Almost two decades have passed since the Middle East Resolution – agreed by the 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – called to rid the region of all weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Yet the Middle East remains a heavily militarised theatre of conflict awash with such capabilities, and is still very far from the goal of disarmament.

There is no single reason why regional states have failed to create a WMD-free zone. A mixture of politics, prestige and security considerations have conspired to delay indefinitely one of the world’s most prized security goals, and international non-proliferation diplomacy’s most urgent priority.

The intention behind the proposed zone was, and still is, to induce security co-operation by addressing head-on the worst fear of regional states: the effects of WMD. The potential elimination of these most lethal weapons, it is assumed, would drastically assuage threat perceptions and thus encourage further self-restraint and co-operation.

It is hard to argue with this idea given its tremendous potential benefits. Yet the reason it has not seen the light of day is that it is an impractical shortcut in dealing with such a complex issue. In a nutshell, it pursues a top-down approach to a problem that can only be solved from the bottom up. It asks too much, too soon, of regional parties who do not yet trust each other and who exist in a dangerous and fluid environment. Disarmament, especially under the present regional circumstances characterised by heightened security concerns and hardened security thinking, is seen by some regional states as pure fantasy. For them, even mere talk of disarmament is a non-starter.

Over the years, frustration with the lack of progress on the WMD-free zone has prompted non-proliferation analysts to think hard about more creative ways to break the diplomatic logjam. Some proposed disaggregating the concept and focusing, in the near term, on the less ambitious goal of a chemical-weapons-free zone, a biological-weapons-free zone or both, if possible. Others counselled, in the spirit of pragmatic gradualism, the adoption of conventional arms-control measures as a way of building confidence between rivals. Such steps include the removal of – or imposition of limitations on – delivery systems, including medium- and long-range missiles.

Given Syria’s current path toward chemical disarmament, if there were ever a time to push aggressively for the elimination of all chemical weapons in the Middle East – and, as such, the fulfilment of one crucial pillar of the WMD-free zone – this is it. In September 2013, Syria was forced to accept the dismantlement of its highly sophisticated chemical-weapons programme after using sarin against its people in Damascus in August – an attack which reportedly killed hundreds, resulting in international outrage and the US-Russian-brokered deal to destroy the weapons.

Because of the civil conflict and the size of the regime’s chemical stockpiles, the full process of decommissioning will be complex, slow and dangerous. It is being conducted in stages, according to an internationally agreed timetable, with the financial, logistical and technical assistance of more than a dozen countries. This process involves, first, weapons being transferred by Russian armoured vehicles from twelve storage sites (mainly in the suburbs of Damascus) to the Russian-secured port of Latakia, tracked by US satellites and Chinese surveillance cameras. At the port, a Danish-Norwegian flotilla is then tasked with transferring the chemicals to international waters, accompanied by naval escorts provided by Russia, China, Denmark, Norway and the UK. The plans then see the stockpile being transported to the port of Gioia Tauro in southern Italy, loaded onto the US vessel Cape Ray, and taken back into international waters to be destroyed by hydrolysis in a titanium tank onboard.

This process is now underway, with the first batch of Syria’s chemicals having been safely loaded onto a Danish cargo ship in the port of Latakia in January. Several previous deadlines established in line with the internationally agreed timetable have, however, been missed. Ambassador Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the UN’s Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body responsible for the operation, recently said that the process had been delayed due to security concerns, but expressed confidence that the entire stockpile would be destroyed by the new deadline of 30 June. Meanwhile, on 10 February, the OPCW announced that a third shipment of chemicals had been removed from the country. Yet, ultimately, the completion of the job depends on the continued co-operation of the Syrian government and all international actors involved, as well as the ability to secure vehicles travelling overland to Latakia.

The precedent set by this operation is promising. Chemical weapons have inflicted tremendous suffering on the people of the Middle East – in northern Yemen in the 1960s, Iran in the 1980s, Iraq in 1988 and, most recently and tragically, in Syria. It would certainly be a net strategic and moral gain for Middle Eastern countries to outlaw these horrific weapons once and for all. If Egypt and Israel can be incentivised, as well as pressured, to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) – which Egypt has not signed, and which Israel has signed but not yet ratified – the Middle East stands a chance of freeing itself of the worst poisons on the planet. (Iran ratified the CWC in 1997.) The same goes for biological weapons. Although there is no evidence of the usage of such weapons in the Middle East, poisonous biological agents are believed to exist in Israeli and Egyptian military arsenals and research labs. Unlike Israel, Egypt is a signatory to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), but Cairo has yet to ratify it. Iran, by contrast, signed the BTWC in April 1972 and ratified it the following year.

