Diplomats Bound for Geneva with Differing Aims for Mideast WMD-Ban Talks

A light installation illuminates the National Theater in Helsinki, Finland, in January 2013. The city is expected to host a conference of nations on banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, possibly before the end of this year.
A light installation illuminates the National Theater in Helsinki, Finland, in January 2013. The city is expected to host a conference of nations on banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, possibly before the end of this year. (Jarno Mela/AFP/Getty Images)

International envoys are headed to Geneva on Tuesday to begin a fifth set of consultations on the idea of banning all weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, but each key player brings some baggage in the form of conflicting objectives.

"Different parties are juggling different balls," says Tariq Rauf, who directs the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In some cases -- as with Egypt and Israel, for example -- "it's completely different objectives [they seek] to achieve from this process," Chen Kane, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said in an early-June interview.

Some factors affecting various nations' political positions on the matter appear directly related to the question of whether and how to create a special zone in which no nuclear, chemical or biological arms are allowed, while others may be unrelated, issue experts and officials tell Global Security Newswire.

Some spoke for this story on condition of not being named, citing diplomatic sensitivities surrounding the delicate talks.

Directly at issue is the idea -- sponsored initially by Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty member states in 1995 and bolstered in 2010 -- of holding a major summit about creating a Mideast WMD-free zone. Such a global conference was to have been held in Finland by 2012, but has been postponed repeatedly for lack of regional consensus on the event's specific agenda and objectives.

A Helsinki conference of Mideast and supporting nations -- Russia, the United Kingdom and United States -- remains possible for later this year, though, according to those close to the issue.

Arab nations have focused mainly on the idea of eliminating Israel's estimated 80 or more nuclear warheads and bringing the country under the nonproliferation accord as a non-atomic-weapons state.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied it retains a nuclear stockpile. Its diplomats have indicated that they might participate in such a conference, but only if dialogue occurs in the wider context of creating an enduring Middle East peace.

Thus far, at least, Arab states and Iran have resisted the idea of incorporating an Israeli push for confidence-building measures -- such as information swaps or inspection visits -- into the process of creating a regional WMD ban.

A number of Mideast diplomats have argued that smaller steps of this kind could distract from making timely headway on the more substantial objective of fully eliminating nuclear, chemical and biological arms.

An array of other international accords also could play into the picture. Israel has not yet signed or ratified the Biological Weapons Convention; neither Egypt nor Syria has ratified the BWC agreement, though each has signed it; and Egypt has not yet signed or ratified the 190-nation Chemical Weapons Convention.

Participants in the talks were said to have made some progress at the most recent consultation session, held May 14 in Geneva, when two informal diplomatic documents were circulated that summed up national positions and offered some ideas for a conference agenda and outcomes.

"Of course, countries in the Middle East have multiple goals -- and, of course, conflicting goals," one diplomat tracking the process said in a phone interview.

"[Still] one can see some common ground," the envoy added. "If one can find enough common ground to attend the conference … this common ground could be expanded in small steps, not in months but in the longer term."

Some of the considerations facing key participants in the consultations -- facilitated by Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava -- include these, according to interviewed officials and experts:

United States: Senior Obama administration officials have indicated support for the Mideast WMD-ban idea for years. But they also have staunchly defended ally Israel's concerns that it not be singled out for criticism at any Helsinki conference, particularly in light of growing alarm throughout the region that Iran might develop its own nuclear-arms capacity in violation of its Nonproliferation Treaty commitments.

"The Arab states and some of the other [Nonproliferation Treaty] parties have blamed the United States for the slow progress," Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, also of the James Martin Center, said in a recent Arms Control Today analysis.

"Russia bolstered the perception of U.S. backtracking from the NPT promises by publicly stating that the United States had unilaterally decided to postpone the Middle East conference when it had no right to do so," she wrote. "If the conference is not convened within a year, the United States can expect to receive a large share of the blame [at a five-year NPT Review Conference] in 2015, even if its influence on the outcome is less than it is widely perceived to be."

Senior U.S. envoy Thomas Countryman in an interview last summer accused Egypt -- which has taken the global lead in pressing for a Mideast WMD-free zone -- of staging "theatrics" rather than working constructively on the matter.

Countryman, the assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, led the U.S. team at Laajava's earlier multinational consultations in Glion, Switzerland. Adam Scheinman, Countryman's senior adviser for nuclear nonproliferation, subbed for his boss at the May session, a State Department official confirmed this week.

