Despite Duel at U.N., Israel and Iran May Talk Nukes by Year’s End

U.N.-sponsored diplomat Jaakko Laajava, shown in May, has met with leaders from Israel and Iran to discuss the possibility of the two countries attending a planned international conference on establishing a WMD-free Middle East (AP Photo/Ronald Zak).
U.N.-sponsored diplomat Jaakko Laajava, shown in May, has met with leaders from Israel and Iran to discuss the possibility of the two countries attending a planned international conference on establishing a WMD-free Middle East (AP Photo/Ronald Zak).

WASHINGTON -- After watching combative speeches by the leaders of Israel and Iran this week at the United Nations, many would be surprised to learn that the two rival nations might actually sit down together by December to discuss the future of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

Yet, that is exactly what representatives of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been quietly exploring in private meetings with a U.N.-sponsored diplomat named Jaakko Laajava.

The Finnish envoy is the designated “facilitator” of an upcoming international conference of Mideast nations to discuss the possibility of eventually declaring the region a WMD-free zone. While there are are ample signs that Israel or Iran -- or both -- might nix attending the event, neither of them has yet ruled it out.

Though no one anticipates a Middle East ban on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons anytime soon, even discussing the possibility at the anticipated Helsinki event could have sweeping implications.

Israel is believed to be the region’s only nuclear-armed nation, but it has never publicly confirmed or denied the existence of its estimated 80 nuclear warheads. Netanyahu, in his Thursday address to the U.N. General Assembly, argued why he believes Iran -- whose leaders have referred repeatedly to Israel's future demise -- must not be allowed to develop an atomic bomb of its own.

In recent months, the Israeli leader has threatened that military action could be required to prevent such an eventuality. Netanyahu this week advocated drawing a clear “red line” on Iranian atomic activities, which he said would “give more time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program altogether.” His latest speech appeared to delay until next year the possibility of a military strike against Iran.

Tehran maintains its nuclear development efforts are entirely peaceful, though U.N. atomic watchdogs and much of the world community 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.

In a Wednesday speech before the General Assembly, Ahmadinejad condemned what he termed a “continued threat by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to military action against our great nation.”

Still, behind the scenes -- in a process that has been simmering for months but gone largely unnoticed by major media -- Israel and Iran have been surveying the potential risks and benefits of attending the multilateral forum in the Finnish capital.

The venue could allow them a fresh opportunity to press their grievances and air alternative visions for the region’s future, but either nation could also find itself singled out for biting criticism.

The impetus for the major conference is a consensus statement issued by 189 member countries of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty during a 2010 review conference at U.N. headquarters in New York.

In the final document, hammered out during a monthlong confab held every five years to discuss treaty implementation, the NPT parties 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.”

Shortly after the 2010 declaration was released, Israel -- which is not party to the nonproliferation agreement -- threatened to boycott the conference. Tel Aviv denounced the NPT review document for unfairly singling out Israel for its failure to accede to the 1970 treaty, while Iran -- whose nuclear efforts are widely presumed to flout the accord -- remained unmentioned.

Israeli concerns have not fully abated regarding the conference, tentatively slated to begin on Dec. 17.

Following conflicting signals last week from two different Israeli government officials, Tel Aviv has neither fully embraced nor fully rejected the event, according to issue specialists. In fact, Israeli Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General Jeremy Issacharoff has discussed the possibility with Laajava, has taken part in a European Union forum on the topic, and is anticipated to attend a similar EU seminar early next month.

“My interpretation is they have not made up their mind yet,” said Michael Yaffe, a former U.S. envoy who is now a professor at National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.

Chen Kane, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ Washington office, said Tel Aviv’s determination about whether to participate will ultimately by made by Netanyahu himself.

His decision could be affected not only by nonproliferation and security concerns, but also by domestic considerations or international politics unconnected to the proposed Mideast zone, making it particularly difficult to predict, she said.

Tensions have been growing between Netanyahu and President Obama, who has rejected the Israeli leader’s repeated demands for a red line on Iranian nuclear activities that, if crossed, would trigger military action against Tehran.

The U.S. president on Tuesday told the General Assembly he would not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, but believes more time is needed to explore a diplomatic resolution of the matter.

Obama earlier disappointed Israel specifically on the issue of a Mideast WMD-free zone, when in May 2010 his envoys signed onto the NPT review conference text singling out Israel for rebuke and agreed to co-sponsor the 2012 meeting under the auspices of a treaty never signed by Tel Aviv.

U.S. officials reportedly had pledged beforehand to protect Israel, its strongest Middle Eastern ally, from becoming a target of criticism in the 2010 NPT review statement. However, Washington’s team found itself unable to do so without jeopardizing international consensus behind the document.