If only things were so simple. No matter how historic the opportunity provided by Syria, it appears that this will not be enough to fundamentally change the political, psychological and security calculi of regional states regarding WMD disarmament. This is because a pick-and-mix diplomatic approach to a WMD-free zone, regardless of its creativity, will not do the trick. This is not to argue against the formulation of new ways to break the diplomatic stalemate. Perhaps with luck, a truly imaginative political means of solving this intricate challenge might yet emerge. But the point is that, before worrying about style and approach, it is first necessary to understand the basic hurdles: namely the reasons for regional positions and their long-standing persistence. It is not enough to know each country’s preferences and interests; it is necessary to appreciate more fully why they have consistently refused to compromise.

It is essential to assess, for example, why Egypt and Israel have not given up their chemical- and biological-weapons programmes despite the huge security benefits to be gained from doing so. In the case of Egypt, it must be asked what good sarin gas brings the country, other than some imagined diplomatic leverage, and why Cairo has held onto its stockpiles since the First World War. As for Israel, it must be asked why the country has snubbed both the CWC and BTWC in light of the arguably minimal difference this would make, in relative terms, to its security given the country’s possession, unlike any other in the region, of nuclear weapons.

On 25–26 November 2013, Israeli and Arab diplomats met in Switzerland to resume preliminary talks on the WMD-free zone and, specifically, to reach consensus on items and modalities relating to the postponed conference on a WMD-free zone originally due to take place in Finland in 2012. However, as if nothing had changed since the early 1990s, Arab and Israeli envoys could not agree which weapons should be discussed. Israel has always favoured a holistic approach and recommended the inclusion of conventional arms and their delivery systems. Arab states have been adamant in their desire to focus solely on unconventional arsenals.

It is pointless to assign blame for the continued deadlock to one party or to argue which side has a more convincing argument. None has a slam-dunk case, and if all regional parties maintain their positions, the goal of zero WMD will continue to be eluded. The only way to break the cycle is for regional parties to agree to discuss – openly, comprehensively and consistently – their hopes and fears in a collective fashion. This does not have to occur through a major regional security conference, although the benefits of this would be considerable. A series of smaller, more private meetings may do the job. When disagreements are as profound as they currently are, the nature of the venue is, arguably, secondary.

The primary goal is to correctly diagnose this multifaceted problem. All states should come prepared to leave no stone unturned in breaking down traditional barriers and dichotomies – such as conventional-versus-unconventional weapons and notions of ‘peace first, arms control second’ – that are based on faulty logic. Despite having battled in non-proliferation fora for over twenty years, Arabs, Israelis and Iranians still misunderstand each others’ positions and concerns. If this does not change, no progress will ever be made.

Yet it is also clear that the context has shifted dramatically since the arms-control and regional security talks of the 1990s. Most importantly, the issue no longer revolves around a political and legal feud between Egypt and Israel (though it persists to this day), and these countries no longer dominate non-proliferation and regional security talks. Instead, the rise of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey will force non-proliferation diplomacy to take the views of these states into account as well; gone are the days when Egypt spoke for all Arabs. Then, of course, there is Iran, whose nuclear programme was not a major item of discussion two decades ago, but has now completely reshuffled the deck in terms of non-proliferation diplomacy. These emerging actors add an additional layer of complexity to discussions, which makes the task of understanding their interests and concerns even more important.

Such diplomatic and information-gathering discussions will obviously not suffice to create a Middle East free of WMD. Yet even if this goal is not achieved any time soon, such an exercise would hopefully accomplish one major task: namely the formulation of more accurate assessments of the real causes of the continued lack of progress and the real reasons for regional states’ rigid positions. This is the toughest nut to crack. But if these murky issues can be clarified, further discussions around the optimal approach to a WMD-free zone in the Middle East are likely to be much more fruitful.

Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow for Middle East security at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.