WASHINGTON -- Political instability in the Arab world and military tensions between Israel and Iran might conspire to scuttle a December summit of Mideast nations on a proposed regional ban on weapons of mass destruction.
Key actors in planning the conference, however -- in Egypt, Iran, Israel, Finland, Russia, the United States and elsewhere -- are mulling possible approaches that could yet make the proposed Helsinki gathering a reality, according to issue experts and officials.
“At the moment, while things don’t look terribly promising, the game is not yet over,” William Potter, founding director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., said in an interview last Tuesday. “One of the greater incentives for all parties to attend is to avoid being held up in the international limelight as the one party responsible for the failure to convene the meeting.”
Israel is believed to be the region’s only nuclear-armed nation, though it has never publicly confirmed or denied the existence of its estimated 80 nuclear warheads. Tehran maintains that its nuclear development efforts are entirely peaceful, but many foreign governments and issue experts suspect otherwise.
The U.N. Security Council to date has imposed four sanctions measures against Iran, calling for an end to its uranium enrichment activities.
The mandate to convene the major conference grew out of a consensus statement released by 189 member countries of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the conclusion of a May 2010 review conference at U.N. headquarters in New York.
In the so-called “final document,” NPT nations agreed to “convene a conference in 2012, to be attended by all states of the Middle East, on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the states of the region.”
However, Israel -- which is not party to the nonproliferation agreement – immediately threatened to boycott the 2012 meeting. Tel Aviv denounced the NPT review document for singling out Israel for its failure to accede to the 1970 treaty. Israel complained that despite conducting nuclear activities widely believed to flout the accord, Iran remained unmentioned in the text.
It is also uncertain whether Iran will ultimately agree to attend the confab. Tehran’s leaders have not vigorously advocated holding the meeting and could be concerned that the event would focus yet more negative attention on their nation’s own nuclear development activities.
Yet, observers say there might be benefits for Israel, Iran and other nations in the region to take part in the three-day Helsinki event, tentatively slated to begin Dec. 17. Though neither an agenda nor firm dates have been set, the forum could offer all participating nations an opportunity to vent their concerns about WMD proliferation and lay out how a special security zone might be achieved.
A senior State Department official last May called the ultimate objective of a WMD ban in the Middle East an “achievable” but “long-term goal.”
In the near term, a conference of nations to discuss the objective “has the potential to foster official dialogue on regional security issues where none currently exists,” Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, said while in Austria.
It is widely believed that this first conference should be a milestone in what would become a long-term process to undertake regional dialogue, increased transparency and confidence-building. The specific outlines and declared auspices of such a process are apparently what U.N.-designated conference “facilitator” Jaakko Laajava is struggling to nail down, though the Finnish diplomat has been notably tight-lipped about his ongoing consultations.
The zone under consideration would ban not only nuclear weapons, but also chemical and biological arms.
Neither Egypt nor Syria has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, a 188-nation pact that calls for the elimination of all weaponry carrying materials such as mustard blister agent or sarin nerve gas. Israel has signed but not ratified the accord.
Tel Aviv is also one of 23 governments not party to the Biological Weapons Convention. Egypt and Syria have signed but not ratified the pact, which forbids the production or stockpiling of disease-based arms.
There is an expectation that, if it is held, “the meeting will make progress, but no one’s defined what progress is,” said Michael Yaffe. He was part of the U.S. official delegation to the Arms Control and Regional Security working group process on Middle East peace that fell apart in the mid-1990s, in part because of disagreements over the WMD-free zone idea.
Countryman last spring said a successful Helsinki summit would be one that “can lead to a continuing process.” That means the December meeting should specifically set expectations for a next such gathering, Yaffe said last week.
Observers suggested a number of different initiatives that might allow for incremental progress and decrease risk that the meeting would devolve into finger-pointing and recriminations:
-- Each participating nation could be encouraged to bring to the conference unilateral steps it would be willing to take that might “create a momentum for working toward a common goal, even if these commitments are not taken in unison,” Chen Kane, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center’s Washington office, said in an essay that her organization published in July as part of a compendium report.
-- Once at the conference, nations “could agree on a set of nonbinding practical measures that regional countries could undertake” -- to enhance transparency or improve security training, for example -- “without mandating reciprocity and mutual recognition,” Yaffe, now a professor at National Defense University, said in the same report.
-- Countries in the region could pledge financial support for “track two” diplomacy that would bring together issue experts for similarly nonbinding discussions on a WMD-free zone, Yaffe suggested.
-- Any working-group process that might follow the Helsinki conference could begin addressing technical issues. Those might include exploring how to create a verifiable WMD-free zone, as a means of avoiding -- at least for the time being -- sensitive political and military issues that risk dividing the region’s nations, both Yaffe and Kane said.
Valerie Lincy, who heads the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, urged setting even lower expectations for the Helsinki event.
“At this point, the conference might be considered a success simply if it is held as scheduled and with all countries in the region in attendance,” she said in the James Martin Center report. “Expecting anything more in the current climate is wishful thinking.”
Peter Jones, an associate professor in international affairs at the University of Ottawa in Canada, is among several issue experts recommending that an unofficial conference be organized in place of -- or parallel to -- the official December gathering in Helsinki.
If one or more Mideast nations are unready to make public commitments to a WMD-free zone, a lower-key forum might avoid descent “into a pointless ‘blame game’” and instead could lay the foundation for official talks whenever parties are ready, he said in the same report.
Potter agreed, adding that it would be useful for civil society to have a strong investment and role in the eventual outcome of a Mideast WMD-free zone.
An unofficial meeting held in Helsinki during the same week could help support the diplomatic conference with valuable substance -- perhaps in the form of a simulation exercise -- and might possibly serve as a backup if the envoys’ forum falls apart, Potter said.
However, Camille Grand, director of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique in Paris, cast doubt on the value of a parallel nongovernmental meeting.
Unofficial gatherings on the topic are being held almost monthly in the run-up to the Helsinki conference, and these are most useful as preparation rather than as any sort of substitute, come December, he said.
“I’m always a bit more skeptical when it’s taking place at the same time as the diplomatic conference per se,” Grand said in an interview last week. “If the [official] conference collapses … a conference in the [same city] without the diplomats will not make much difference.”
Correction: The original version of this report misstated the status of the United Arab Emirates under the Biological Weapons Convention. The nation signed the pact in September 1972 and ratified it in June 2008.