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Regional security and the Chemical Weapons Convention: Insights for the Middle East (Part 2)

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In November 2019, the first annual meeting exploring the possibility of creating a zone exempt of non-conventional weaponry in the Middle East took place. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the second meeting in 2020. Conditions permitting, the session is now scheduled for this autumn. Meanwhile, the conference has organised two informal workshops, the second one of which was held virtually on 23-25 February. Entitled ‘Good Practices and Lessons Learned with respect to the implementation of Treaties establishing Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones’, the workshop’s third session looked at the core obligations governing chemical and biological weapons (CBW). It aimed to glean useful insights from the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

I was invited to address chemical weapon (CW) disarmament. In my presentation, I summarised the core obligations for states parties and outlined the division of labour between the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and states parties, which must transpose the international obligations into domestic legislation and regulations. The final slides described how states in regional security complexes prepared for the endgame of CWC negotiations by concluding regional agreements jointly committing themselves to sign the treaty and potential actions states in the Middle East could undertake to build confidence and reciprocal trust in the disarmament enterprise.

The first part of this blog contribution described how states in regional security complexes concluded regional agreements before the finalisation of the CWC negotiations. In doing so, they committed themselves not to develop, produce, acquire in any way, stockpile or retain, transfer directly or indirectly, or use CW.

This posting analyses how the Middle East followed a different course regarding the CWC in the early 1990s and identifies the lingering consequences for regional disarmament today. Using the building blocks identified in the five regional pre-agreements reached in the final stages of the CWC talks, it lays out how the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) could set up a process to generate transparency, confidence and a sufficient level of trust to prepare the way for a Middle East zone exempt from non-conventional weapons.


Preparing for the CWC in the Middle East security complex

Back in the early 1990s, states in the Middle East settled on a different course than those adopted between the Soviet Union and the United States, in Latin America and Southeast Asia and Oceania, and South Asia. While all MENA states professed a stake in the future CWC, recent events made them pull in different directions. The Iran-Iraq war, during which Iraq had been using CW on a scale not seen since the First World War, had ended in August 1988. Neither side emerged victorious, but the eight-year war left both countries economically depleted. Iraq next deployed its chemical warfare arsenal against the Kurds to suppress a domestic insurrection.

While wary of Iraq’s designs, the Gulf Arab monarchies remained deeply suspicious of Iran’s long-term geopolitical goals. Two years after the war with Iran, Iraq invaded Kuwait and it took the mobilisation of an international coalition, in which Arab states also participated, to evict the occupier in March 1991. The CW threat loomed large, more so because Iraq was also launching ballistic missiles against Israel. UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 687 adopted after the cease-fire imposed a stringent disarmament regime on Iraq. It created the UN Special Commission to eliminate Iraq’s CBW and missile holdings and tasked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons (NW) programme.

Less than three weeks after Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, parties began to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in Geneva. The conference, which ran from 20 August until 14 September 1990, ultimately ended in failure. With the Cold War having come to a close, the leading Western Powers, the US and UK, and members of the Non-Aligned Movement led by Mexico could not find common language on implementing the nuclear disarmament obligation in Article VI. The US also pushed back against Egypt’s call on states parties to persuade Israel to join the NPT. Discussions on achieving a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as a break on NW development proved equally contentious. The review conference also touched upon the question of nuclear weapon-free zones (NWFZ), including ones for Africa and the Middle East (which would partially overlap). Morocco, for instance, endorsed both while Egypt only expressed its support for a Middle Eastern NWFZ. [See Fisher and Müller.]

Egypt was meanwhile exploring a parallel track involving a more comprehensive approach to regional disarmament. On 9 April, five months before the NPT review conference, President Hosni Mubarak floated a trial balloon about a zone free of all non-conventional weaponry whereby all regional states would make equal and reciprocal commitments and accept verification and other modalities to ascertain full compliance by all. At a summit conference in Baghdad on 28-30 May 1990, participants declared that ‘Focusing on the disarmament of just one type of WMD [Weapon of Mass destruction] in the Middle East means basically adopting a selective approach for the region’. With this statement other Arab governments thus accepted Mubarak’s linkage of CW disarmament to eliminating biological weapons (BW) and especially Israel’s nuclear stockpile.

Against this backdrop of recent CW use, threatened CW use, and an evolving disarmament framework for the Middle East, the League of Arab States considered the CWC at its 98th session of the Council on 13 September 1992. Resolution 5232 called, among other things, for:

2. Implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention in the context of efforts exerted to establish the WMDFZ [Weapon of Mass Destruction-Free Zone] and a positive response from Israel to the international demands to adhere to the NPT and the international control system in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 487 of 1981.

