CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Middle East regional stability and security continues to face substantial challenges, among them the problem of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Israel’s opaque nuclear posture, doubts surrounding the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and other suspected weapons programs are all impediments to arms control efforts.
In an environment where terrorist organizations are active and statehood is fragile, physical protection of WMD materials and facilities is crucial to regional security. The importance of arms control in the Middle East is clear, and the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the region is urgent.
The 2012 postponement of the long-awaited Middle East Conference on such a zone has added another layer of uncertainty, further complicating the already intricate arms control and nonproliferation landscape of the region.
In light of these challenges, a group of young arms control and nonproliferation experts from the region, known as the Middle East Next Generation Network, hopes to promote a better understanding of arms control issues and find a way to create a WMD-free zone.
The network plans to create a free online training portal, available in all of the region's languages, to raise awareness and engage professionals and the general public.
The training course addresses what the network has identified as missing: higher education on arms control and nonproliferation across the region.
Little attention is paid to arms control and nonproliferation in the curricula of major universities. There are many reasons; some are state-specific, while others are general challenges.
Most Middle East states lack specialists able to teach the topics, partly because the region suffers from “brain-drain” — those who leave home for higher education tend to stay abroad. Contributing to a shortage of expertise is a general lack of interest stemming from poor professional prospects in the field.
Basic materials on the issues, in local languages, are scarce. Few specialized programs and degrees exist. Even in countries with technical, scientific and engineering capacities, there is no training on arms control and nonproliferation fundamentals. As a consequence, arms control and nuclear non-proliferation do not become part of the policy discussion.
Finally, in some states, the government has control over information related to security, and tends to discriminate against information that would contradict its position. This limits substantially the scope of free discussion and education on these issues.
When the educational systems fail, there is no resource of knowledgeable critical-thinkers who can work to establish a WMD-free zone.
In addition to its education project, the Middle East Next Generation Network has identified further steps to begin creating a regional community of experts:
• Junior-level fellowships for recent graduates in Middle Eastern states to encourage employment, raise interest and convey prestige to those who become experts.
• The creation of NGOs specializing in arms control and nonproliferation that would cooperate in establishing a regional dialogue.
Concrete steps by regional governments toward the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East could lead to renewed and sustained engagement in nonproliferation. It also could help prevent regional conflict, weapons proliferation, and acts of terrorism.
Three recent developments may ignite the process. First, Syria’s decision to adhere to the Chemical Weapons Convention and steps it is undertaking to dismantle its chemical weapons stockpile. Second, progress made between Iran and six world powers on Iran's nuclear capabilities. Finally, all states in the region have participated in recent consultations regarding a WMD-free zone.
Establishing this zone in the Middle East would address a variety of pressing regional and international security concerns. It is our hope and belief that our education project in the region will be meaningful in supporting this process.
The authors are members of the Middle East Next Generation Network established by Dr. Chen Kane at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Nilsu Goren, from Turkey, is a graduate fellow at Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. Aviv Melamud, from Israel, is a research associate at the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany. Ibrahim Said Ibrahim, from Egypt, is a fellow of the United Nations Program on Disarmament. Ariane Tabatabai, from Iran, is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School.