The upheavals sweeping across the Middle East have cast a long shadow over diplomatic negotiations aimed at organizing a conference on establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in that region, according to officials involved in the process.
“We are absolutely committed” to the conference, said President Barack Obama’s WMD coordinator, Gary Samore, in a Feb. 16 telephone interview. “But there’s a lot of uncertainty because of the unrest in the Middle East.” In other interviews in recent weeks, officials from other countries also voiced some concern about the possible impact of the turmoil that has engulfed several of the core states that would be expected to attend the conference. The forum, to be attended by “all states” of the region, is supposed to be convened next year under a consensus decision by the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. (See ACT, June 2010).
The Egyptian revolution that exploded in January came at a critical phase in the preparations for holding the unprecedented regional conference, which would be notable for bringing Israel and Iran to the table for discussions on security and disarmament issues. Israel is the region’s sole presumed nuclear-weapon state, but remains outside the NPT, while Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, which continues in defiance of the UN Security Council, has raised suspicions about Iranian intentions. “To guarantee success, Israelis and Iranians must be there,” said Mohamed Shaker, the president of the 1985 NPT Review Conference in a Jan. 31 interview in Cairo.
Until now, there has been no obvious progress toward convening the 2012 forum. No facilitator has been appointed, and there is no agreement on which states should attend or on a date and venue for the conference, let alone on the agenda. Yet, diplomats and officials taking the lead in the organizational process—from Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the UN secretary-general’s office—remain committed to implementing the review conference decision on holding the 2012 conference. They say consultations are now under way in earnest. An EU seminar is scheduled to be held this summer as part of the preparations for the conference mandated by the 189 states-parties at the review conference, according to EU diplomats.
Samore said the co-sponsors hope to reach agreement “before the summer” with the regional players on a host government for the event and on a facilitator, who may come from the same country.
But he cautioned that there is no guarantee that the conference will be held. “We have to try to make it happen,” he said. Referring to the Middle East turmoil, he added, “We don’t know what effect it will have on foreign policy, and governments may be distracted.”
Signs of Impatience
In the region, there are signs of impatience with the conveners. Arab diplomats said they had hoped that the Arab League summit in Baghdad at the end of March would be able to endorse the choice of facilitator, with a view to holding the conference itself before May 2012. “This is a major concern for us, that nothing has moved. There’s no facilitator and no site for the conference,” said Maged Abdelaziz, Egypt’s UN ambassador, who led the diplomatic push on the WMD-free zone at the NPT review conference last May. Establishing such a zone has been a primary goal of Egyptian diplomacy for decades. At the 1995 NPT review conference, the Arab Group successfully pushed for the adoption of a resolution on establishing a WMD-free zone in return for agreeing to the indefinite extension of the NPT.
Shaker, who is now the chairman of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, said it would be a shame if the Nile revolution affected the 2012 process. “Even with Egypt in chaos, we cannot lose sight of this issue which is so important for peace in the Middle East,” he said, speaking in his office on the seventh day of the 18-day Egyptian uprising.
There has been uncertainty about the Israeli government’s intentions regarding the 2012 conference. In the past, Israel has joined the other states in the UN General Assembly in officially endorsing the concept of a WMD-free zone as an ultimate goal. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu angrily reacted to the review conference final document, which reaffirmed the importance of Israel joining the NPT and placing “all its nuclear facilities” under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Netanyahu warned that Israel would not attend. The Israeli government statement responding to the conference outcome said, “The real problem with WMDs in the Middle East does not relate to Israel but to those countries that have signed the NPT and brazenly violated it: Iraq under Saddam, Libya, Syria and Iran.”
Since then, Israel has begun to show signs of a greater willingness to engage, although officials still refrain from expressing open support for the conference. Israeli and U.S. officials also have made it clear that Israel cannot be expected to attend if the forum is used as an opportunity for “Israel bashing” by the Arab states and Iran.