The paragraph thus made CWC implementation contingent on progress with the zone exempt from non-conventional weaponry and Israel’s adherence to the NPT, including acceptance of placing ‘its nuclear facilities under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency’. It also drew on UNSC Resolution 487 on 19 June 1981 unanimously adopted after the ‘premeditated Israeli air attack on Iraqi nuclear installations on 7 June 1981’. [UNIDIR, p. 121]

In his address to the 47th session of the UN General Assembly on 25 September, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa further clarified the Arab League’s position as

full willingness to deal with all disarmament proposals that would provide security through equal obligations applicable by one standard to all the States of the region; reaffirmation of full support for the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as the best way to achieve security for all the States of the region; and willingness to deal with the Convention on the prohibition of chemical weapons and the framework of efforts aiming at the establishment of the zone to the extent that the excepted State, namely Israel, would respond to international calls to accede to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to subject its nuclear facilities to the international safeguards system.

He further affirmed that the Arab League’s position respecting the CWC is one

of support, but within the framework of an integrated disarmament process at the regional level in order to maintain the security of the Middle East States that are threatened by the existence of nuclear weapons in their region without any international control or legal obligation.


Framing the CW disarmament debate in the Middle East

Several elements may explain why regarding the CWC the Middle East went off on a different trajectory than other regional security complexes.

First, while the Indo-Pakistani accord concerned only those two countries, the South American and Southeast Asian and Pacific declarations aimed to be as inclusive as possible. The Mendoza Agreement invited other regional states to join, which four eventually did. Three South American countries signed both the Mendoza Agreement and the Cartagena Declaration. Nauru also associated itself with de declaration issued in Sydney despite being absent from the CWC regional seminar.

Unlike the Middle East, none of these security complexes had a formal regional organisation in which governments attempted to synchronise their position on security matters, including disarmament. The Arab League, however, does not comprise all regional actors. In the current MENA configuration, Iran and Israel are not a member. In the constellation of multiple antagonistic security interactions, the Arab League did not reach out them.

The League of Arab States + Iran and Israel. (Map prepared by Tsering Wangyal Shawa, Map and Geospatial Information Center, Princeton University. Used with permission.)

Second, no other security complex comprised a country possessing a regional NW monopoly. In the East-West context both superpowers maintained a nuclear balance. The thawing Cold War allowed for mutual weapon reductions and elimination with onsite verification. It would still be over a decade before North Korea was to leave the NPT. Progress on an African NWFZ became possible after South Africa had halted its NW programme in 1989 and dismantled its bombs.

Looking to remove Israel’s NW capacity, Arab states strove to have the country join the NPT and submit its nuclear facilities to IAEA safeguards. They tried to mobilise other NPT parties to pressure Israel. In the option of a Middle East NWFZ, they not only found a political ally in Iran (which had first advanced the idea in 1974). Other nations also welcomed and would support the wider regional approach. The CWC served that overarching strategy, first as a tool to persuade other states to act in the NPT context by making regional CWC universalisation contingent on Israel becoming a party to the NPT, and later as a quid pro quo to engage Israel in regional disarmament negotiations aimed at eliminating all categories of non-conventional weaponry.

Third, whereas both Latin American agreements welcomed the end of the Cold War as an opportunity to limit or eliminate regional armaments competitions, everybody understood them as an endorsement of the CWC negotiations. Few people linked achievement of the CWC to other weapon categories. The Arab League resolution, in contrast, effectively subordinated CW disarmament to the regional NW elimination and the actions of a single state, Israel. Many therefore perceived the position as a boycott of the CWC and a wishful attempt to create functional equivalence between the CW arsenals in Arab states and Israel’s NW.

A boycott the Arab League resolution perhaps was not. The document reflected a shared political view but did not preclude individual Arab states from joining the CWC. Especially the countries in the geographical periphery of the Arab–Israeli conflict—the Maghreb and the Gulf region—became states parties because of the negative economic impact the convention would otherwise have on their oil and chemical industries. Furthermore, CWC Article X extends important security guarantees to states against whom CW are threatened or used. Following explicit assurances by then Director General José Bustani, Jordan acceded to the disarmament treaty on 29 October 1997, a mere six months after the CWC’s entry into force. In sum, nine Arab states became a party before the end of the year (even though just Jordan shared a border with Israel). Today, only Egypt – the original framer of the stance – has stuck to the Arab League resolution.

