Nuclear-Free Mideast Plan Takes Center Stage in Talks at White House

(May. 27) -Delegates to the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, shown earlier this month. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden met Tuesday with representatives of Arab states to seek a compromise on terms for establishing a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, officials said this week (U.N. photo).
(May. 27) -Delegates to the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, shown earlier this month. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden met Tuesday with representatives of Arab states to seek a compromise on terms for establishing a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, officials said this week (U.N. photo).

UNITED NATIONS -- White House intervention on Tuesday appears to have increased the chances of substantial progress toward establishing a ban on nuclear weapons and other WMD materials in the Middle East, Global Security Newswire has learned (see GSN, May 26).

With international delegations in New York unable to reach a compromise on the matter in the final days of the monthlong Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden convened a White House gathering with ambassadors from Arab nations, according to officials interviewed this week.

Senior U.S. and Egyptian officials continued meeting behind closed doors to hammer out a compromise on the matter, sources said. Egypt, which chairs the 116-member Nonaligned Movement, has been particularly vocal in demanding action this month on implementing a 1995 NPT conference resolution that called for the establishment of a special zone in the Middle East.

The success or failure of the nuclear conference is boiling down to whether progress can be achieved on this issue, according to many of those in attendance. There is just one more full day left before the NPT talks conclude Friday evening.

The Tuesday meeting did not appear on Biden’s published daily schedule and the White House has not responded to a request for comment.

However, sources close to the event confirmed that it proved helpful in bringing the two sides to the brink of a breakthrough on a consensus statement about a Mideast WMD-free zone. Such a statement would be included in a unanimous document to be issued by all 189 NPT member nations when their conference wraps up, assuming that disagreements about text regarding other nonproliferation and disarmament initiatives can also be ironed out.

The White House has worried that failure to achieve success at the conference could deal President Barack Obama’s nuclear arms agenda a political blow, according to pundits. Democrats were highly critical of then-President George W. Bush when the 2005 review conference ended in failure without a unanimous resolution.

Tuesday’s senior-level gathering included James Jones, U.S. President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, according to one Middle Eastern diplomat. Gary Samore, the top National Security Council coordinator for arms control and nonproliferation, has been working on the issue deep behind the scenes over the past few weeks, other sources said.

“We are close to a deal, but we’re not there yet,” an Egyptian official told GSN yesterday.

Just one sticking point remained today, according to other Middle East sources, who declined to specify exactly where the sides remained at odds.

What does appear to be in the offing, diplomats said, is an agreement to hold a conference in a set time frame -- likely within the next two years -- to discuss achieving a ban on the most dangerous weaponry in the Middle East. All states in the region, including Israel, appear ready to attend such a gathering, U.S. and Middle East sources said.

It is unclear whether the United States and Israel are prepared to commit to any further meetings or negotiations after the initial conference is held. Washington and Jerusalem reportedly have been resistant to naming any additional steps at this juncture, though it appears they are being pressed to do so by Egypt and its regional allies.

“The U.S. understands that there will be a need for more than just one conference,” said one Arab envoy. Like many of the officials interviewed for this article, the diplomat cited the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations in asking not to be named.

Washington and Jerusalem have insisted that the summit address all types of weapons of mass destruction, and Egypt seemed open to such an approach. The positions of other Arab nations on this question could not be confirmed at press time.

Both Egypt and Syria are believed to have retained significant stocks of chemical weapons for decades, which would have to be eliminated before a WMD ban in the region could be achieved.

By far the greatest complication in creating such a zone, though, appears to be Israel. Jerusalem has never publicly acknowledged that it maintains a nuclear arsenal, which is estimated to number as many as 100 weapons.

However, U.S. diplomats reportedly have been engaging in secret discussions with Israeli officials in New York to determine how a WMD-free zone in the region might evolve in such a way that they could stomach. If the proposal is embraced, it could represent a stunning breakthrough not only in publicly acknowledging the Israeli arsenal, but also in heightening pressure on Jerusalem to eliminate the weapons.

Israel is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has had no official role in this month’s conference to review progress in implementing the accord and to identify measures aimed at strengthening global arms control regimes. An official at Jerusalem’s permanent mission to the United Nations last week declined any comment on issues related to the NPT talks.

Summits such as this are held every five years to review the 1970 treaty’s three major “pillars”: efforts toward disarming the world’s nuclear-weapon powers; a commitment on the part of non-nuclear nations not to build or obtain such arms; and access to civil nuclear energy for states in good standing under the accord.

U.S. officials have said they are seeking international agreement on “practical steps” that could be taken to advance the idea of a Middle Eastern WMD-free area, in keeping with formal language produced at the 1995 conference.

Such a zone could help underline Washington’s concerns about Iran’s ability to build a bomb and hold off other potential new nuclear powers in the region, according to experts.

However, to date, the Obama administration has tied the creation of such a zone to achieving significant progress toward comprehensive peace in the region, reflecting an Israeli quid pro quo on the matter (see GSN, May 18).

U.S. Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher arrived in New York early this week to help ensure a favorable outcome for the review conference, according to the State Department. Tauscher reportedly had not anticipated until recently that her presence would be necessary to seal a deal on key issues facing the gathering, according to conference sources.

A draft statement outlining steps for creating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East was issued at the conference last Friday.

It called for the U.N. secretary general to appoint a special coordinator to prepare for a conference, to be held in the region in 2012, “leading to the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.” The coordinator would report back on progress at the 2015 NPT review conference and preparatory meetings in advance of that gathering, according to the draft.

However, the proposed text -- issued by Ambassador Alison Kelly of Ireland -- was just a first stab at compromise that did not win full agreement from all member states. In private meetings on and off the U.N. campus in Manhattan, key players continued to haggle over changes they wanted to see, delegates said.

The idea of naming a special coordinator or committee to move the issue along appears to be an accepted facet, one Middle Eastern diplomat said.

However, the U.S. position has included a demand that diplomatic recognition exist between all nations in the Middle East and a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement be in place not only before the WMD-free zone is achieved, but also before a summit to discuss such a zone is held, according to one U.N. official interviewed yesterday.

“I think the whole conference is going to rise or fall on that issue,” the official said of progress on the Middle East resolution. Key Arab states, led by Egypt and Syria, are “perfectly willing to stuff up the whole conference if their issue doesn’t move forward,” the U.N. official said.

The Egyptian envoy, though, insisted that Cairo seeks a successful NPT conference and was considerably more sanguine about the prospects.

“There are a lot of other pending issues on different … NPT-related issues, so any review conference failure -- God forbid -- will not be the result of the [Middle East] resolution issue, or at least it won't be the only reason for such an undesired outcome,” the Cairo official said.

Important differences linger over other issues, according to conference participants, including:

-- the question of expanding the use of comprehensive safeguards for nuclear facilities and material around the globe through Additional Protocol agreements;

-- coordinating or tightening export controls;

-- ramifications for nations that withdraw from the treaty, as North Korea did in 2003; and

-- whether to call for a time table and legal framework for global nuclear disarmament.

These and other matters will continue to be worked in formal plenary sessions today and tomorrow, as well as side meetings convened by the conference chairman, Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines. He has assembled a “Group of 16” nations to help draft compromise text for an integrated final statement, and the latest version was expected for distribution at the conference today, according to delegates.

May 27, 2010
About

UNITED NATIONS -- White House intervention on Tuesday appears to have increased the chances of substantial progress toward establishing a ban on nuclear weapons and other WMD materials in the Middle East, Global Security Newswire has learned (see GSN, May 26).