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Arab League Backs Steps Toward Banning Mideast WMDs

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al Arabi, left, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi, right, head a ministerial meeting at the body's Cairo headquarters in September. The organization's permanent representatives met on Sunday to coordinate national positions on talks regarding a potential Middle East ban on weapons of mass destruction (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images). Arab League Secretary General Nabil Al Arabi, left, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi, right, head a ministerial meeting at the body's Cairo headquarters in September. The organization's permanent representatives met on Sunday to coordinate national positions on talks regarding a potential Middle East ban on weapons of mass destruction (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The Arab League on Sunday unanimously agreed to support elements of an Egyptian proposal for how Middle East nations could move toward a regional ban on weapons of mass destruction.

The organization discussed taking "a unified stance on how to deal with" the Mideast WMD-free zone initiative "and put it into action," according to an Arab League statement issued after the meeting.

However, it remained unclear whether Arab nations are rallying behind each aspect of the Egyptian initiative. Only a trimmed-back version of one of the measures Cairo has put forth is spelled out in the new Arab League resolution.

The member nations also said they "support" the Egyptian proposal rather than "endorse" it. It was unclear if the Arab League intended something short of full endorsement, but a spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The level of unanimity among Arab states on negotiating strategy could affect the prospects for holding a major conference in Helsinki to discuss the creation of a Mideast WMD-free zone. Egypt has led a decades-long effort to convene such talks, and succeeded in persuading the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Review Conference to sponsor a gathering by the end of 2012.

However, that conference was postponed when it proved impossible to gain the voluntary participation of all nations in the region, as called for under the 2010 NPT final statement. Egyptian and Israeli officials have traded barbs over who was to blame for the delay.

The Arab League's emergency meeting was called on Sunday to prepare for upcoming multinational consultations led by Jaakko Laajava, a Finnish diplomat who is facilitating preparations for the proposed Helsinki conference. He organized an initial consultation in Glion, Switzerland, last month and is expected to gather Mideast envoys and others for a second round on Nov. 25.

Cairo's new initiative contains three major facets. First, Mideast countries and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- known as the "P-5" -- would issue letters to the U.N. secretary general backing the concept of declaring the region a WMD-free zone.

Second, regional nations that have not yet signed or ratified key nuclear, chemical or biological weapons-ban treaties would commit to doing so by the end of the year. That would involve major steps by Egypt, Israel and Syria on the Biological and Chemical Weapons conventions, and by Israel regarding the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Under the third element of Cairo's proposal, states in the region and principal NPT supporters -- Britain, Russia and the United States -- would proceed to hold a conference in Helsinki to discuss the creation of the special zone.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy presented Cairo's proposal in a speech before the U.N. General Assembly in September. On Sunday, Tariq Adel, Cairo's permanent representative to the League of Arab States, shepherded the initiative at that organization, Daily News Egypt reported.

In its Sunday resolution, the Arab League said it would "provide political and practical support" for the Egyptian initiative, including the notification of all Arab nations and the U.N. secretary general about its support for declaring the Middle East a WMD-free zone.

However, the statement omits explicit reference to a P-5 role in these official notification letters, and leaves out mention of key-treaty accession moves. Many issue experts have praised the Egyptian push for WMD treaty ratification by all Mideast outlier states, but have said this may not be feasible in advance of a Helsinki conference if the event is to be held in the near future.

In addition, "the resolution does not mention the upcoming consultations about the postponed 2012 WMD[-free zone] conference, perhaps indicating [that] some Arab states want to keep options open and remain independent," Chen Kane, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said in an email exchange on Monday.

Patricia Lewis, who research director for international security at Chatham House in London, told Global Security Newswire that she believes the Arab League "is genuinely trying to negotiate a common approach with Israel."

She noted, though, that the greatest progress toward holding regional talks on banning nuclear, biological and chemical weapons from the Middle East has been achieved in the NPT forum, where Israel is not a member nation.

Israel is believed to maintain the region's sole nuclear arsenal, though there is widespread concern about the potential Iranian development of an atomic weapons capability, despite being an NPT non-nuclear member nation. Chemical and biological arms development is believed to have been carried out by a number of Middle East countries.

"Quite understandably, the [Arab League states] want to keep this [NPT] framework and fear the consequences of letting it go," potentially resulting in a collapse along the lines of similar Arms Control and Regional Security talks abandoned in the mid-1990s, Lewis said.

"If the WMD[-free zone] process loses its connection to the NPT, then the legal and accountability tools will be weakened," she said. "However, Israel is not bound by the NPT and so would like to loosen those ties to enable its participation in the Helsinki meeting. Therein lies the conundrum."

If the region's Arab and non-Arab nations alike could move simultaneously to uniformly embrace all three WMD-ban treaties, such a "signal would help free up the political space for all," Lewis said. "It could take the form of endorsing or making a declaration."

The Arab League tasked its High Official Committee to "study practical means for implementation of the initiative," according to the resolution text, a move that Lewis called "interesting and constructive." The panel was asked to report its recommendations but no specific deadline was noted.

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