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Mideast Envoys Weigh Two New Bids to Jolt WMD-Ban Talks

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

Iranian students set an Israeli flag afire during a protest to defend their country's nuclear program outside the Fordo Uranium Conversion Facility in the northern town of Qom in November. Neither Iran nor Israel has ruled out participating in a major summit to explore a ban on nuclear, chemical and biological arms from the Middle East. Iranian students set an Israeli flag afire during a protest to defend their country's nuclear program outside the Fordo Uranium Conversion Facility in the northern town of Qom in November. Neither Iran nor Israel has ruled out participating in a major summit to explore a ban on nuclear, chemical and biological arms from the Middle East. (Chavosh Homavandi/AFP/Getty Images)

International diplomats participating in informal talks about banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East returned to their capitals from Geneva last month bearing two new documents, according to envoys and experts.

The so-called "non-papers" -- an Orwellian term crafted to allow authors and commenters alike to remain noncommittal -- were aimed at identifying where progress might be made toward setting an agenda and objectives for a major summit in Finland, sources said.

The Helsinki conference was to have been held by the end of 2012, but has been repeatedly postponed as Arab states, Israel and Iran have bickered over what should be discussed. Some say the event could yet occur later this year.

Mideast nations also have not yet agreed on the type of process or framework that might follow a one- or two-day international summit. Those officially sponsoring the discussions include the United Nations, a U.N.-appointed "facilitator," and the nations of Russia, the United States and United Kingdom.

The ultimate goal would be to make the Middle East a regional zone in which all nuclear, biological and chemical weapons are prohibited.

A major point of contention has been over how to get to that end objective. Arab nations principally want to see progress in dismantling Israel's presumed 80-warhead-or-so nuclear arsenal and bringing the nation under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-atomic-weapons country.

However, Israel has never confirmed publicly that it maintains a nuclear stockpile, and has said that it would participate in such a conference only if discussions address the broader context of creating an enduring Middle East peace.

For starters, Israeli leaders would like to see the process result in confidence-building measures among the uneasy neighbors, arguing that to disarm as a first step would put the cart before the horse.

Arab nations have been reticent to accept that idea, though. They contend that swapping information and visits would be a distraction from -- and an unacceptable substitute for -- making substantial headway on nuclear and other WMD disarmament in the region.

"They just see it as buying time on what they consider the main issues," Chen Kane, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said in a Wednesday phone interview.

If the special-zone concept were to come to fruition, Israel likely would have to join not only the NPT agreement, but also sign and ratify the Biological Weapons Convention; Egypt must sign and ratify the 190-nation Chemical Weapons Convention; and Egypt and Syria must ratify the Biological Weapons Convention, which they have already signed.

At the May 14-15 consultation session in Geneva, Finnish facilitator Jaakko Laajava is said to have circulated among 18 participating nations the two non-papers in hopes of spurring further useful discussion about the conference agenda and outcomes, an array of multinational sources tell Global Security Newswire. Some spoke for this article on condition of not being named, citing diplomatic sensitivities.

One of the documents rounds up ideas put forth by the various participants, these sources said. The other -- reportedly drafted by a sponsoring delegation -- offers some specific elements for process outcomes.

The good news emerging from Geneva last month, says one diplomat tracking the process: "Nobody rejected the non-papers. On the contrary, they were found to be useful."

Several others shared that view, but many remain pessimistic for the long-term outlook.

"My sense is that the prospects for a breakthrough with respect to agreement on a date for the conference in Helsinki has diminished in the past three months," William Potter, who directs the James Martin Center, said in an email late last month.

He noted that Washington did not dispatch its top diplomat responsible for the issue, Thomas Countryman, to the latest consultations, and that a senior envoy represented Egypt there but was relatively new to the Mideast WMD-free zone matter.

The May consultation was the fourth such international discussion event overall, but the first held in Geneva.

Laajava has led three prior sessions at a hotel in the Swiss resort town of Glion since last October. However, Arab states and Iran have protested that Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty nations had called for talks to take place under U.N. auspices.

For its part, Iran attended the first Glion session but is not expected to rejoin the consultations while high-profile negotiations with world powers over its nuclear program remain under way.

Israel -- not a party to the NPT accord and not directly involved in the original effort to create a Mideast WMD-free zone -- has bristled at meeting on the topic in U.N. venues, particularly given its complex history with the international organization, according to envoys and experts.

Israelis "are not too keen on high visibility or [a] role for the U.N., given the U.N.'s stance on [the] state of Palestine, and other issues of security [and] political importance for Israel," said Tariq Rauf, who directs the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's Arms Control and Nonproliferation Program.

Laajava ended up convening the mid-May meeting at a U.N. building in Geneva but apart from the headquarters. U.N. flags posted in the meeting room apparently caused an initial stir, one expert source said, but the venue compromise ultimately appeared to be acceptable to all participants.

The next such consultation -- tentatively slated for June 24-25 -- is also to be held in Geneva.

A bit of additional drama is said to have marred the latest consultations.

Arab diplomats grumbled that the Israeli delegation abruptly backed out of the planned second day of the May consultations. Israeli envoys reportedly said that the change in plans was unrelated to the informal talks and purely logistical in nature, and that they intend to continue participating in the process.

Some sources noted, though, that it was unclear whether there would have been sufficient reason for meeting on a second day anyway.

Many of the envoys attending last month's confab lacked decision authority, so a number of delegations in Geneva were unable to comment on the non-papers without checking back with their home capitals, officials and experts said.

The inclusion of lower-ranking diplomats, compared to earlier sessions, meant some were "indecisive and not fully empowered to decide on the facilitator's proposals," Rauf said.

Laajava has voiced "a longstanding complaint" that nations should send "fully empowered delegates, at the right seniority level, to attend his consultations with the authority to take decisions on the [conference] agenda, timing [and] modalities," Rauf said in a Tuesday email, responding to questions.

Meanwhile, the nations have set aside for now an idea floated earlier this year to periodically break into smaller working groups that could tee up agenda and outcome proposals for all participants to consider in full plenary consultation sessions, according to sources.

Israel's neighbors -- which have strived to speak with one voice on the matter via the Arab League -- to date have not sorted out how working-group members could make headway on their own, sources explained. For now, the consultations will continue to be held with all parties around a big table, according to those closely following the issue.

Separately, formal working groups on political matters, technical issues and confidence-building steps might be created following a Helsinki conference as part of any continuing process aimed at eventually establishing the zone, Kane and other issue experts said.

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