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Mideast Talks Facilitator: 'Divergent Views Persist' on WMD-Free Zone

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

Iranian Shahab-2 and Shahab-3 missiles stand on display in front of a large portrait of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a square in south Tehran, circa September 2008. Iran has sat out the latest consultations aimed at convening a major conference to discuss banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East. Iranian Shahab-2 and Shahab-3 missiles stand on display in front of a large portrait of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a square in south Tehran, circa September 2008. Iran has sat out the latest consultations aimed at convening a major conference to discuss banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

An envoy facilitating talks on potentially banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East had some positive and negative things to say last week.

On the one hand, Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava said he and other sponsors of the process have been "impressed" by a "readiness to engage" on the part of nations in the region. He said Middle East participants "wish to make progress," and have taken an "open and constructive approach" to the idea of holding major talks in Helsinki, Finland.

On the other hand, "divergent views persist regarding important aspects of the conference," Laajava said. The challenges will require a "continued constructive attitude and readiness to find the necessary compromises," he said.

Laajava was reporting on Thursday to an ongoing Preparatory Committee meeting being held in New York in advance of next year's five-year Review Conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The veteran diplomat is the designated facilitator of the U.N.-sponsored process to convene the Helsinki conference, aimed at discussing a future WMD ban in the Middle East. Laajava has led three consultative sessions on the matter since October in Glion, Switzerland, for regional states to informally consider how such a groundbreaking international conference might play out.

Senior representatives of Egypt, Israel and other key Middle East countries have attended the behind-closed-doors consultations. Iran -- whose nuclear activities have drawn suspicions about possible military objectives that are now the focus of talks between Tehran and six major powers -- attended the first Glion session last year but sat out subsequent meetings in November and February.

At the Swiss resort town, the uneasy Mideast neighbors have been trying to hash out an agenda, logistical details and rules of procedure for the major conference of nations in Helsinki. No date has been set yet for the big gathering, but Laajava said he hopes "consensus can be reached this year" about timing. Finland stands ready to host it at "short notice," he said.

Laajava said the Glion sessions have "contributed to a better awareness and understanding" of the "possibilities and implications" that a summit in which nations discuss such a ban could affect "peace and stability in the Middle East region and beyond."

Three nations are officially sponsoring the process as "conveners": Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. However, like their Mideast counterparts, the convening nations have bickered at times over the politics and motives swirling around the negotiating process.

Russia and Egypt have criticized the United States for allowing a delay in holding the Helsinki confab past December 2012 -- a deadline set by the 2010 NPT Review Conference -- when Washington's closest ally in the region, Israel, would not confirm its participation. Benjamin Netanyahu's government also has never ruled out attending such a conference, but has enjoyed Washington's support in demanding that any such talks accompany a broader regional effort toward regional security and confidence-building.

Laajava told NPT member nations last week that he would continue to facilitate the informal meetings and -- in what may be a bid to Iran to reengage on the matter -- said the "active input and contribution by all states of the region are needed."

The Finnish envoy also appeared to minimize expectations -- voiced by Egyptians and others in past years -- that the Helsinki conference should launch actual negotiations over creating a zone free of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in the Middle East.

Rather, nations should "initiate a gradual change in the region, from confrontation to cooperation, with important implications to wider interests of regional and international peace," Laajava said.

Speaking to the same NPT Preparatory Committee meeting on April 28, Angela Kane -- the top U.N. official for disarmament affairs -- said the efforts to ban the most dangerous weapons from the Middle East "have greatly benefited in recent months from the constructive engagement of the states of the region in the series of multilateral consultations convened in Glion." She expressed hope that the major Helsinki conference could be held "as soon as possible in 2014."

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