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Middle East WMD-Free Zone Meeting Faces Unclear Fate

Finnish envoy Jaakko Laajava, the "facilitator" for a planned conference on banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, speaks on Tuesday in Vienna, Austria, at a preparatory meeting for the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. Laajava said not all Middle Eastern governments had yet indicated whether they would attend the anticipated WMD-free zone gathering (AP Photo/Ronald Zak). Finnish envoy Jaakko Laajava, the "facilitator" for a planned conference on banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, speaks on Tuesday in Vienna, Austria, at a preparatory meeting for the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. Laajava said not all Middle Eastern governments had yet indicated whether they would attend the anticipated WMD-free zone gathering (AP Photo/Ronald Zak).

A lack of agreement by all Middle Eastern states to participate in a meeting scheduled for later this year on banning nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction from the region has placed the prospects for the event into question, Reuters reported on Tuesday (see GSN, May 8).

Israel and Iran are thought to fall among countries that remain uncommitted on joining the conference, though event "facilitator" Jaakko Laajava on Tuesday only acknowledged that not all regional governments had indicated whether they would take part. Israel is the only Middle Eastern nation assumed to have a nuclear deterrent, while Iran is suspected by Washington and its allies of seeking the capability to build an atomic arsenal.

Middle Eastern nations have engaged in discussions with the Finnish envoy and hold varying positions on how to create a WMD-free zone for their area, though they all aspire to the objective, Laajava said in his initial update on efforts to ready the meeting.

"Unfortunately, while much has de facto been already achieved in these consultations in terms of identifying common ground, I cannot yet report that the conference will be attended by all states of the region," Laajava said at a preparatory meeting for the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference.

The forum could convene in Finland in December or possibly sooner, he indicated to participants in the NPT session in Vienna, Austria.

Iran and Arab nations at the Vienna gathering reaffirmed concerns over Israel's presumed nuclear deterrent, drawing attention to disagreement on WMD matters between Middle Eastern nations. Tel Aviv, which did not take part in the Vienna event, has ruled out forswearing atomic armaments and joining the nuclear treaty except in the context of a comprehensive regional conflict resolution accord that assures Israel's protection.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor earlier this month said his country might still agree to join the planned Middle Eastern WMD-free zone conference, though it was "awaiting clarification on some issues."

The conference would mark a turning point for Arab nations and "its failure would invite them to revise" their atomic stances, according to Egypt, which initially proposed convening the planned forum. Cairo's ambiguous language could refer to the continued willingness of Arab nations to participate in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, according to Reuters (Fredrik Dahl, Reuters, May 8).

Egyptian envoy Ahmed Fathalla said he had drawn the statement from a March 29 meeting of Arab governments in Iraq, the Associated Press reported.

A high-level U.S. government insider, though, said he never heard such language. The source added Washington had failed in urging Arab nations to soften their tone on Israel in an effort to improve the prospects of the planned conference.

Little chance exists for Tel Aviv to join confrontational talks, and its absence would render the planned meeting irrelevant, according to AP (George Jahn, Associated Press/Google News, May 8).

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman said a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone is a possible objective, though it would require significant time to realize, Reuters reported.

A key prerequisite is "a comprehensive and durable peace and full compliance by all countries in the region with their nonproliferation obligations," he said at the meeting in Vienna.

Former U.S. State Department analyst Mark Fitzpatrick said a regional WMD ban might "be an answer to the Iranian nuclear crisis that threatens to spark regional proliferation and engulf the Middle East in another war" while eliminating "the sense of double standards over Israel's nuclear program" (Dahl, Reuters).

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