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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Run-Up to Mideast Meeting Shows Fissures
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Daniel Horner

Efforts to decide on the facilitator and host country for a planned 2012 conference on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East are hampered by disagreements not only over the individual person and country for those roles, but also over fundamental points of the process for making the choices, interviews with participants in the ­process indicate.

Nevertheless, some of the interviewees, who represent key countries in the talks, said it still was possible that the decisions could be made before the end of the year and that the conference could take place as scheduled in 2012.

The commitment to hold the 2012 conference was a critical piece of the negotiations that produced the final document of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. (See ACT, June 2010.) In that document, the parties reaffirmed their commitment to “a full implementation” of the resolution on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East that, in turn, was central to the agreement at the 1995 review conference to make the NPT permanent.

Several states in the Middle East have declined to join the NPT, the Biological Weapons Convention, or the Chemical Weapons Convention or are believed to have weapons of mass destruction or be pursuing WMD capabilities.

There has been little visible progress on the 2012 meeting since the May 2010 NPT conference. Many participants in the process had hoped that a July 6–7 seminar in Brussels, attended by government officials and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, would spur action toward a decision on the host and facilitator. Although the seminar did conclude with an announcement of three candidate countries to host the 2012 conference, some of the current and former officials interviewed—many of whom attended the closed-door seminar—said they had hoped for more.

According to the officials, Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov announced that the three candidates were Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands. Ulyanov was speaking on behalf of his country, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the three countries that co-sponsored the 1995 resolution and that, along with the UN secretary-general, are the designated conveners of the 2012 conference.

In an Aug. 5 interview, a U.S. Department of State official said the announcement had not been planned before the meeting, but that the three countries had decided to make one to counter a widespread impression that they were not working vigorously to make the 2012 conference happen. The official also said that “just because it’s not in public doesn’t mean a lot hasn’t been going on.”

However, a European diplomat said in an Aug. 18 interview that Ulyanov’s announcement “made everything worse” because it showed how little had been accomplished in the year since the NPT review conference.

Several of the officials questioned the viability of two of the candidates. In an Aug. 19 interview, Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations Maged Abdelaziz, who attended the Brussels meeting, said the United States had proposed Canada as a host during the 2010 NPT conference, but Arab countries did not support that choice. He said the Arab countries also had reservations about the Netherlands, in part because it is a member of NATO (as is Canada) and in part because of its views and the views of the proposed Dutch facilitator on the Middle East and on the proposed conference. Abdelaziz indicated that Finland was more acceptable although he said the proposed Finnish facilitator did not have the political rank that the position would require.

He also said Austria, which at one point was under consideration, would be ­acceptable to the Arab Group.

The European diplomat offered a similar assessment of the prospects for Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands.

An official from a Persian Gulf state also said there has been “no objection so far to Finland’s offer” and that Canada does not have “strong credibility on this issue” because of its ongoing position on Israel’s nuclear program in UN forums. However, in an Aug. 17 interview, he argued that the venue is less important than the facilitator.  According to the State Department official, the three co-sponsors believe that the facilitator should come from the host country because the facilitator would have the “diplomatic resources [of the host country] to tap into.”

Referring to the decisions on the host and facilitator, the Gulf state official said, “I don’t think there is a condition that they should be linked.” As he and Abdelaziz noted, the 2010 NPT Review Conference final document lists the decisions as two separate steps. There is “nothing in the review document that says this is a package,” Abdelaziz said.

“We want a shift of direction,” with priority placed on the naming of a facilitator, he said. The facilitator must meet certain criteria established by the Arab Group and conveyed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the co-sponsors, he said. The person must not be from one of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), an Arab country, Iran, or Israel; must be at least at a “ministerial level”; and must be acceptable to everyone, particularly Iran and Israel, he said.

NPT Issues

Some of the officials stressed the importance for the NPT regime of progress on the Middle Eastern WMD-free zone. Because of the lack of progress since 1995 on the issue, the countries of the region felt “betrayed,” the Gulf state official said. For that reason, he said, some countries from the region and the Nonaligned Movement did not want to tighten the terms for withdrawal from the NPT, a topic that was discussed at some length at the 2010 review conference.

