Meeting on Middle East WMD Postponed

Kelsey Davenport and Daniel Horner

A conference scheduled for December on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East is being postponed, the conveners said late last month in separate statements that suggested disagreement among them on when the conference could take place and why it was postponed.

At the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the UN secretary-general were designated as the organizers of a 2012 conference on establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone. The decision to hold the conference was critical to the NPT parties’ agreement on their meeting’s final document. (See ACT, June 2010.)

The meeting on the WMD-free zone later was scheduled for this December in Helsinki, with Finnish Undersecretary of State Jaakko Laajava as conference facilitator.

The U.S. statement on the postponement, issued Nov. 23 by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, said that the United States remains committed to convening the conference, but gave no timeline for a rescheduled meeting. In a Nov. 27 interview, a State Department official said that the United States would like to see it held “as soon as possible” but that timing is not the reason for the postponement.

The obstacle is disagreement among states in the region on the broad, underlying “core issues,” such as the agenda and “modalities” of the conference, he said. To move forward, the states must “engage each other” to reach an agreement on these “fundamental differences,” he said. Nuland’s statement also cited “present conditions in the Middle East” as a reason for postponement.

Statements issued Nov. 24 by the United Kingdom and Russia, however, both called for the conference to be held in 2013, with Russia specifying that a new date no later than April should be “fixed right now.” In his statement, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was looking for the conference to take place “at the earliest opportunity in 2013.”

Russia also said in its statement that the “organizational modalities and substance” of the conference are at an “advanced stage.” The statement indicated that the meeting was postponed because not all of the states in the region had agreed to participate. “[S]everal extra months would be enough for proper preparation,” the statement said.

Acknowledging the differences between the U.S. and Russian statements, the U.S. official said, “I don’t share [the Russians’] optimism.”

In a Nov. 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a Russian diplomat said his government had “insisted [on] fulfilling the mandate” from 2010 to hold the conference in 2012. “Other conveners had the same understanding” and worked to achieve that goal, he said. But under the current circumstances, “[a]lthough our position remains unchanged, we feel that the conference may be postponed upon request from regional countries,” he said.

Officials and analysts from many countries have said that attendance by Iran and Israel is crucial for the conference.

Israel has not publicly committed to attending the meeting. Iran announced on Nov. 6 that it would participate, but it is unclear if the decision to postpone the meeting already had been made at that point.

Some observers have speculated that Iran might have made the announcement knowing that the meeting would not be held so that it could lay blame for the postponement on Israel. The State Department official described the Iranian announcement as a “calculated decision.”

He said the decision on whether to delay the conference was an “evolving discussion,” and that, in late October and early November, it started becoming clear that the meeting could not take place in December. Laajava consulted states in the region while these discussions were ongoing, the official said.

In an Oct. 8 statement at the UN General Assembly First Committee, the Arab League said that all its members would attend the planned December conference. (See ACT, November 2012.)

Delay Called Unsurprising

The news of the conference postponement was first reported Nov. 10 by the Associated Press.

In a Nov. 12 interview with Arms Control Today, an Egyptian diplomat said he was not surprised by the decision. Although he acknowledged that current conflicts within the region would make convening a conference difficult, the parties cannot “hold out for a perfect environment” in the Middle East, he said.

He said that domestic difficulties are preventing Egypt from taking actions to “push for the conference.” This has had an effect on political will in the region, given Egypt’s central role in leading the Arab League’s efforts on the zone’s creation in the past, he said. Similar domestic concerns are preoccupying other states in the Arab League and preventing them from devoting resources to pushing for a meeting, although they all support creating a WMD-free zone, he said.

After the conveners announced that the conference would be postponed, Laajava issued a statement expressing regret that the conference would not be taking place in 2012 and calling for “multilateral consultations” to be held as soon as possible to continue efforts to “prepare the ground” for a future meeting.

Regional Responses

Statements issued by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and the Arab League after the conveners announced the postponement pointed to Israel as the cause for the delay.

On Nov. 25, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that Egypt “refuses the announced excuses” for the postponement of the December meeting. The statement referred to the “non-constructive attitudes” toward the conference by a state that is not an NPT party. Israel is the only country in the region that is not a party to that treaty.

In a Nov. 25 statement, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said the group rejects “any attempts” to postpone the conference and that Israel is the only country in the region that has not expressed “willingness to participate” in the December meeting.

But an Israeli official said in a Nov. 11 interview that other countries in the region expressed concern about convening the conference in December. The official said it was determined “some time ago” that Israel would “likely not attend” a meeting if it were held in December because of current conditions in the region, but that the Israeli government supports the goals of the zone.

The Egyptian statement said postponing the conference is a “breach of the decision” at the 2010 NPT Review Conference to hold the conference in 2012 and that the decision would have “negative consequences on the review process.”

The State Department official said that if the conference is not held before next April’s NPT preparatory committee meeting, it will be a “big issue” and an even bigger one if the event has not taken place by the 2015 NPT Review Conference.