The department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the lower-ranking official represented Washington on that occasion because of scheduling conflicts, and that Countryman would personally lead the delegation at next week's consultation.

At the same time, the issue is far from the top of U.S. foreign policy priorities.

Washington is "focused on [the] Iran nuclear file, withdrawal from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Iraq, [and] mid-term elections looming," Rauf said. "Windows [are] narrowing for Obama on several of these."

At the same time, the White House would like to build the groundwork for a successful Review Conference on the Nonproliferation Treaty, set for next spring in New York, and "does not want to have [it] fail on [the Mideast] issue," Rauf said.

Egypt: In April 2013, Cairo's delegation walked out of an NPT Preparatory Committee session in Geneva to protest the failure to hold the Helsinki conference by 2012.

Despite political turmoil in the North African nation since then, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi has voiced strong support for the WMD-zone process and his nation has returned to the discussions.

In general, Egypt would like to strengthen its hand in its relationship with Israel and its clout as a Middle East leader at a time of significant instability across the region. At the same time, Cairo has long been anxious about the potential that Iran will develop a nuclear-arms capacity and has hinted it could develop a similar arsenal of its own, in response.

Newly elected Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi this week named Sameh Shoukri, a former ambassador to Washington, to replace Fahmi.

Diplomats and observers noted that Fahmi for the first time dispatched a high-ranking foreign ministry official -- though one without deep background in the WMD-free zone issue -- to last month's Geneva meeting. Pundits said it was not immediately clear how to interpret the change in Egyptian representation.

"It is particularly important for Egypt, the main promoter of the WMD-free zone, to show flexibility and leadership at this time and not let the progress achieved in recent months slip away," says Mukhatzhanova.

Israel: Many foreign policy and defense experts remain highly skeptical that Israel would ever contemplate eliminating its unconfirmed nuclear arsenal, and some say for that reason would be unlikely to take part in a Helsinki summit on the topic.

Still, it has engaged frequently in discussions with Laajava and repeatedly sent a high-ranking envoy, Jeremy Issacharoff, to the multilateral consultations.

For Israel, a main incentive for engaging with its Mideast neighbors on the WMD-free zone would be to make progress toward its strategic objective of gaining Arab and Iranian recognition of itself as a state and a permanent peace in the region, many experts agree.

"The Israeli side, with the concurrence of the [United States and United Kingdom], says that the price for it to attend the consultations and the proposed conference is to look [at] the bigger security picture, not just WMD, and that it is not bound by NPT outcomes as it is not a party to the treaty," Rauf said.

Iran: Tehran took part in Laajava's first consultative session last fall in Glion, but has not sent representatives to such meetings since then.

Iranian officials "found it difficult to return" to the process after facing domestic criticism "for participating in a meeting that involves Israeli officials outside the U.N. premises," according to Mukhatzhanova. Other issue experts have echoed that view.

In fact, Iran's diplomatic focus has remained squarely on its top priority of ongoing negotiations with world powers over its contested nuclear program, in which Tehran may receive long-term relief from economic sanctions in exchange for limits on its atomic work.

The Iranians "do not want to engage in other fora, lest any statements by them be misinterpreted or provide fodder for domestic and foreign naysayers to the [nuclear negotiations] track," Rauf told GSN. "Iran has given a commitment that it will attend the [Helsinki] conference when it has been decided to hold the conference, based on an agreed agenda [and] modalities."

A number of other irritants also may be fueling the Iranian decision to hold back from the WMD-free consultation process for now, the expert said.

For the time being, at least, this has posed some challenges for Laajava.

The Finnish zone-talks facilitator "wants fully empowered delegates at a level authorized to take decisions, and for all states of the region of the [Middle East] to be represented at his consultations," Rauf said.

Laajava and Arab nations must "continue engaging Iran to secure its buy-in on the decisions regarding the agenda and outcomes of the meeting," in Mukhatzhanova's view. "If the Middle East conference convenes and establishes a process addressing WMD issues and regional security involving all relevant actors, including Iran, it would be an unprecedented development for the region and a boost for the credibility" of the Nonproliferation Treaty, she said.

Correction: This article was modified after publication to note Shoukri's appointment.

June 20, 2014

Can global envoys find common ground on conflicting objectives as they meet in a fifth consultation session on Tuesday?