This is published on the behalf of Nilsu Goren, Aviv Melamud, Ibrahim Said Ibrahim, and Ariane Tabatabai of the Middle East Next Generation of Arms Control Specialists Network.
The Middle East has provided an arena for different weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs. Such weapons – nuclear, chemical, biological – are either being developed, acquired, stored, or contemplated throughout this highly-volatile and conflict-prone region. Most notably, there is the nuclear issue (Israel’s opaque nuclear posture and the controversial Iranian nuclear program), but the abundance of chemical and biological weapon programs throughout is arguably just as –according to some, more – dangerous and flammable.
This danger is, of course, even more disconcerting considering that the Middle East has provided the stage for several instances of actual use of WMD in the past decades. Chemical weapons have been allegedly employed in the region by Egypt in North Yemen in the 1960s, Saddam Hussein during and after the Iran-Iraq war against Iranian and Kurdish civilians, and allegedly most recently by the Assad Regime in the ongoing civilian conflict in Syria.
On top of that, a number of terrorist organizations and fragile states coexist in the region, which makes the presence of WMD particularly worrisome. Preventing the next WMD disaster in the Middle East is obviously an urgent and crucial endeavor. The establishment of a WMD Free Zone in the region would be most fitting to handle the danger, but the initiative has run into difficulties.
Despite these challenges, the creation of such a Free Zone in the Middle East is indeed pressing and of vital consequence for the entire region. Yet the majority of Middle Eastern populations are alienated from the debate. Transparency and a public discourse around the topic, as well as a greater understanding of issues of arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament can therefore play a key role in preventing the next WMD disaster in a region that is already facing multiple security challenges.
In an attempt to address some of these issues, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies has initiated the Middle East Next Generation of Arms Control Specialists Network, bringing together young arms controlers from the region. The Network has undertaken to promote nonproliferation and arms control education in the region in the hopes of creating such a culture and positively influencing the establishment of a WMD Free Zone. Four of them (from Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Turkey) recommend here five steps to protect the Middle East from the use of WMD (that is, just until they actually do establish that Free Zone).
Step 1: Weapons of Mass Disruption: It’s Messy
Considering the levels of hostility and the gravity of the conflicts in the region, perhaps it would be most realistic to begin promoting cooperation on so-called ‘low hanging fruits,’ meaning those threats that are shared by all, regardless of political disagreements.
When thinking of WMD, one category is often overlooked. Sure, the biological-chemical-nuclear triplet is always in the spotlight, but there is actually a fourth kind of WMD – radiological. And this one would in fact be the terrorists’ likeliest WMD of choice, since there are numerous radioactive sources throughout the region from which to obtain (read: steal) materials for weaponization: such materials are used for commercial and medical purposes, not just in highly-guarded nuclear facilities but also in factories and hospitals. Accidents and thefts of these sources already accrue in the region. If terrorists get their hands on some, it could be used for mass disruption. That makes for a real mess.
The fragile state / terrorist organizations (Molotov) cocktail that exists in the region means that unless facilities and materials are secured, and unless governments are ready to respond to a WMD incident, things can escalate very quickly and become, at best, a tool for mass disruption. The worst case scenario would be a full WMD disaster. Since the need for effective protection against WMD terrorism is shared by all states, a region-wide policy on how to counter these threats, as well as a code of conduct on securing and handling WMD sources, can be a good way to get some cooperation going.
Enhancing security and increasing cooperation are noble causes, but perhaps the real incentive here is that prevention of unconventional terrorism is of interest to all regional states. A radiological (dirty) bomb is scary, of course, but perhaps a more effective way for terrorists to operate is through targeting the stomach! Bio-terrorism is just as potentially dangerous, since biological agents, like radiological ones, are present in labs and hospitals throughout the region. If stolen, these could be dispersed and used to poison, say, food. A campaign for keeping hummus bio-terrorism-free could appeal to all regional states; Hummus is after all a serious matter in the region.
