions in the Middle East
Any regional security negotiation which is to work over the long term (and incorporate serious discussions of the WMD issue) must be broadly inclusive if it is to have any hope of tackling all of the issues on the agenda. Such a process must also, in my view, seek to take a broadly inclusive definition of security as its starting point. Inter-Arab and inter-Islamic concerns and internal stability are just as a great a problem for many regional states as Israeli nuclear weapons and perhaps even more so. In many cases, it is these threats which account for the WMD programs of many states in the region to at least as great an extent as does Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity. This logically means that these concerns must be on the agenda of any future regional security and arms control dialogue if it is to really tackle the problems of the area.
Such a process must also be more broadly inclusive in terms of participation than ACRS or the wider peace process were capable of being. If Iran is judged by Israel and many Arab countries to be a threat in security terms, though for different reasons, they simply must be at the table so that their security concerns can be aired as well.
How does one create and sustain such a process? Obviously, it cannot be done at the official level for quite some time. It must be what is often known as ‘Track Two’ work. Leaving aside for the moment that several of the regimes involved do not recognize each other, there are other problems. In this regard, the slowdown of the peace process may be the least of the concerns. The real issue which would mitigate against any attempt to create a process at the official level which could address the issues mentioned is that most of the region’s governments are highly suspicious of entering into a dialogue about social and political issues, either within their own societies, or with their neighbors.
Equally obviously, this will be a very long-term ‘Track Two’ project (though this does not mean that officials cannot take part in their private capacities). The first stages will require development of a community of scholars, opinion makers, and other experts from many different disciplines who have together gone through a process of exploring and arguing through the concepts and issues involved in an attempt to explore the underlying threat perceptions to which they feel their societies are subject. The next stage will be to widen this embryonic network and to begin gently exposing initial findings to the regional governments and publics.
These first steps will take time. The experience of other regions indicates that it will probably be measured in years rather than months. There is some question as to whether the region has that much time. But these first steps are vital because they are the keys to developing a broader, more inclusive approach to both the substance and membership of any future regional dialogue on security. There do not seem to be any short cuts.
Essentially, what one is advocating here is the gradual development by regional experts of a ‘Framework’ of the different elements of security in the region. Once this framework has been developed, regional experts can begin to identify and explore the trade-offs which may be possible in formal arms control talks. This is not to say that other discussions on such matters as Confidence-building Measures cannot and should not take place in the meantime. These are part of the process of developing the political rapprochement upon which arms control talks ultimately depend. However, the most critical aspect in this is continued efforts to resolve the underlying disputes in the region, especially the Arab-Israeli dispute.
A third factor in this is that it should be done relatively quietly, at least at first. The temptation to grandstand must be avoided. It could cause difficulty at home for some of those whom one most wishes to involve in this type of work, and raises the prospect of results being distorted to an even greater level than exist anyway in this sort of work.
This brief paper on WMD and regional thinking on deterrence and arms control in the Middle East points to a series of conclusions. First and foremost, the only regional arms control negotiation convened thus far, ACRS, was an unabashed creature of the peace process. This fact set the limits in terms of its membership and of the vision of the future of the Middle East which the group officially espoused as the objective of its work. While this was inevitable given the circumstances – and does not invalidate ACRS for what it was – one needs to recognize that there were substantial limitations on what ACRS could do.
Second, the expectations which key actors had of the process were so different that there was little hope of reconciling them within the ACRS framework itself. Moreover, the group never had any chance to deal with the underlying, multiple sources of threat which many of its members feel. These threats are not just Arab-Israeli. They are also Arab-Arab, Arab-Persian and also relate to concerns held by several regimes over internal stability and the presence of outside powers in the region. Any security review in the area must address these multiple threats on multiple levels, and ACRS was never politically equipped to do so. Nor, frankly, did the U.S., its main sponsor, have the desire to do so.
In terms of arms control, it is unlikely that any group such as ACRS will begin soon. The divisions are too deep and the sense seems to exist on all sides that there are no real benefits to such a dialogue which justify serious contemplation of the compromises necessary even to paper over the problems, much less solve them. One can, however, envisage quieter more reflective discussions, involving a broader agenda and membership than did ACRS, as a way forward.
In terms of arms control and the WMD issue, it seems unlikely that any concrete progress will be achieved until a degree of functional equivalence exists between the WMD programs of the region’s states. At present, these programs exist for multiple reasons and to deter multiple threats. Not all of these reasons and threats are related to each other. Thus, attempting to begin a formal WMD arms control process in the region is not likely to succeed until some measure of functional equivalence between systems (and the many purposes of those systems) is achieved, and that is likely to require much broader compromises on a political level and concerning several different disputes.
In the meantime, efforts can be extended on an informal level to explore the different rationales which exist across the region for the development and retention of WMD capabilities. Such a dialogue will have to go far beyond simply the WMD issues themselves as it will touch upon the essential security strategies and concerns of all states in the region.
1. For more on the Arms Control and Regional Security working group see Feldman, S., Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control in the Middle East (Cambridge, Mass.; M.I.T. Press, 1997), pp. 7-16; Jentleson, B. ‘The Middle East Arms Control and Security Talks: Progress, Problems and Prospects’ Institute on Global Conflict and Co-operation, policy paper #2(Los Angeles; University of California, September, 1996); Jones, P., ‘Arms Control in the Middle East: Some Reflections on ACRS’ Security Dialogue,1997, Vol 28(1); Peters, J., Pathways to Peace: The Arab-Israeli Multilateral Talks (London; The Royal Institute of International Affairs,1996); and Yaffe, M., ‘An Overview of the Middle East peace process Working Group on Arms Control and Regional Security’ in Tanner, F., (ed.) Confidence-building and Security Co-operation in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East (Malta; University of Malta, 1994).
2. For more on this idea see Feldman, S., ‘Israel’s National Security:Perceptions and Policy’ in Feldman and Toukan, Bridging the Gap: A Future Security Architecture for the Middle East (Lanham, Maryland; Rowman and Littlefield, 1997) pp. 26-31.
3. Feldman, ibid, p. 31, quotes one Arab as saying ‘Israel would like to beloved and feared at the same time. It cannot have it both ways.’
4. Much of my thinking on ‘functional equivalence’ comes from discussions I have had with Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders of SIPRI and Ms. Elizabeth French of the State University of New York at Buffalo. They have been working with the concept in the context of the underlying problems involved with Article XI of the Chemical Weapons Convention. For more on their views see, Pascal, J.P., ‘Putting the Horse Before the Cart; Some Thoughts on Controlling Unconventional Arms in the Middle East’, paper presented to the Conference on The European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and World Responsibilities, Brussels, 3-5, October, 1997.
Project Leader, Middle East Security and Arms Control Project, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The views expressed in this paper are the author’s alone. The author wishes to thank Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders for comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
The fundamental political changes heralded by several events, most notably the Arab-Israeli peace process, have caused the beginnings of an evolutionary shift in thinking about deterrence in several Middle Eastern states. This shift in thinking, however, will not necessarily lead to enhanced pressures to renounce weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and engage in arms control related to them unless the peace process is pursued to its logical conclusion and other political changes take place in the region. This raises interesting implications for possible future attempts to discuss or negotiate a regional approach to security in the Middle East in the short to medium term and the topics which must be on the agenda of such attempts.