Hopes Rising for Mideast WMD Meeting

Anne Penketh

Amid rising optimism about the prospects for convening a 2012 conference on establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava is to deliver his first briefing to states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in Vienna next month on his efforts to pull the meeting together.

“We are cautiously optimistic, but one has to keep in mind that events within the region may adversely affect the process,” said a diplomat involved in the consultations. The 2010 NPT Review Conference’s final document mandated the meeting and specified that it should take place this year. Yet, diplomats do not rule out the possibility of a delay owing to the spike in international tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and the continuing political unrest across the Arab world.

The conference would be unprecedented for bringing together Iran, which is an NPT member; Israel, which has an unacknowledged nuclear arsenal and remains outside the NPT; and Arab states for talks on creating a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction. However, Israel, which officially supports the long-term goal of such a zone, has set conditions for its attendance and objects to holding the conference under NPT auspices.

Since his appointment as conference facilitator last October, Laajava and his team have held 65­ to 70 meetings around the region and in Geneva and Vienna with participating states. He has consulted with officials from Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—co-sponsors of a 1995 NPT resolution on a WMD-free zone—and the UN secretary-general’s office. The 2010 document identified the four as responsible for convening the meeting. So far, according to diplomats involved in the consultations, neither Iran nor Israel has refused to attend. “There are a number of good signs, including that nobody has said no,” a UN diplomat said.

At the same time they announced Laajava’s appointment, the organizers named Finland as the host country for the conference.

Laajava has been in “listening mode” until now at formal and informal levels, according to diplomats, and has heard the views of the countries without trying to present his own proposals. The consultations have dealt mainly with organizational questions: the conference’s timing, participants, and arrangements, the diplomats said.

Laajava’s briefing next month, at the April 30-May 11 meeting of the preparatory committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference, will be his first opportunity to present his conclusions.

On the issue of timing, the Arab Group has advocated December as the most appropriate date for the conference. It has now emerged that organizers are planning for the conference to be held in December in Helsinki.

“Many factors should be resolved by then,” said Maged Abdelaziz, Egypt’s outgoing ambassador to the United Nations, who played a leading role in hammering out the language in the 2010 final document on the convening of the 2012 conference. In a March 14 interview, he said that, by December, “in Egypt, there will be a new president and power will be handed to civilians.” He also said he hoped the conflict in Syria and continuing unrest in Libya may be resolved by then.

A U.S. administration official said that the date of the U.S. presidential election in November was relevant but not a “central factor.” The official rejected the view of some critics who have said that the Americans had abdicated responsibility for convening the conference because of the election year.

“We are certainly engaged with Laajava and others; we believe that the overall goal is valuable,” the U.S. official said. Referring to other nuclear-weapon-free zones—four of the five existing ones cover the whole of the Southern Hemisphere—the official added, “WMD-free zones are valuable instruments. But the lesson from the others is that you need a somewhat stable region where states are talking to each other in a reasonable degree of peace.”

Asked whether the Obama administration shared the cautious optimism of others involved in preparing for the conference, the official said there was “more caution than optimism” in Washington. “We are concerned that it might not be held this year, primarily because the region is more volatile in 2012 than in 2010. We may not be able to gather all states this year.”

On the question of how the Obama administration could use its influence to persuade Israel to attend the conference, the official said, “It’s not up to the U.S. to make the decision for Israel. It’s up to the region to make the conditions for a constructive dialogue.”

The official added that although the unpredictability of the situation with Iran is a prime concern, the United States also wants to ensure that the conference would not be used as a platform for “Israel-bashing” or for political hype. Abdelaziz said that the level of participation had not been officially discussed but that “ministerial level would be a good level, with follow-up at ambassadorial level.”

However, the administration official cautioned of the danger of political grandstanding. “It’s hard to see how a high level [of participation] contributes to an actual serious discussion of the issues in the region,” he said.

The organizers envisage that the conference would be the beginning of a substantive conversation involving all the parties and lasting for years. “It’s not a one-time event,” said Abdelaziz. “The facilitator will have to follow up, and this will be agreed by participants. States will agree on measures, and they will have to report,” even after the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

Abdelaziz added that “the preparatory process will have to be vigorous and comprehensive. We need to go with a minimum number of disputed issues for success.”

“A compromise is there to be found,” said Patricia Lewis, research director for international security at London’s Chatham House. “I’ve seen signs of optimism that the meeting could take place in a collaborative way forward on substance. But to get there, they need to talk clearly about boundaries, and all sides need to be ready to listen very carefully,” she said.