Step 2: Circumventing Governments: From the Mid East with Love
If you know your neighbors, you won’t want to blow them up! Build trust directly among nations in the region, because after all – we have much more in common than we are led to believe!
Sure, this is not easily done in a region that has had a long history of conflict and where, in some countries children are taught from early on to hate some of their neighbors. But by allowing people to get to know each other and to debunk the myths surrounding each other, one can guarantee lasting peace (or at least less conflict…).
Any opportunity to get people talking is a chance for making connections and exemplifying just how useless conflict is. With the internet and social media, people are connecting with each other beyond – and in spite of – their angry and spiteful leadership. Now more than ever, people from neighboring countries have more chances to being exposed to one another’s culture, and to discover realities beyond propaganda.
Step 3: Circumventing governments, part deux: non-governmental organizations (that’s almost too obvious…)
OK, social media and people-to-people encounters are nice, but hardly enough. This is a region with too many weapons, some of them are WMD, and that’s a recipe for disaster, literally.
While these weapons hold the potential of mass destruction, the “masses” are surprisingly absent from any discourse relating to them. One can imagine, however, that they’d have something to contribute!
The establishment of local and regional non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that specialize in arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament, are crucial to enable people to become part of the discourse and take ownership of it in a knowledgeable and meaningful way. This will support both a domestic and regional dialogue, currently completely absent. After all, grassroots movements don’t sprout out of nothing…
Step 4: Get Smart: Weapons of Mass Instruction
Indeed, the lack of even basic information and knowledge on matters of arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament is (terrifyingly enough) not exclusive to the masses and general public. Policy-makers, officials, scientists, and technicians also lack basic information on WMD.
Producing materials on arms control and nonproliferation in regional languages and establishing courses and training programs is of key importance to promote a better understanding of these crucial issues. This will allow more relevant local actors to take part in the discussions and decision making processes in an informed manner.
Furthermore, scientists and technicians from industry and research should also be offered information and tools to become more active in the prevention of WMD disasters. Their role is central because of the dual-use nature of many of the materials they use – potentially hazardous agents that are employed daily and extensively for peaceful purposes could be weaponized! Discussing the dangers and the importance of correct code of conduct when handling such agents will develop a knowledgeable and responsible community within the people who are at the technical frontline.
Tackling the lacunas in education on arms control and nonproliferation in the region will assist in developing a community of knowledgeable, dedicated, and critical-thinking people who could have a key role in promoting and supporting a process of establishing a WMD Free Zone in the region. The first step in preventing a WMD crisis is getting the necessary knowledge out there!
Step 5: The Kids Are Alright
There’s no better ending than with a cliché: the future is in youth.
Empower the youth and facilitate collaboration and cooperation among young specialists by establishing programs, courses, and employment opportunities. Public and foreign policies are generally not seen as conducive to prestige and high-income. Therefore, young people either do not go down that path or they do and leave their native countries. The result is that the field remains in the grips of an older generation, whose views and ideologies are not necessarily representative of those of their constituencies. This is a tremendous obstacle in a region where most coutnries have fairly young populations. Empowering the youth will inject more openness and flexibility into a process that has been marred by a resistance to cooperate in many instances. Otherwise, youth may have to resort, as it has been already throughout the region, to take things into its hands.
Nilsu Goren is a Turkish PhD candidate at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, specializing in Turkish security policymaking and a graduate fellow at Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM).
Aviv Melamud is an Israeli PhD student at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and a research associate at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF).
Ibrahim Said is an Egyptian Fellow of the United Nations Program on Disarmament (2013), Verification Scholar at the Technical Nonproliferation and Disarmament Project of the UK/Norway initiative hosted by the Center for Accelerator-based research and Energy Physics, University of Oslo (2012).
Ariane Tabatabai is an Iranian-American PhD student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, an incoming Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, and a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.