Arab States Look to WMD Meeting in 2012

Kelsey Davenport and Daria Medvedeva

The Arab League expects all countries in the Middle East to attend a December 2012 conference on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in that region and demonstrate a commitment of “political will” despite current destabilizing developments in the region, the group said in an Oct. 8 statement at the UN General Assembly First Committee.

The statement, delivered by Egyptian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Mootaz Ahmadein Khalil on behalf of the 21 Arab League member countries, said that any delay will “impede progress in efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation” and could cause members of the Arab League to “review their policies” in this area.

But an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official told Arms Control Today on Oct. 4 that “domestic concerns and regional unrest” are diverting Egypt’s attention away from the planned December conference and that political will within the region to establish the zone is weaker now than in 2010.

Diplomats from countries outside the Middle East, such as the United States, whose support is considered necessary for negotiations on the zone to move forward, also have expressed concern that the regional upheaval caused by the Arab Spring could disrupt or delay the 2012 conference. (See ACT, June 2012.)

During the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation (NPT) Review Conference, member states committed themselves to holding a conference on the WMD-free zone in 2012 and reaffirmed their commitment to “full implementation” of a 1995 resolution calling for the establishment of the zone. (See ACT, June 2010.) Finland was designated as the host of the conference in October 2011, when Finnish Undersecretary of State Jaakko Laajava was named as facilitator. (See ACT, November 2011.)

The Arab League statement called for international support that would enable the meeting “to result in a practical outcome coupled with clear implementation mechanisms” set to “a specific timetable” for establishing the zone.

Laajava said in May that progress has been made in the organization for the conference, but further efforts were needed, particularly from conference conveners Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the UN secretary-general.

In an Oct. 10 statement at the First Committee, Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Department for Security Affairs and Disarmament in the Russian Foreign Ministry, said that the co-conveners already had completed much of the work for the conference. He said that ensuring attendance is a “vital task” and urged countries in the region to confirm their participation.

An October 1990 UN General Assembly resolution on the establishment of the zone proposed that it include the Arab League, which currently has 22 members although Syria’s membership has been suspended; Iran; and Israel. Diplomats and experts maintain that Iranian and Israeli participation in the conference will be key to its success, but neither country has confirmed that it will participate.

Israeli Reservations

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor did not make reference to attending the December meeting during his Oct. 16 remarks to the First Committee, but he said that Israel does support the “annual endorsement” of the committee’s yearly resolution on establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone in spite of his country’s “substantive reservations regarding certain elements.” He did not expand on those reservations, but in past statements, Israel has said that negotiations can move forward on the zone only when there is peace within the region and Israel’s national security concerns are considered.

In a statement to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference on Sept. 19, Shaul Chorev, head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, said the establishment of the zone would require a “significant transformation of the regional trend” toward volatility and that any initiative to promote such a zone in “complete disregard” of the current regional realities, such as violent responses to uprisings and noncompliance with nonproliferation agreements, is “futile.” Chorev also highlighted Iran’s and Syria’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA as obstacles to the establishment of a WMD-free zone.

Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told Arms Control Today in an Oct. 16 e-mail that Chorev’s statement should not be interpreted as a rejection of Israel’s attendance at the December conference, but rather a message that the “realities of the Middle East are very far from being conducive” to the establishment of a WMD-free zone.

Israel will not agree to address these issues in a forum that “singles it out for condemnation” or “promotes a hostile atmosphere,” she said. Keeping the conference within the context of the NPT, to which Israel is not party, also is an obstacle because the proposal for the zone covers not only nuclear issues, but all weapons of mass destruction and delivery vehicles, she said.

Landau went on to say that identifying a “common interest” shared by all parties is a major challenge but that measures that “enhance communication” and lower tensions, while difficult to articulate, could be mechanisms for crafting a common goal.

Israel has attended meetings convened to support the process of creating a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone. Prosor noted in the Oct. 15 statement that Israel participated in a July 2011 EU seminar on creating the zone and intends to participate in a second seminar scheduled for November.

Iran Urges Action

Iran also has yet to confirm whether it will attend the conference. In his Oct. 15 statement to the First Committee, Iranian Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Eshagh Al Habib said that Tehran “strongly calls” for “immediate implementation” of the NPT resolution on establishment of a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone.

In an Oct. 15 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Alireza Nader, an analyst for RAND Corporation, said Tehran typically views its participation in meetings on this subject as “diplomatically beneficial” as it “highlights the issue of Israel’s nuclear arsenal” and eases pressures on Iran. Nader said, however, that Iranian participation should not be viewed as producing any “immediate and lasting solutions to the nuclear crisis,” as “nearly intractable issues” shape Tehran’s “quest” for a nuclear weapons capability.

Iranian officials did not respond to a request for comment.