“Israel is examining [the conference]; we’re talking to the Americans,” Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said in a Feb. 8 interview on the sidelines of the annual Herzliya security conference near Tel Aviv. Meridor is the minister for intelligence and atomic energy in the Israeli cabinet. He also conducted a two-year strategic study on Israel’s policy of nuclear opacity, a policy that Israeli officials continue to believe has served the country well. Under a 1969 agreement between Prime Minister Golda Meir and U.S. President Richard Nixon, Israel has pursued a nuclear “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that continues with U.S. support to this day. Meanwhile, public discussion of Israel’s presumed nuclear weapons arsenal remains generally taboo. An off-the-record workshop at the Herzliya conference, entitled “Going to Zero? Global and Regional Nuclear and WMD Disarmament Initiatives,” paid only scant attention to the 2012 conference.
Inside and outside government circles in Israel, there is a range of opinion about the conference from conditional support to downright skepticism. One source said that “the only people interested in this are the Washington think tanks.”
Expressing a view held by some Israeli analysts, Emily Landau, senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said she would support a conference agenda reviving regional security talks such as those put in place by the 1991 Madrid conference, known as ACRS (arms control and regional security). From 1992 until its collapse in 1996, the multilateral working group, which included 14 Middle Eastern parties, focused on confidence-building measures and regional security issues. But Landau stressed that the 2012 conference “can only work with strong U.S. leadership.”
The final document from last year’s NPT review conference endorsed a series of “practical steps,” providing for the 2012 conference “on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.” It called on the UN secretary-general and the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia—the co-sponsor states of the 1995 resolution—to consult with the region on specific preparatory steps.
However, the language of the review conference document was sufficiently ambiguous to allow for different interpretations, or “misinterpretations,” as one diplomat put it. There seems to be general agreement that 2012 would not be a “negotiating” conference but a forum for “discussions” and that criteria for the facilitator as established subsequently by the Arab Group should be respected. The facilitator should have a profile of former foreign minister or more senior status to give him or her diplomatic clout, must be acceptable to Israel and Iran, and be neutral. He or she should not be from an Arab state or Israel, nor from one of the five countries—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—recognized by the NPT as nuclear-weapon states.
But there remains a fundamental gap between the Arab Group’s vision, which sees the conference as an opportunity to pressure Israel to give up its undeclared nuclear arsenal, and that of the United States and other co-sponsors, which want to isolate Iran and will insist on full NPT compliance. For the Arab states, the conference would finally address their long-standing grievance about what they call the double standards of the United States, which shields Israel.
Samore predicted “one battle after another,” beginning with the discussions on a facilitator and host government and continuing with the agenda, as the conveners pursue their consultations. The agenda is expected to address regional adherence to treaties including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), as well as delivery systems.
“We see it as a give-and-take process,” said Abdelaziz. “At the same time that Israel will join the NPT, we will join the BWC and CWC,” he said. “It’s a parallel process requiring progress on all three fronts.” Neither Egypt—the first Middle Eastern country to acquire chemical weapons—nor Syria has signed or ratified the CWC. Both countries have signed but not ratified the BWC.
Obama defined his agenda priorities last July at a White House meeting with Netanyahu. “The United States will insist that such a conference will be 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,” said a White House summary of their meeting.
Behind the discussions on convening the conference lie the politics driving Middle East hegemony and regional rivalries, which lay behind the collapse of ACRS in 1996 and will be the key factors when states consider their role in the 2012 conference. Will the next Egyptian government continue to champion the WMD-free zone? Will Iran, which was the first to call for a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East in 1974, continue to see an interest in attending in the light of its own progress in uranium enrichment, which it insists is for peaceful purposes? Will Israel see the benefits of a security dialogue with its hostile neighbors or throw up roadblocks by citing concerns about conventional weapons and the peace process?
“It’s a good opportunity for Israel to start getting rid of its nuclear weapons, and for Iran not to get nuclear weapons, and for the Arabs to join the chemical and biological conventions,” Abdelaziz said.
Arab diplomats warn that, in the case of failure, prospects for the next NPT review conference, in 2015—and indeed for the treaty’s future in general—would be bleak.
Anne Penketh is Washington program director of the British American Security Information Council. She recently returned from a two-week trip to the Middle East where she discussed prospects for the 2012 conference with officials and nongovernmental representatives.