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Mideast Talks Held on WMD-Free Zone Prior to Ramadan Break

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

People cross a snow-covered road in Helsinki in February 2012. The Finnish capital could play host in September or December to a multinational conference on banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East. People cross a snow-covered road in Helsinki in February 2012. The Finnish capital could play host in September or December to a multinational conference on banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East. (Vesa Moilanen/AFP/Getty Images)

Before taking a pause for Ramadan, diplomats from the Middle East and supporting nations met in Geneva late last month to continue talks on the possibility of creating a regional ban on weapons of mass destruction.

The June 24-25 discussions between Israel, Egypt and other Arab countries focused on an agenda for a proposed summit of nations in Helsinki, conceivably to be held in September or December, according to envoys and experts tracking the process.

The month-long Muslim holiday ends July 28 but no date has been set yet for the next consultations, sources tell Global Security Newswire. Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava is facilitating the discussions, with the latest meeting in Switzerland being the fifth such multilateral consultation since last October.

In the informal talks, Egypt and other Arab states have continued to press Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-weapons nation. Israeli diplomats have taken part in the WMD-free zone consultations, but their government has never publicly acknowledged the nation's estimated stockpile of 80 or more nuclear warheads. Israel also has resisted linking the idea of a regional WMD ban to the United Nations or nonproliferation treaty forum.

Instead, its envoys have pushed for a WMD-free zone to equally emphasize the elimination of biological and chemical weapons from the Middle East.

Neither Egypt nor Syria has ratified the Biological Weapons Convention, though each has signed it. For its part, Israel has neither signed nor ratified the BWC accord. Egypt has not yet signed or ratified the 190-nation Chemical Weapons Convention.

Israeli diplomats additionally are insisting that they would participate in a Helsinki conference only if it is part of a broader effort to establish lasting peace in the region. Toward that end, Israel wants to see Mideast nations initiate confidence-building measures as a first step in creating a WMD-free zone.

Israel's Arab interlocutors have accepted the idea "in principle" of discussing confidence-building measures, according to Tariq Rauf of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But Arab envoys say such trust-development measures – which might extend to listing or inspecting conventional-capable delivery systems -- could become an unacceptable substitute for the complete elimination of nuclear, biological and chemical arms from the Middle East.

"The good news is that they continue to meet and discuss the unresolved issues," Chen Kane of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies said in a Wednesday phone interview. "The bad news is that they have not managed to agree on those yet."

Additional "differences persist over continuation of the consultations and the format of future working sessions," Rauf said in a June briefing in Austria.

Laajava has proposed breaking up the multinational sessions -- in which some 18 delegations sit around a large conference table -- into smaller working groups, which Rauf said the facilitator wants to meet "in a parallel and balanced way."

Three different working groups would be dedicated to: "properties of a zone"; "verification and compliance issues"; and "regional security, conventional arms control and confidence-building measures," according to Rauf's briefing, delivered at a Vienna conference last month.

Thus far, though, it appears that Arab nations have not been able to agree on a way to implement the working group approach that would allow them to effectively coordinate their national positions, as they have in the past, experts say.

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