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Five Powers Back WMD-Free Middle East Meeting

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

An Israeli girl tries on a gas mask at a Jerusalem-area shopping mall in July 2012. The United States and four other global powers on Friday reaffirmed their hopes to have Israel and all other Middle Eastern states attend a conference on establishing a WMD-free zone in the region (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner). An Israeli girl tries on a gas mask at a Jerusalem-area shopping mall in July 2012. The United States and four other global powers on Friday reaffirmed their hopes to have Israel and all other Middle Eastern states attend a conference on establishing a WMD-free zone in the region (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner).

WASHINGTON -- The United States and four other world powers on Friday reaffirmed their intent to convene in short order an international meeting on establishing the Middle East as a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

The mandate for the gathering was a key outcome of the 2010 review conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. However, the event failed to materialize on schedule by last year and some doubt it will ever occur.

Senior delegates from the permanent U.N. Security Council member states -- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States -- met for two days last week in Geneva, Switzerland.

Diplomats there “reiterated the importance of the implementation of the 2010 NPT review conference decisions related to the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East, in particular those related to the convening of a conference to be attended by all the states of the Middle East on the establishment of the Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction,” the State Department said following the close of the meeting on Friday.

“They underlined their support for all states concerned, making all efforts necessary for the preparation and convening of the conference in the nearest future,” the U.S. statement continued.

Washington joined with London, Moscow and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as “conveners” for the conference. They selected Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava as the event’s facilitator; his job would be to win attendance at a Helsinki gathering by all Middle Eastern nations.

The Obama administration, though, has supported Israel’s position that it would not attend the conference if that meant opening itself to rhetorical attacks by other participants. Israel is widely believed to hold the Middle East’s only nuclear arms, though it neither confirms nor denies the stockpile’s existence. When it comes to discussing the idea of a WMD ban in the region, Israeli officials typically focus instead on Iran’s contested atomic activities.

Syria’s possession, and alleged use, of chemical weapons is another obstacle to ridding the region of unconventional weapons. It is also suspected of secretly trying to build a nuclear reactor inside a plant destroyed in a 2007 Israeli airstrike.

A top State Department official on Monday acknowledged the roadblocks to convening the WMD event during an address to a multilateral planning meeting for the next Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, slated for 2015.

“Although it proved not possible to meet in Helsinki last year, my government remains firmly committed to working with the facilitator, the other conveners, and with all states in the region to take steps that will create conditions for a successful and meaningful conference,” said Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation.

“On that basis,” he said, “we hope the relevant parties can agree to hold it soon. Reaching Helsinki, and success at Helsinki, will require the states of the region to engage with each other and I know that all state parties support such engagement.”

The Middle East meeting and 2015 NPT event were among a broad range of nonproliferation topics raised in the powers’ fourth formal conference, according to a State Department release.

They drew attention to North Korea’s nuclear test in February, as well as “the continued pursuit of certain nuclear activities by Iran, both contrary to the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions and [International Atomic Energy Agency] Board of Governors resolutions.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry on Saturday shot back that it is “loyal” to its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations, the Associated Press reported.

Countryman on Monday countered that "possession of such weapons by Iran constitutes a threat to the entire region and an impetus for greater proliferation, lateral proliferation of weapons, than we have ever seen," according to Reuters.

"It is clear that if Iran succeeds in the project of constructing nuclear weapons, then it is not only the Helsinki meeting that becomes irrelevant, but it is in fact the entire credibility of this treaty," he said to reporters.

The five nations, all recognized as nuclear powers under the treaty, also last week “expressed their shared disappointment” in the continuing deadlock that has prevented the international Conference on Disarmament from negotiating a pact to ban production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Pakistan has for years blocked the consensus needed for the 65-nation forum to approve a body of work.

Delegates also discussed moves toward entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and their positions on adhering to nuclear weapon-free zones in Southeast and Central Asia, the State Department said.

The states “shared views on objectives” for the 2013 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting, which opened on Monday and continues through May 3 in Geneva, as well as the final committee meeting next year and the NPT review conference itself, State noted.

They discussed how the five states will approach reporting at the 2014 preparatory meeting their efforts under the “three pillars’ of the action plan agreed to at the 2010 NPT session -- nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and the peaceful use of atomic energy.

Review conferences are aimed at assessing treaty operations in recent years and charting a course forward for future years.

In a Monday statement to the Preparatory Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Obama administration “will continue to do our part by taking action to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, their roles, and the likelihood of their use. At the same time, we will work to strengthen international safeguards and encourage peaceful uses of nuclear energy by states that meet their obligations.”

Countryman, who delivered Kerry’s statement, noted that the United States is reducing its nuclear arsenal under the terms of the New START treaty with Russia. He said, though, “that disarmament is not an obligation limited to the five nuclear-weapon states. 

“It will require action by all NPT parties, who collectively share a responsibility to support the nonproliferation regime and ensure its rules are robust and fully respected,” the diplomat added, calling out Iran, North Korea and Syria as specific threats to that regime.

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