Fourth, the resolution seems to have had other consequences too. Whereas the common positions reached in other security complexes encouraged regional states to sign the CWC and forswear CW, the Arab League resolution linking adherence to the CWC to Israel’s participation in the NPT provided the CW possessors – Iraq, Libya and Syria – with a safe haven to continue their respective weapon programmes, and in the case of Syria, to use CW to suppress an internal insurrection. All three countries eventually had to accede to the CWC and relinquish this non-conventional weapon capacity under international pressure and with international assistance. (The OPCW has not yet been able to close the dossier on Syria’s CW programme seven years after the country’s accession to the CWC.)

Fifth, resulting Arab ambiguity regarding CW possession and use likely reinforced Israel’s reluctance to ratify the CWC. Having signed the convention at the opening ceremony in Paris in January 1993, Israel participated in the meetings preparing the disarmament treaty’s entry into force. Despite Israel’s notorious resistance to treaties constraining its security policies, anticipation of Israel ratifying the CWC rose over the summer of 1997. But on 4 September Eytan Bentsur, Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva that his country would not do so because of the increasing chemical threat from its neighbours. The announcement also came as street confrontations between Israeli troops and Palestinians intensified. Uncertainties about the legality of the use of riot control agents by military forces under the CWC may also have influenced the decision. Despite a few moments of renewed optimism, Israel’s position has never shifted much since then, domestic events and political instability being the primary reasons.


Towards building confidence, trust and shared goals

The regional pre-agreements in anticipation of the finalisation of the CWC negotiations comprise commitments, ambitions and suggestions for national action (see Part 1). The different documents vary in their objectives and range from a legal framework to set up declarations and verification experiments (Wyoming memorandum) to politically binding statements of intent. Taken together, however, they offer a menu of gradual steps that could place the Conference exploring a Middle East zone exempt from non-conventional weaponry on track towards identifying shared goals and building confidence and trust to make verifiable regional disarmament a realistic proposition.

The proposed actions may be grouped into three phases that start with unilateral steps and move on towards initiating bilateral or plurilateral activities that can prepare concrete verification proposals for the future treaty.

Phase 1 comprises several possible unilateral steps aiming at sharing information on intentions and activities that will help to establish a baseline for future expectations and follow-on actions. They are:

  • A unilateral renunciation of chemical warfare under any circumstances.
  • A unilateral pledge not to engage in the development, production or any other form of acquisition and retention of CW.

Both promises, separately or together, basically begin to take CW out of the regional security equation. MENA states could be encouraged to issue them unilaterally, but the regional disarmament conference could also decide in its early stages on a resolution to the same effect. In the latter case, it would be very important to (i) leave the document open for states to sign up later if they cannot do it immediately for whatever reason, and (ii) not to link the text to any other weapon category or political or security issue. The resolution should be seen not as an end goal but rather as an early trust-building measure with a low threshold from which the negotiating parties can craft follow-on steps.

  • A national statement on whether a country had past offensive CW development and production activities and stockpiles, and if so, when it ceased those programmes or destroyed the toxic munitions.
  • A similar type of national statement a country could make on chemical research and development activities, as well as on production and consumption of dual-use toxic chemicals and their precursors for peaceful purposes.

Both types of statements could be modelled after CWC declaration requirements. In the early deliberation stages those unilateral statements would not be verifiable, but as delegates make progress, governments could be invited to progressively offer more detail as part of information exchange exercises. Again, the primary purpose of these statements is to establish trust and confidence in the disarmament process among the regional partners. These early exchanges could also briefly describe past CW activities as a confidence-building measure.

  • A national statement on chemical defence activities, which are allowed under the CWC.
  • National statements on existing or updated national legislation that prohibits any natural or legal person operating on its territory from engaging in any form of activity that could contribute towards CW development and production, as well as assisting anybody else inside or outside the country with CW acquisition.

All MENA states, irrespective of whether they are party to the CWC, must already supply this information under UNSC Resolution 1540. Again, while the data exchange in the MENA context may appear duplication of work, the activity is primarily to have relevant government offices in different capitals engage in constructing trust and confidence on the regional level.

In Phase 2 each state could conduct some national transparency-enhancing visits (inspections) in accordance with the CWC procedures and publish or share with the negotiation partners the exercise results. These exercises aim to familiarise national agencies with the conduct of various types of verification activities necessary to operationalise the regional zone exempt from non-conventional weaponry. This would not only be important for the two states not party to the CWC, but experience with the CWC verification machinery could also assist national agencies responsible for other weapon categories to lay out verification expectations and requirements and prepare realistic proposals relevant to BW and NW for consideration by the negotiators and their national experts.

