In Twist, Talks on Banning Mideast WMDs Shift to Geneva

A January view of chains and barriers outside the Montreux Palace in Geneva. The Swiss city will host the fourth consultation session for Mideast states and sponsoring nations, to discuss the possible regional elimination of weapons of mass destruction.
A January view of chains and barriers outside the Montreux Palace in Geneva. The Swiss city will host the fourth consultation session for Mideast states and sponsoring nations, to discuss the possible regional elimination of weapons of mass destruction. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

Informal talks between uneasy Mideast neighbors about the prospect of eliminating weapons of mass destruction from their region will relocate to Geneva next week.

The May 14-15 meetings will follow action this week by Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty member nations calling on Israel to join the accord as a non-weapons state.

Arab and non-aligned states reportedly pressed for a "final statement" at the Preparatory Committee session in New York -- held in advance of next year's NPT Review Conference -- that even more strongly decries a lack of progress in achieving a Mideast ban on the most dangerous weapons.

U.S. officials protested the proposed language on Israel and the WMD-free zone for failing to recognize progress made recently and for setting an unconstructive tone for future talks. The Preparatory Committee chairman was said to be preparing his own summary of this and other issues, since consensus could not be reached among all 189 member nations.

Still, next week's consultations in Geneva on banning nuclear, chemical and biological weapons from the Middle East are widely expected to proceed.

Jaakko Laajava -- the Finnish diplomat who is facilitating the discussions between Israel and its Arab counterparts -- has convened three such multinational sessions to discuss the WMD-free zone idea since last October in Glion, Switzerland.

Representatives of Iran attended the first such gathering but not the subsequent two in November and February. Tehran indicated that its key nonproliferation diplomats could not break away from a higher priority effort -- namely, the ongoing negotiations with world powers over Iran's contested nuclear program.

The Mideast consultations in Switzerland may take a lower profile than the Iran nuclear talks, but the objectives in many ways are much more ambitious.

Participants aim to lay the groundwork for a major conference of Middle Eastern states in Helsinki -- perhaps later this year -- to discuss banning all WMD materials from the volatile region. Any such long-term disarmament presumably would require Israel to jettison its unacknowledged nuclear stockpile and join the NPT accord, as well as sign and ratify the Biological Weapons Convention; Egypt to sign and ratify the 188-nation Chemical Weapons Convention; and Egypt and Syria to ratify the Biological Weapons Convention, which they've already signed.

No date has been set yet for the Helsinki conference. Initially it had been anticipated to occur in 2012, but got postponed late that year when the parties could not agree on a conference format, agenda or desired outcomes.

Supporters of the process have said recently that some modest progress has been made behind the scenes at the three sessions in Glion, a resort town on the eastern side of Lake Geneva.

During the first day of the most recent such consultations in February, participants proposed some draft agendas for the Helsinki conference and engaged directly, according to diplomatic sources who asked not to be named in discussing sensitive talks.

There also appeared to be some overlap between key Arab delegations and Israel regarding desired outcomes of the major conference, several informed sources said.

However, a number of setbacks occurred on Day 2 back in February, some of which centered on apparent disconnects between Egyptian officials regarding the WMD-free zone matter, issue experts and envoys tell Global Security Newswire.

The format for future discussions is also somewhat unclear.

Facilitators and sponsors of the process reportedly advised it would be too unwieldy to hash out specific terms for the conference among 16 Arab delegations, Israel and potentially Iran. A total of 25 teams reportedly sat around the conference table in Glion, to include the official convener states -- Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

In the run-up to next week's meeting in Geneva, Arab states were expected to confer with one another about how they might delegate representation and handle transparency if the consultations occasionally were to split up into smaller working groups. As it has in the past, the Arab League aims to approach the Mideast WMD issue with a single, coordinated position.

By the time all participating nations ring a huge conference table in Helsinki, the hardest work is expected to already be complete. Issue experts say national delegations hope to have few, if any, surprises emerge from the conference itself, with its agenda and outcomes largely agreed upon by all parties in advance.

In the meantime, Laajava agreed to move the consultative forum to Geneva this month to meet an Arab preference for dialogue with Israel under U.N. auspices, according to diplomatic sources informed on the process.

This next meeting might prove pivotal.

The Geneva session "will be a good indication of the sides' willingness to take more substantial steps towards compromising on the outstanding issues," Chen Kane of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies said in a Wednesday phone interview.

On substantive issues, Laajava said last week in New York that "divergent views persist" in the consultations.

Sources said those include an Israeli condition that it would participate in the Helsinki conference only if the idea of banning the most dangerous arms is discussed in the context of broader security concerns facing the region. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government would also like to see Mideast states engage with Israel on confidence-building measures, issue experts say.

Arab nations and Iran have said they'd like to see the conference stick to its original mandate, which the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference described as a voluntary gathering of all nations in the region to discuss the creation of the special zone. Some of Israel's neighbors have expressed frustration with the idea of expanding that mandate, with some accusing Washington and its closest Mideast ally of stalling.

Israel -- not being a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty -- took no official role in crafting the 2010 mandate to hold such a regional conference.

It is also the only Mideast power believed to have a nuclear arsenal, though it has neither confirmed nor denied fielding such a capability. Iran is suspected of using its civil nuclear power program to make progress toward gaining an atomic arms capacity, but denies that is its motive.

Last year, Egypt protested a lack of progress toward holding the major summit by staging a unilateral walkout at the 2013 Preparatory Committee meeting in Geneva for the 2015 NPT five-year Review Conference. In a GSN interview, a senior U.S. State Department official later condemned Egypt's move as "theatrics."

This year's NPT Preparatory Committee wraps up on Friday after two weeks of sessions in New York, with Egypt's full participation. Despite the deadlock over a final statement, the April-to-May sessions have largely lacked last year's acrimony.

Many NPT member states appear to share a general sense that at least some incremental progress is being made on the Mideast WMD front. That has included Syria's adoption last year of the Chemical Weapons Convention, but only after several incidents in which these deadly arms were used in the Mideast country's three-year-old civil war.

The draft NPT meeting statement by the committee chairman -- aimed at teeing up issues for debate at next year's Review Conference -- implores the Mideast interlocutors to convene the Helsinki conference "without further delay."

In fact, a number of those close to the process anticipate that once a breakthrough is achieved in the consultations, many smaller details would more easily fall into place.

Laajava reportedly has identified three possible dates for the Helsinki conference to be held before the end of this year: One in June -- now viewed as highly unlikely -- and others in October or December. The Finnish government has said it could host the conference on short notice.

It remained unclear this week whether Iranian delegates would attend the next sessions in Geneva, even just as observers, in part because of questions about whether the venue is an actual U.N. building, sources tell GSN.

In the past, "I guess they stayed away because it's not in a NPT format and rules of procedure," Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat now at Princeton University, said in an email response to questions. "However, as far as I know, Iran has informed Finnish Ambassador Jaakko Laajava that [it] fully supports the WMD-free zone process being led [by] him."

"In the end, [Iranians] are certainly needed if real discussions of the zone start," said one international envoy tracking the dialogue.

May 9, 2014

Informal talks between uneasy Mideast neighbors about the prospect of eliminating weapons of mass destruction from their region will relocate to Geneva next week.