Work Seen Needed on Mideast Meeting

Daniel Horner

Although there has been “substantial progress” in organizing a planned conference on creating a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it is “clear that further and intensified efforts are needed,” the conference’s facilitator said last month.

The comments came in the first report by the facilitator, Finnish Undersecretary of State Jaakko Laajava, to the parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Delegates from NPT member states gathered in Vienna from April 30 to May 11 for the first of three meetings to prepare for the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

Laajava said the increased efforts would have to come from him and “the conveners and the States of the region.” The conveners are Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the UN secretary-general. The three countries are the depositary governments of the NPT and were the co-sponsors of a resolution at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference calling for the establishment of a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone.

That resolution was critical to the decision at the 1995 conference to make the NPT permanent. For the next 15 years, however, there was no progress on the creation of a zone. In the final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the parties reaffirmed their commitment to “a full implementation” of the 1995 resolution and mandated that a conference on the issue be held in 2012.

The language on a Middle Eastern zone was the last major sticking point at the 2010 conference, and agreement on it allowed the parties to reach consensus on the final document. (See ACT, June 2010.) Last October, Laajava was named the facilitator, and Finland was designated as the host country for the conference. (See ACT, November 2011.)

In his report, Laajava said he has encouraged the Middle Eastern states “to adopt an open and forward-looking approach and to engage with each other in constructive dialogue and cooperation.” He emphasized that although “the international community and the facilitator can provide important support, the ownership and ultimate responsibility for a successful Conference and the establishment of the zone lies with” the Middle Eastern countries.

In a joint statement during the Vienna meeting, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States made a similar point but more emphatically: “We are prepared to assist in any way requested, recognizing that zones free of nuclear [weapons] and other WMD cannot be created counter to the will of the region by the efforts of extra-regional powers or international organizations…. The impetus for the establishment of such a zone, must originate from the States of the region, who are ultimately responsible for creating and establishing the political and security conditions that will provide a sustainable foundation for such a zone.”

Another statement at the Vienna meeting, delivered by Egypt on behalf of the Nonaligned Movement, called on Laajava and the four conveners to accelerate and intensify their efforts to ensure a successful 2012 conference. A statement by the United Arab Emirates on behalf of the Arab League noted that the 2010 final document called for the conference “to be attended by all States of the Middle East.” That is because “it is the participating regional States that will determine the follow-up procedures that will be undertaken by the facilitator,” the Arab states said.

Iran and Israel

The issue of full participation is widely seen as crucial to the conference; in particular, Iran and Israel must attend, officials and other observers say. Iran is an NPT party, but is suspected of using its nuclear program to lay the groundwork for a weapons capability. Israel is not a party to the treaty and has an undeclared nuclear weapons program.

Ensuring that these two key countries attend is an area in which “the depositary states have some leverage,” an official from a Persian Gulf country said in a May 21 telephone interview. The United States could intercede with Israel, and Russia could do the same with Iran, he said.

Iran’s “noncompliance” with its NPT safeguards obligations is a “serious concern” and will have to be rectified as part of the process of establishing a WMD-free zone, just as Israel will have to join the NPT and place its nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, the official said. However, Iranian compliance issues “shouldn’t distract” people from the need for Iran to attend the conference, he said.

In a May 21 interview in Washington, a U.S. official said the United States could not pressure Israel to participate. There is “nothing the U.S. can do on the ground” if the Arab states insist on singling out Israel for criticism and refuse to address Israeli concerns that they would use the conference as a forum for doing that, he said.

With regard to Iran, he said Russia does not have an “obligation” to bring Iran to the table. Engaging Iran directly is a task for which the organizers might rely heavily on Laajava, he said. However, as with Israeli and Arab participation, the states of the region must take ultimate responsibility for working to ensure that Iran participates, he said.

Timing Uncertain

Another potentially troublesome issue is the timing of the conference. Over the past year, U.S. officials have expressed attitudes ranging from caution to outright pessimism that the conference could take place in 2012, given the upheavals in the region resulting from the Arab Spring. (See ACT, April 2012.) In a May 8 statement at the Vienna meeting, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman said “these fundamental political shifts” have created a situation in the region “much different” from what it was in May 2010, when the review conference met. These shifts “will be a factor in determining how to move forward…in a manner that is most conducive to a constructive dialogue and positive outcome,” he said.

In contrast, Mikhail Uliyanov of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “We are determined to spare no efforts in order that this most important international event takes place exactly within the determined timeframe, i.e., in 2012.” Holding it in December, as has been “frequently mentioned,” is “quite acceptable,” he said. “We consider it utterly erratic and counterproductive to raise the idea that it is worth[while] to postpone the Conference until the total stabilization of the situation in the Middle East and creation of the ‘necessary political conditions’ first,” he said.

For his part, Laajava said in his report, “The facilitator and the conveners have a clear goal and commitment towards the organization of the Conference in 2012 as agreed.” The U.S. official said he fully agreed with that characterization but that the prospects do not look good for holding the meeting this year. “I don’t see the regional states taking the steps that need to be taken,” he said, but he emphasized that the United States was “not walking away” from its commitment.

The Gulf state official said the issue of timing is “a critical point.” Although there would be “potentially not much difference” in practical terms if the conference took place in January 2013 rather than December 2012, postponing it beyond the date specified in the 2010 declaration would be “sending the wrong message,” he said.

“We realize that [establishing a WMD-free zone] is not a simple process,” but there need to be “some initial steps” to generate momentum toward “the ultimate goal,” and that is “why we insist on having [the conference] in 2012,” he said.

Other key aspects of the conference also are still open. Laajava’s report called for “intensified consultations in order to finalize the agenda, modalities and rules of procedure.” He added that the meeting “has been proposed to consist of a plenary and, if so desired by the States of the region, a number of subcommittees or working groups relevant to the agenda to be agreed upon.”

The Gulf state official said that “to be realistic is the key here.” As the participants will be meeting for the first time, the main goal should be to create an “environment in which they feel comfortable” so that they can “discuss topics around a table” and agree to meet again.

In his May 8 statement, Countryman seemed to be setting a similar goal. “Our approach should be one of setting realistic expectations and encouraging serious engagement on a difficult set of issues,” he said. “A successful Conference can lead to a continuing process. An unsuccessful Conference cannot lead to a process.”

NPT Context

The Gulf state official said the issue of a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone has played a large role in determining the success or failure of NPT review conferences and that the current “fragile consensus” on the NPT “might not hold for long” if the issue is not addressed.

In the May 21 Washington interview, a second U.S. official argued that other issues also are crucial to the future of the treaty, such as how to handle cases of noncompliance.

She said that the recent preparatory meeting in Vienna suggested that the “spirit of 2010,” which enabled countries to compromise to reach consensus on the final document at the review conference, remains largely intact. At the Vienna meeting, some countries seemed to be modifying their long-standing positions on contentious issues, she said. The changes are “subtle, but you’ve got to start somewhere,” she said.

She noted that the parties were able to take care of the procedural issues in a few hours at the beginning of the meeting, a step that often has required days because countries had used the procedural portion of the meeting to press disagreements on a range of issues. The quick resolution therefore is “a big deal,” she said.