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Mideast WMD-Free Zone Inches Forward Amid Gripes About U.S. Role
WASHINGTON -- An international meeting in Belgium this month to discuss prospects for banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East showed some glimmers of progress, but complaints are mounting that the United States is falling short in its leadership role (see GSN, July 12).
"It was positive from a participation point of view," Annalisa Giannella, the European Union's personal representative for WMD nonproliferation, said in a telephone interview last week. "There was a real discussion. There was interaction, even, between the participants."
At the same time, a growing number of government officials and outside experts involved in the effort are becoming alarmed at what some quarters see as Washington foot-dragging in planning for a major conference on the same topic, slated for 2012.
"Time is indeed running short if the target date is to be met," Camille Grand, chairman of the EU Nonproliferation Consortium, wrote in a report about the Brussels event. The consortium provided research support to the EU meeting.
Though the United States agreed last year in New York to serve as a lead nation in readying the conference, progress has been sluggish and doubts are beginning to surface about the Obama administration's level of commitment. The event was announced nearly 14 months ago, but a specific date, host nation or individual facilitator to lead the talks next year all have yet to be identified.
Gary Samore -- a key White House adviser who earlier this year said political turbulence in the Middle East could force the conference to be postponed beyond 2012 -- canceled his planned keynote address at this month's EU-sponsored seminar, disappointing many who had hoped for fresh signs of Washington's backing.
Administration officials attributed the last-minute no-show to a schedule conflict and insisted that Washington remains resolute in supporting a special Mideast zone.
"The United States is fully committed to the Middle East conference," said one senior administration official, responding on Thursday to a reporter's query. This official and several others interviewed for this article requested anonymity in discussing sensitive diplomatic matters.
"Mr. Samore's absence in Brussels" reflected no "lack of U.S. interest or support," said the senior official. Eliot Kang, a deputy assistant secretary of State for nuclear affairs, headed the U.S. delegation.
The July 6-7 EU event was not an official part of the process leading to next year's conference. Nonetheless, many believed it might help spur discourse on the broader goal of setting up a WMD-free zone (see GSN, June 3).
The 2012 session is to be sponsored by the United Nations under terms laid out by consensus of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty's 189 member nations, in a final document released last year at a five-year NPT review meeting (see GSN, June 1, 2010).
Three key supporting countries -- Russia, the United Kingdom and United States -- are to co-sponsor the upcoming conference and spearhead its planning "in consultation with the states of the region," according to the NPT document.
This month's EU seminar featured senior-level government participants from nearly all Mideast states, including Israel, Syria and Iran.
Bringing representatives of those three nations to the discussion was viewed as especially crucial because Jerusalem is widely believed to maintain the region's sole nuclear arsenal, while Damascus and Tehran are suspected of engaging in work to build their own atomic stockpiles.
Syria and Iran insist their nuclear projects are entirely peaceful, but the U.N. atomic watchdog agency has repeatedly cited both governments for failing to comply fully with international safeguards.
The agenda for this month's seminar was to explore initial steps -- such as potential regional security agreements, confidence-building measures, nuclear energy activities and nonproliferation projects -- that could lay the groundwork for a comprehensive WMD ban.
With the event held behind closed doors, participants were assured they could exchange ideas freely without concern of being publicly quoted. Individuals attended in a personal capacity and were not speaking officially on behalf of their nations.
Even so, several key nations sent fairly senior-level officials, which many issue experts interpreted as a sign of seriousness in the region about the prospects for working toward a WMD-free zone.
Attendees included Jeremy Issacharoff, an Israeli ambassador and the Foreign Ministry's deputy director general for strategic affairs. His personal involvement in the issue over the past several months appears to signal a shift from last year, when both Israel and Washington made clear that Jerusalem had grave concerns about participating in the 2012 conference.
Following the NPT review meeting, the two capitals quickly condemned the consensus final document for singling out Jerusalem's refusal to join the international accord as a non-nuclear nation. Israel is widely estimated as maintaining 100 or more nuclear arms but has never confirmed their existence.
Egypt, which played a key role last year in making the Mideast issue a central feature of the NPT review conference, sent both nonproliferation diplomat Khaled Shamaa and Maged Abdelaziz, the nation's representative to the United Nations. Iran and Syria were represented by their respective ambassadors to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Asghar Soltanieh and Bassam al-Sabbagh, according to conference officials.
