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"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
September 2011
Edition Date: 
Thursday, September 1, 2011
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Run-Up to Mideast Meeting Shows Fissures

Daniel Horner

Efforts to decide on the facilitator and host country for a planned 2012 conference on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East are hampered by disagreements not only over the individual person and country for those roles, but also over fundamental points of the process for making the choices, interviews with participants in the ­process indicate.

Nevertheless, some of the interviewees, who represent key countries in the talks, said it still was possible that the decisions could be made before the end of the year and that the conference could take place as scheduled in 2012.

The commitment to hold the 2012 conference was a critical piece of the negotiations that produced the final document of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. (See ACT, June 2010.) In that document, the parties reaffirmed their commitment to “a full implementation” of the resolution on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East that, in turn, was central to the agreement at the 1995 review conference to make the NPT permanent.

Several states in the Middle East have declined to join the NPT, the Biological Weapons Convention, or the Chemical Weapons Convention or are believed to have weapons of mass destruction or be pursuing WMD capabilities.

There has been little visible progress on the 2012 meeting since the May 2010 NPT conference. Many participants in the process had hoped that a July 6–7 seminar in Brussels, attended by government officials and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, would spur action toward a decision on the host and facilitator. Although the seminar did conclude with an announcement of three candidate countries to host the 2012 conference, some of the current and former officials interviewed—many of whom attended the closed-door seminar—said they had hoped for more.

According to the officials, Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov announced that the three candidates were Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands. Ulyanov was speaking on behalf of his country, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the three countries that co-sponsored the 1995 resolution and that, along with the UN secretary-general, are the designated conveners of the 2012 conference.

In an Aug. 5 interview, a U.S. Department of State official said the announcement had not been planned before the meeting, but that the three countries had decided to make one to counter a widespread impression that they were not working vigorously to make the 2012 conference happen. The official also said that “just because it’s not in public doesn’t mean a lot hasn’t been going on.”

However, a European diplomat said in an Aug. 18 interview that Ulyanov’s announcement “made everything worse” because it showed how little had been accomplished in the year since the NPT review conference.

Several of the officials questioned the viability of two of the candidates. In an Aug. 19 interview, Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations Maged Abdelaziz, who attended the Brussels meeting, said the United States had proposed Canada as a host during the 2010 NPT conference, but Arab countries did not support that choice. He said the Arab countries also had reservations about the Netherlands, in part because it is a member of NATO (as is Canada) and in part because of its views and the views of the proposed Dutch facilitator on the Middle East and on the proposed conference. Abdelaziz indicated that Finland was more acceptable although he said the proposed Finnish facilitator did not have the political rank that the position would require.

He also said Austria, which at one point was under consideration, would be ­acceptable to the Arab Group.

The European diplomat offered a similar assessment of the prospects for Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands.

An official from a Persian Gulf state also said there has been “no objection so far to Finland’s offer” and that Canada does not have “strong credibility on this issue” because of its ongoing position on Israel’s nuclear program in UN forums. However, in an Aug. 17 interview, he argued that the venue is less important than the facilitator.  According to the State Department official, the three co-sponsors believe that the facilitator should come from the host country because the facilitator would have the “diplomatic resources [of the host country] to tap into.”

Referring to the decisions on the host and facilitator, the Gulf state official said, “I don’t think there is a condition that they should be linked.” As he and Abdelaziz noted, the 2010 NPT Review Conference final document lists the decisions as two separate steps. There is “nothing in the review document that says this is a package,” Abdelaziz said.

“We want a shift of direction,” with priority placed on the naming of a facilitator, he said. The facilitator must meet certain criteria established by the Arab Group and conveyed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the co-sponsors, he said. The person must not be from one of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), an Arab country, Iran, or Israel; must be at least at a “ministerial level”; and must be acceptable to everyone, particularly Iran and Israel, he said.

NPT Issues

Some of the officials stressed the importance for the NPT regime of progress on the Middle Eastern WMD-free zone. Because of the lack of progress since 1995 on the issue, the countries of the region felt “betrayed,” the Gulf state official said. For that reason, he said, some countries from the region and the Nonaligned Movement did not want to tighten the terms for withdrawal from the NPT, a topic that was discussed at some length at the 2010 review conference.

The next review conference is to take place in 2015, with three annual preparatory meetings, starting next May.

The European diplomat said it would be a problem “for formal reasons” if the process still was seen as stalled at the time of the 2012 preparatory meeting. Otherwise, the meeting will be ­“hijacked,” he said.