The next review conference is to take place in 2015, with three annual preparatory meetings, starting next May.

The European diplomat said it would be a problem “for formal reasons” if the process still was seen as stalled at the time of the 2012 preparatory meeting. Otherwise, the meeting will be ­“hijacked,” he said.

If the host and facilitator are named in September or October, the conference conceivably could be held in March or April; but that is “rather unlikely,” he said. However, he said, if the arrangements for the Mideast conference were put in place before the May NPT preparatory meeting, it “would not be easy to complain.” In comments similar to those of several other participants and observers, he said, “The Arab Spring does not help speed the process.”

The Gulf state official laid out a similar timetable, saying he “can’t imagine” the conference taking place before May or June. If there is no agreement roughly by November on the host and facilitator, then that timetable probably would be impossible, he said. Asked if holding the conference in 2012 was feasible, he said that although “many things [are] happening,” the “objective [of holding the conference next year] should not be undermined.”

The conference should take place in 2012, but participants “should be realistic” about what to expect, the Gulf state official said. The 2012 meeting should not “be the end” of the effort, he said.

Overall, failing to convene the conference is “more risky than having it” because abandoning plans to hold it “would kill prospects for [the Middle Eastern WMD-free zone] from the beginning,” with potentially severe implications for the NPT regime, he said.

The link to the NPT raises a different set of issues for Israel, which is not a party to the NPT and was not directly involved in the negotiations leading to the 1995 and 2010 NPT conference final documents. Nevertheless, in an Aug. 18 interview, a former Israeli official said he would not “reject…out of hand” the idea that it would be beneficial for Israel to attend the conference.

However, the former official said, the terms of reference would have to be “drafted in the spirit and letter” of the statements by President Barack Obama and national security adviser Gen. James Jones immediately after the NPT review conference. Otherwise, it will be difficult for Israel, which is “suspicious to begin with, to consider attending the [2012] conference,” the former official said.

In his May 28, 2010, statement on the NPT review conference and the WMD-free zone, Obama said, “The United States has long supported such a zone, although our view is that a comprehensive and durable peace in the region and full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and nonproliferation obligations are essential precursors for its establishment.” Jones, in his statement the same day, provided some additional detail on the zone and the conference, saying in part that “[t]he United States will insist that this be a conference for discussion aimed at an exchange of views on a broad agenda, to include regional security issues, verification and compliance, and all categories of weapons of mass destruction and systems for their delivery.”

The 2010 NPT conference final document specifies that the 2012 conference “shall take as its terms of reference the 1995 Resolution [on the Middle East].”

U.S. Attitude

In some statements this year, U.S. officials have suggested that the Arab Spring could push the meeting beyond 2012. In an April 7 interview with Arms Control Today, White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Gary Samore said that since the 2010 NPT conference, “there have been some extraordinarily dramatic changes in the region; and whether or not we can still make that 2012 meeting is, I think, much less clear. We have to continue to make an effort.” Samore was scheduled to address the Brussels meeting but canceled, citing a last-minute scheduling conflict.

The former Israeli official said his impression is that the White House “has other issues to deal with” and sees this one as “a pain in the neck.” If the United States had felt “a stronger interest or concern,” it would have pushed “in a more persuasive manner” for an agreement on the host and facilitator, he said. The European diplomat said the United States and the other co-sponsors could have been much more active than they were at the Brussels seminar.

In the Aug. 5 interview, the State Department official disputed the idea that his government was not committed to the meeting or the 2012 timetable. “We think this can happen and should happen in 2012…. [E]verything we are doing is based on the assumption” that it will take place on that schedule, he said. If the countries of the region wanted to push back the meeting date, the United States would not stand in their way, but the date “won’t slip to 2013 based on anything we’re doing or not doing,” he said.

He said he expected an announcement of the host and facilitator in “the next month or two.”

Abdelaziz said in the Aug. 19 interview that “things [were] starting to move more” after the Brussels meeting. Egypt and other Arab League countries have met since then with Ban, who remains in close consultation with the co-sponsors, he said.

The Arab countries are “working hard to have this conference,” he said. They do not “want to corner anybody substantively or procedurally,” but “we don’t want to be cornered,” he said.