"I think that this seminar proved that it is possible to launch a process, with the appropriate cautions," said Giannella, who planned the EU event. "There is a recognition that the lack of a regional security framework is a serious handicap for everybody. And this is a unanimous assessment by the countries of the region."
"The debate on regional security was difficult, demonstrating that security perceptions and concerns in the region remain extremely diverging," Grand wrote in his report.
"Promoting regional trust and confidence" was widely seen as a pressing or even urgent matter, but "many participants" also felt that "improvement of the security environment could not be seen as a precondition for further steps in the field of nonproliferation or arms control," Grand said.
Middle East participants also agreed that a special zone must outlaw not only nuclear weapons, but also chemical and biological arms, Giannella said.
Neither Egypt nor Syria has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, a 188-nation pact that calls for the elimination of all weaponry carrying materials such as mustard blister agent or sarin nerve gas. Israel has signed but not ratified the accord.
Jerusalem is also one of 23 governments not party to the Biological Weapons Convention. Egypt, Syria and the United Arab Emirates have signed but not ratified the pact, which forbids the production or retention of disease-based arms.
Responding to critics who charged that the EU seminar aired little more than stale talking points and timeworn recriminations, Giannella said that a number of participants took some notable first steps toward dialogue.
"Of course, some of them were making statements which were very similar to the national statements," she said in the interview. "But some others -- a good number out of them -- were really talking, really discussing."
As the forum drew to a close, a Russian participant -- speaking for all three so-called "depositary states" shepherding the U.N.-sponsored process -- announced that candidate host governments for the 2012 conference had been narrowed down to three: Canada, Finland and the Netherlands.
Obama administration officials are depicting this as an indication of progress toward bringing next year's major gathering to fruition, with one senior source saying that in wide-ranging consultations, "we have made clear and all agree that these appointments should be acceptable to states in the region."
However, "Egypt and other Arab states insisted that they hadn't been consulted," said one EU-nation participant in the seminar.
Several others depicted the contact with Middle Eastern states as more of a notification than an exchange of views. Some are now calling for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to take a more active role in facilitating communication.
"At the heart of the issue is of course lack of confidence about U.S. commitment to a 2012 conference," the EU seminar participant said.
A "reality check" would show that U.S., British and Russian officials had, in fact, coordinated on the host-nation candidates with Egypt and other countries in the region, contended a second senior Obama administration official.
This Washington official was flummoxed by the persistent doubts.
Last year, "nobody invested more in this [objective] than the three depositary states," which "threw themselves into the breach" to incorporate into the NPT document the pledge to work toward a Mideast WMD ban, the senior official told Global Security Newswire in an interview on Wednesday.
"We're doing everything we can to prepare for the 2012 conference, in that time frame," the administration official said.
Some key participants in the process say that U.S. preparations for 2012 appear to be under way simultaneously with a concerted push for delay until 2013 or beyond.
Earlier this year, the U.S. mission to international organizations in Vienna, Austria, asked U.N. offices there -- including the International Atomic Energy Agency -- to postpone implementing an assignment from the U.N. secretary general to prepare background documentation for a 2012 conference, according to U.N. and other sources.
The Vienna research work is to focus on various options for setting up "a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, taking into account work previously undertaken and experience gained," according to last year's NPT review conference final document.
"A very heightened level of [U.S.] interest" in blocking any "premature" U.N. preparations for a 2012 conference was, in itself, jumping the gun, one U.N. official told GSN.
The International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, among other outlets, actually had not intended to undertake the research work until after some key steps -- such setting a conference date and naming a host government -- are taken, the official said this week.
If nothing else, discussion swirling around the reported episode appears to reflect a marked uptick in nail-biting in all camps over the persistent question of whether the Mideast conference will go forward in 2012 or, instead, see a delay.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog agency on Friday declined comment on the matter. A U.S. diplomat, however, denied his office had made any requests for U.N. delay in preparing for a 2012 confab.
"The U.S. mission in Vienna did not ask agencies here to hold off on preparations for a 2012 conference on the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East," said Robert Wood, chargé d'affaires at the mission. "The United States is fully committed to help convene the 2012 conference."
He added: "In June, the U.S. mission apprised the IAEA and [other U.N. organizations] of efforts to identify a host country and facilitator, and encouraged those agencies to coordinate with the facilitator, once appointed, to support the 2012 conference."
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