If the host and facilitator are named in September or October, the conference conceivably could be held in March or April; but that is “rather unlikely,” he said. However, he said, if the arrangements for the Mideast conference were put in place before the May NPT preparatory meeting, it “would not be easy to complain.” In comments similar to those of several other participants and observers, he said, “The Arab Spring does not help speed the process.”

The Gulf state official laid out a similar timetable, saying he “can’t imagine” the conference taking place before May or June. If there is no agreement roughly by November on the host and facilitator, then that timetable probably would be impossible, he said. Asked if holding the conference in 2012 was feasible, he said that although “many things [are] happening,” the “objective [of holding the conference next year] should not be undermined.”

The conference should take place in 2012, but participants “should be realistic” about what to expect, the Gulf state official said. The 2012 meeting should not “be the end” of the effort, he said.

Overall, failing to convene the conference is “more risky than having it” because abandoning plans to hold it “would kill prospects for [the Middle Eastern WMD-free zone] from the beginning,” with potentially severe implications for the NPT regime, he said.

The link to the NPT raises a different set of issues for Israel, which is not a party to the NPT and was not directly involved in the negotiations leading to the 1995 and 2010 NPT conference final documents. Nevertheless, in an Aug. 18 interview, a former Israeli official said he would not “reject…out of hand” the idea that it would be beneficial for Israel to attend the conference.

However, the former official said, the terms of reference would have to be “drafted in the spirit and letter” of the statements by President Barack Obama and national security adviser Gen. James Jones immediately after the NPT review conference. Otherwise, it will be difficult for Israel, which is “suspicious to begin with, to consider attending the [2012] conference,” the former official said.

In his May 28, 2010, statement on the NPT review conference and the WMD-free zone, Obama said, “The United States has long supported such a zone, although our view is that a comprehensive and durable peace in the region and full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and nonproliferation obligations are essential precursors for its establishment.” Jones, in his statement the same day, provided some additional detail on the zone and the conference, saying in part that “[t]he United States will insist that this be a conference for discussion aimed at an exchange of views on a broad agenda, to include regional security issues, verification and compliance, and all categories of weapons of mass destruction and systems for their delivery.”

The 2010 NPT conference final document specifies that the 2012 conference “shall take as its terms of reference the 1995 Resolution [on the Middle East].”

U.S. Attitude

In some statements this year, U.S. officials have suggested that the Arab Spring could push the meeting beyond 2012. In an April 7 interview with Arms Control Today, White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Gary Samore said that since the 2010 NPT conference, “there have been some extraordinarily dramatic changes in the region; and whether or not we can still make that 2012 meeting is, I think, much less clear. We have to continue to make an effort.” Samore was scheduled to address the Brussels meeting but canceled, citing a last-minute scheduling conflict.

The former Israeli official said his impression is that the White House “has other issues to deal with” and sees this one as “a pain in the neck.” If the United States had felt “a stronger interest or concern,” it would have pushed “in a more persuasive manner” for an agreement on the host and facilitator, he said. The European diplomat said the United States and the other co-sponsors could have been much more active than they were at the Brussels seminar.

In the Aug. 5 interview, the State Department official disputed the idea that his government was not committed to the meeting or the 2012 timetable. “We think this can happen and should happen in 2012…. [E]verything we are doing is based on the assumption” that it will take place on that schedule, he said. If the countries of the region wanted to push back the meeting date, the United States would not stand in their way, but the date “won’t slip to 2013 based on anything we’re doing or not doing,” he said.

He said he expected an announcement of the host and facilitator in “the next month or two.”

Abdelaziz said in the Aug. 19 interview that “things [were] starting to move more” after the Brussels meeting. Egypt and other Arab League countries have met since then with Ban, who remains in close consultation with the co-sponsors, he said.

The Arab countries are “working hard to have this conference,” he said. They do not “want to corner anybody substantively or procedurally,” but “we don’t want to be cornered,” he said.

The countries preparing for a planned 2012 conference on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East are facing disagreements on several key points.

Iran Welcomes Russian Nuclear Proposal

Peter Crail

Senior Iranian officials last month welcomed a Russian-proposed “step-by-step” process to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, a move that could potentially restart talks between six major world powers and Iran.

“The proposal of our Russian friends can be a base for the start of talks about regional and international cooperation, especially in the field of peaceful nuclear activities,” Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili told Iran’s official Press TV following discussions with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in Tehran Aug. 15–16.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—and Germany, known as the “P5+1,” have been engaged in off-and-on discussions with Iran over its nuclear program over the past several years. They failed to make headway during their latest meeting with Iran in Istanbul last January. (See ACT, March 2011.)