After the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 6, a re-elected Obama or a President-elect Romney might push to meet Israeli demands for a December conference that creates a regional process, focuses on all kinds of weapons of mass destruction and not just nuclear arms, and is pursued outside the framework of the nonproliferation agreement.

However, deep distrust that has grown in Tel Aviv since the 2010 experience could make it impossible for Netanyahu to see much benefit in sending an Israeli representative to Helsinki, Kane said.

Even if Israel took part in December, could the United States stop Egypt -- the principal champion of a Mideast WMD ban dating back to 1995 -- from denouncing Tel Aviv again at the 2015 NPT review conference for its status as a de facto nuclear power operating outside the treaty regime?

“So there is a trust problem between Obama and Bibi [Netanyahu], but also at the working levels because they were not able to fulfill promises made in 2010,” Kane said in a Thursday interview.

The mounting crisis over Iran’s nuclear program -- as well as the ongoing civil war in Syria and anti-Western violence across the region -- could be wild cards that become either obstacles for holding the conference or reminders as to why it is badly needed, several experts said.

“The developments of the Iranian nuclear program and crisis weighs heavily on the process, as either a nuclear breakout or a conflict could jeopardize the whole process,” said Camille Grand, director of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique in Paris.

By contrast, he said, “an -- unlikely -- positive development could play a very useful role.”

The special zone under discussion 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 retention of disease-based arms.

“The possible use of chemical weapons [in Syria] adds another layer of massive uncertainty” to the prospects for holding the Helsinki conference, “as it could lead to a further radical transformation of the regional framework,” Grand said. The Assad regime is believed to hold hundreds of tons of chemical warfare materials, as well as various delivery systems.

At the same time, it remains unclear whether Iran will agree to attend the gathering. Leaders in Tehran have stopped short of advocating the meeting and are no doubt anxious about any renewed focus on their nation’s own nuclear development activities.

Laajava met earlier this month in Tehran with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Akhoundzadeh to formally request that his nation take part in the Helsinki gathering, according to news reports.

Participating in the event could allow Tehran to express its position publicly and help it avoid becoming isolated for having shunned the regional forum, at a time when it is seeking more global support for its policies, Kane said.

“Iran has not indicated one way or the other,” William Potter, founding director of the James Martin Center in Monterey, Calif., said in a Tuesday interview. “But I think most observers believe that they’re not going to provide an answer until very close to the date of the proposed meeting.”

Laajava has spent months of international consulting with Israel, other Mideast nations and the event’s sponsoring countries -- Russia, the United Kingdom and United States -- but has not yet released a specific date or agenda for the Helsinki conference.

Israel is among those nations seeking more clarity on the meeting process and objectives before committing to attend, Yaffe said.

Many observers are uncertain how Laajava sees his own role, Kane said. Will he act as an essentially passive facilitator who reports at the end of 2012 to the U.N. secretary general and the three sponsoring nations that he was unable to secure participation commitments from all countries in the region?

Or might he instead twist the arms of recalcitrant parties to embrace the text of a “bridging document,” teed up beforehand for release at the conclusion of what is shaping up to be a three-day Helsinki conference?

“Netanyahu is not going to say yes until it’s clear what the objective is and what is the end result,” Kane said.

According to Potter, it is conceivable that the conference could proceed even if one or two Mideast nations opt out, but Laajava would need U.S., British and Russian backing for that approach.

If plans fall apart for any meeting at all in Helsinki, it could have serious ramifications for a preparatory committee event next spring, at which plans are to be discussed for the next five-year NPT review conference.

“It is a certainty that failure to hold the conference prior to the 2013 NPT ‘PrepCom,’ set for late April, will be disastrous,” Potter said. A failure to carry out the 2010 NPT final document’s Mideast resolution could “unravel” international commitment to its 64 action items on nonproliferation and disarmament, he said.

These two features of the 2010 document were embraced in a “fragile consensus” that could easily disintegrate if the Mideast conference effort fails, Potter said.

Yaffe projected “low odds” for the Helsinki conference materializing in December, but also said Laajava may yet pull it off. A key indication to watch for will be whether invitations go out by mid-November, after the U.S. elections, Yaffe said.

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.

Clarification:  This article was updated to reflect ongoing debate about whether remarks by Iranian leaders regarding Israel’s future viability as a nation should be interpreted as military threats or historical conjecture.

September 28, 2012

WASHINGTON -- After watching combative speeches by the leaders of Israel and Iran this week at the United Nations, many would be surprised to learn that the two rival nations might actually sit down together by December to discuss the future of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.