In Phase 3 MENA states might engage in transparency-enhancement processes and verification experiments similar to the steps in the 1989 Wyoming memorandum of understanding. This would consolidate the verification proposals under consideration by the regional disarmament conference and help to establish baselines for the future verification system. In addition, the exercises would add significantly to transparency and confidence in the negotiation end stage. Perhaps these steps could be preceded by so-called peer review exercises of the type considered and tested over the past few years in the BTWC context whereby experts from a select number of states are invited to participate as a voluntary transparency measure.


Conclusion: Reframing the debate

Disarmament means going to zero for a discrete weapon category. Disarmament has a backward-looking dimension, namely the elimination of all weapon capacities, including munition and equipment destruction and the demolition or conversion to peaceful purposes of facilities. Disarmament is also forward-looking because it aims to prevent future emergence or re-emergence of the proscribed weaponry in whichever form (including new products and processes resulting from scientific and technological innovation). The forward-looking dimension also brings into existence a new starting point for a collective endeavour to preserve peace and security by alternative, non-military means.

The regional pre-agreements drew on the draft CWC whose final shape was coming into increasingly sharp focus. None of the commitments or expectations reached beyond the treaty text. The same principles would apply to the MENA as all states save two already implement the CWC.

One objective would obviously be to persuade Egypt and Israel to join the treaty too. However, in the context of the future zone exempt from non-conventional weaponry, the exercises outlined above would have far greater significance. First, the primary goal is to build trust and confidence and a sense of investment in shared security. States must learn to interact with each other on a level that will allow progress in the two other weapon areas too.

Second, CW may present certain dimensions not specifically tailored in the CWC to the Middle East. The region has a legacy of chemical warfare that goes back to the colonial wars of the 1920s and 1930s. All major chemical warfare after the Second World War (except for Vietnam) has taken place in the Middle East. The CWC negotiators had primarily large-scale chemical warfare as seen in Europe during the First World War or the Iran-Iraq war in mind. Cold War preparations in the US and USSR could have enabled CW use on scales never experienced before. Meanwhile, terrorism and crime with toxicants have escaped the realm of fiction. The resort to industrial toxic chemicals as a means of warfare or how riot control agents and incapacitants are being used cannot be ignored. The MENA negotiators must also address the frequent use of anti-crop agents and incendiary weapons. While the latter two weapon classes fall outside the CWC’s definition of a CW, local public opinion may nonetheless perceive their employment as chemical warfare. Such perceptions need to be addressed in a regional framework to avoid undermining the disarmament enterprise in its early stages or in the long term.

While the OPCW can assist the region, the MENA may have to set its own clarification, investigative and conflict resolution mechanisms; tools it may later adapt for the other arms categories as appropriate.

The MENA has chosen a more holistic approach to regional disarmament, which besides NW should also include CBW. This idea exists since 1990. However, the Conference should avoid linking the three arms categories in its deliberations or make everything dependent on progress in the nuclear area in its design of a zone exempt from non-conventional weaponry. The security threats as well as the disarmament and verification demands vary considerably for each class. The respective international legal regimes are also considerably different.

In the short term, the MENA states must first build confidence and trust, and a shared sense of purpose in the project. In this the CWC and its negotiation experiences can serve as a guiding light. Treaties such as the CWC, BTWC and NPT are not some low-hanging fruit just waiting to be plucked. They are regimes: a totality of rules and rights, a sum of interactions among partners who need trust and confidence. That requires investment even before treaty negotiations can be finalised, let alone implemented.


Additional sources


  1. […] This posting analyses how the Middle East followed a different course regarding the CWC in the early 1990s and identifies the lingering consequences for regional disarmament today. The Trench […]

  2. […] This posting analyses how the Middle East followed a different course regarding the CWC in the early 1990s and identifies the lingering consequences for regional disarmament today. The Trench […]

  3. […] This posting analyses how the Middle East followed a different course regarding the CWC in the early 1990s and identifies the lingering consequences for regional disarmament today. The Trench […]

  4. […] This posting analyses how the Middle East followed a different course regarding the CWC in the early 1990s and identifies the lingering consequences for regional disarmament today. The Trench […]

  5. […] This posting analyses how the Middle East followed a different course regarding the CWC in the early 1990s and identifies the lingering consequences for regional disarmament today. The Trench […]

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