The text of the proposal has not been released, but Russian officials have publicly said that, under its terms, Iran would take steps to increase cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and those steps would be met with a gradual easing of sanctions. Informed sources characterized the steps as necessary confidence-building measures to build enough trust between the two sides to facilitate more ­comprehensive negotiations.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov first publicly revealed the basis of the Russian proposal in remarks July 12 at the Russian Embassy in Washington. Lavrov said the Russian plan is intended to serve as a “road map” to implement a package of incentives initially proposed by the P5+1 in 2006, and updated in 2008, as part of a negotiated settlement on Iran’s nuclear program.

“Iran makes a step towards implementing the requirements of IAEA and [the P5+1] do[es] something in return…to make the pressure of sanctions lower,” Lavrov said. He noted that Russia first suggested the plan to the other P5+1 parties last November.

Asked to provide further detail the following day during a press briefing with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lavrov said that Iran would need to address “each requirement of the IAEA…starting from the easiest questions” to the most ­difficult ones requiring more time.

UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran state that penalties would be lifted if Iran took actions to comply with UN obligations, in particular the suspension of all activities related to uranium enrichment, which can be used to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. The informed sources said that the criteria for relieving sanctions would not be different from those identified in the resolutions.

The IAEA has asked Iran to undertake a number of steps to provide greater transparency into all of its nuclear activities and to answer questions about suspected nuclear warhead development work. Tehran claims that it has cooperated fully with its IAEA obligations; it has rebuffed the agency’s investigation into suspected nuclear weapons development, calling the allegations “baseless.”

Clinton said during the press briefing that the United States was committed to a “dual track approach” of negotiations and sanctions but, with Russia, would explore ways “to pursue more effective engagement strategies.”

A U.S. team of experts visited Moscow at the end of July to discuss the proposal further. Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Aug. 15 that Washington would continue to work with Moscow to address Iran’s nuclear program, saying that the proposal “doesn’t change our desire…to continue to vigorously implement UN Security Council [Resolution] 1929.” She was referring to the latest UN sanctions against Iran, which were adopted in June 2010. (See ACT, July/August 2010.) On the possibility of relieving sanctions, Nuland said that “you can only ease sanctions when you have action” from Iran.

Senators Push for Bank Sanctions

U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, are pressing the Obama administration to adopt additional sanctions targeting Iran’s central bank, a move that could reduce Iran’s oil revenues but also affect world energy markets and raise oil prices.

Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) sent a letter signed by 90 other senators to President Barack Obama Aug. 4 stating, “[W]e urge you to strongly consider imposing sanctions against the [Central Bank of Iran] and to encourage key allies to join us in this important action.” Sanctions legislation signed into law last year similarly urges the president to sanction Iran’s central bank under a “sense of Congress” provision.

In their letter, the senators said the central bank “lies at the center of Iran’s circumvention strategy” to skirt U.S. and international sanctions on Iran’s financial sector. The letter quotes May 5 testimony by Undersecretary of the Treasury David Cohen to the Senate Banking Committee stating, “[W]e remain concerned that the [Central Bank of Iran] may be facilitating transactions for sanctioned Iranian banks.”

The UN Security Council has sanctioned two Iranian banks for proliferation-related activities, and the United States and European Union have sanctioned additional banks for their roles in financing proliferation and terrorism.

Kirk was quoted Aug. 8 in The Wall Street Journal as stating that if the Obama administration does not sanction Iran’s central bank, “[T]he administration will face a choice of whether it wants to lead this effort or be forced to act,” saying that he would introduce legislation to impose such sanctions by the end of the year.

Former U.S. officials said in August that since the George W. Bush administration, the United States has believed that the central bank has been engaged in sanctionable activities but that Washington has been reluctant to impose sanctions unilaterally because it might create difficulties for U.S. allies trading with Iran.

Within the P5+1, the United States also discussed the possibility of adding the central bank to the list of Iranian entities blacklisted by the UN Security Council prior to the adoption of Resolution 1929 last year, but the six countries could not agree on taking such a step, informed sources said.

As a result of sanctions against Iran’s financial and energy sector, Tehran has been facing problems receiving payment for its energy exports. For example, it took seven months before India was able to secure a Turkish bank intermediary last month to make $5 billion in back payments for Iranian crude oil due to economic sanctions. Sanctions on the central bank are intended to ­increase such payment problems.

Iran responded favorably to a Russian proposal for six major world powers to resume negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress pressed for more sanctions on Iran.

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