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No Date Set for Middle East Zone Meeting

Kelsey Davenport

Middle Eastern countries gathered last month to discuss the agenda for a conference on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, but made no announcement that they had made progress toward setting a date to convene the conference. The countries continue to disagree over the agenda, an official familiar with the process told Arms Control Today in an Oct. 29 e-mail.

Iran, Israel, and all the Arab League countries attended the meeting, which was held Oct. 21-22 in Glion, Switzerland.

Progress on the agenda has been held up over disagreements as to what weapons the zone’s ban should cover because some countries favor expanding the ban to include limits on certain types of conventional weapons, the official said.

The countries might meet again this month, the official added, but it is unclear if all will attend given the “frustration” over the lack of progress.

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 conference on establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone. The conference was originally scheduled for December 2012 in Helsinki, with Finnish Undersecretary of State Jaakko Laajava as conference facilitator. But the conveners announced the month before that the conference would be postponed. The United States attributed the postponement to disagreement among states in the region on core issues, including the agenda for the conference. (See ACT, December 2012.)

The decision to hold the conference was critical to the NPT parties’ agreement on the 2010 review conference’s final document. (See ACT, June 2010.)

In an Oct. 8 statement at the UN General Assembly First Committee, Mootaz Ahmadein Khalil, Egypt’s ambassador to the United Nations, outlined his country’s initiative for moving forward. The statement provided detail on an initiative presented by Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy on Sept. 28 during the UN General Assembly debate.

The initiative includes two steps, according to the Oct. 8 statement. First, it calls on all countries in the region and the permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to submit letters to the UN secretary-general stating their support for creating the zone. Second, the countries are to simultaneously commit to signing and ratifying the relevant international conventions on weapons of mass destruction by the end of 2013, if they have not yet done so.

The relevant conventions include the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the NPT. Israel is the only country in the region not party to the NPT. Egypt and Israel are not party to the CWC, although Israel signed the convention in 1993. Syria officially became a party on Oct. 14. Egypt, Israel, and Syria also have not ratified the BWC, although Cairo and Damascus are signatories.

Egypt’s Sept. 28 initiative also called for the conference to be held by the end of the year or by the spring of 2014 “at the latest” and called on the facilitator and the conveners to “redouble their efforts” to hold the conference within that time frame.

In an Oct. 16 statement to the First Committee, David Roet, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said Israel supports the “annual endorsement of this visionary goal” of creating the WMD-free zone but has “substantive reservations regarding certain elements.” Roet said that if “no progress has been made to date,” it is not due to a lack of cooperation by the Israelis, but because “Arab partners” have not made an effort to “engage with Israel directly on this issue and seek a consensual approach.”