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U.S., Russia Clash Over Mideast WMD Talks Delay

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman, shown in 2011, has led the U.S. side in efforts to convene an international conference on creating a Middle East WMD-free zone. Washington and Moscow remain at loggerheads over an anticipated announcement that the event will not occur in December, diplomatic sources and issue experts said (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski). U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman, shown in 2011, has led the U.S. side in efforts to convene an international conference on creating a Middle East WMD-free zone. Washington and Moscow remain at loggerheads over an anticipated announcement that the event will not occur in December, diplomatic sources and issue experts said (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski).

WASHINGTON -- U.S. and Russian diplomats continued to clash this week over drafting an announcement on postponing an international conference on banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, according to diplomatic sources and experts.

Israel has not yet said whether it would or would not take part in the Helsinki gathering, which had been tentatively slated for mid-December. That has left the designated “facilitator” for the conference, Jaakko Laajava, without a commitment to attend from all states in the region, which was a prerequisite set in 2010 when the event was envisioned.

The Finnish envoy on Monday met with officials from Arab nations in what might have been an attempt to explore the prospects for setting a new objective date for the conference, sources said. Some experts and officials declined to be named in this article because of the diplomatic sensitivities surrounding the subject.

Lacking an affirmative signal from the Israelis, Laajava and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon agree with Obama administration officials that the conference must be postponed at least until 2013, said sources close to the matter.

Ban will not issue invitations to the event without knowing in advance that all key nations in the region will participate, said Chen Kane, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Over the past few weeks, Russian envoys have indicated that they believe the conference can go forward even without Israeli attendance. Along with the United States and the United Kingdom, Russia plays a key role in convening the conference, as sponsors of 1995 and 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference resolutions to work toward creating a special Mideast zone.

“The conveners haven’t agreed yet whether it will be officially postponed,” Kane told Global Security Newswire in a Monday interview.

Moscow cannot act alone in making the U.N.-supported gathering happen, though, so now the focus is on negotiating the wording of a joint statement. A key unknown is whether the delay announcement will include a date or time frame in which the conveners now hope the conference will occur.

Also still in question is whether the three key nations will unite behind a single statement, or if instead they will issue separate statements reflecting irreconcilable views about the reasons for postponement or how to proceed, Kane said.

A spokeswoman for Thomas Countryman, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, on Tuesday declined comment on any conference postponement or acrimony with Moscow over the matter. Countryman has served as the U.S. lead envoy in preparing for the possible Mideast WMD gathering and has met “regularly” with his Russian counterpart on the issue, according to one diplomatic source.

With no commitment yet from Israel, the Helsinki meeting delay is essentially being driven by logistics, several issues experts and diplomats said. Soon there would simply be insufficient time to issue invitations and arrange the international event with less than a month left on the calendar.

The Finnish Foreign Ministry, which is to host the Mideast WMD-free zone talks, on Sunday released a statement from Laajava indicating there had not yet been a final decision on conference dates.

“One goal is that all the countries in the region take part in the conference,” the Helsinki diplomat said.

Indications are that failing to hold the conference in 2012 -- as projected by the NPT review conference two years ago -- would be a huge disappointment for Egypt and other Arab states that strongly advocated for the event.

Still, some observers remain optimistic that the Helsinki event might yet happen before the next five-year treaty review meeting in 2015.

Laajava needs more time, though, to find common ground between Israel and the other regional participants regarding specific terms of reference, agenda and outcome for the formal discussions on creating a zone free of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

By holding out for prearranged terms of how the summit will play out, Israeli leaders hope to avoid any possibility that the conference would devolve into a finger-pointing session in which their nuclear stockpile is singled out for criticism. Israel is not a member of the nonproliferation treaty and maintains an officially unconfirmed nuclear arsenal numbering an estimated 100 or more warheads.

Following a round of Laajava's consultations in the region, Iran last week announced it would participate in the December conference. The revelation was offered during a European Union seminar on the topic held in Brussels, also attended by a high-level Israeli Foreign Ministry representative.

On its face, the Iranian statement appeared to be potentially encouraging for the event’s prospects. Previously that nation had shown little interest in the gathering, with issue experts suggesting that Tehran would want to avoid the additional attention such an event might cast on its widely criticized nuclear program.

Iran has insisted it is pursuing atomic energy solely for civil research and power generation, but other states in the region and around the globe suspect the effort could have a military dimension.

Yet, by some accounts, Tehran was only ready to declare its interest in attending the Helsinki forum after it became clear that the event was unlikely to occur -- and that Israel would take the blame.

“I believe the Iranian announcement [was] the clearest signal yet that the Middle East conference will not be convened this year,” William Potter, who directs the James Martin Center, said last week just after Tehran’s statement.

Iran “now appears confident” that Israel would not attend a December confab, and Tehran “therefore can afford to be more flexible itself,” Potter told GSN. “In addition, they almost certainly wanted to put themselves in the best possible light at the Brussels conference.”

The regional ban under possible discussion could include not only nuclear weapons but chemical and biological arms, as well.

Syria’s chemical stockpile has been in the international spotlight recently amid concerns the government might unleash the deadly materials against opposition fighters or civilians in its ongoing civil war. President Bashar Assad’s regime said in July it would only use the arsenal against foreign aggressors.

Egypt and Syria have never signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, a 188-nation agreement calling for the elimination of all weapons that carry materials including mustard blister agent or sarin nerve gas. Israel has signed but not ratified the pact.

Israel is one of 23 governments not party to the Biological Weapons Convention. Egypt and Syria have signed but not ratified the accord, which prohibits making or stockpiling disease-based arms.

U.S. officials want to avoid pressing Israel prior to its Jan. 22 elections to “adopt a public stance” on attending the conference, Potter said, because candidates to lead the Middle Eastern state might lock themselves into a policy that would “make it even more difficult for Israel to attend the conference in the future.”

After next year’s Israeli elections, the Obama administration “may well exert more pressure on Israel” to commit to taking part in WMD-free-zone talks, he said. How hard Washington would press Israel on the matter, though, and to what effect, “are very hard to predict and will depend, among other things, on the outcome of the election, an assessment of the effect of sanctions on Iran, and the state of play regarding possible military action,” according to Potter.

Two key players -- Egypt, which has spearheaded the effort to convene such a conference, and Israel, as the region’s only known nuclear power -- must discuss the issue directly before the Helsinki meeting can be expected to materialize, some issue experts have argued. Direct dialogue also could benefit from active White House involvement, aimed at underscoring the importance of holding the conference -- either in 2012 or beyond, Kane said.

Egyptian officials insist that despite the leadership upheaval in their nation since last year, they remain committed to making the Helsinki conference a reality. However, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi reportedly has not yet been involved directly in the matter and the North African nation did not send an official representative to last week’s EU symposium.

Reasons behind Egypt’s nonparticipation remained somewhat unclear. Kane said, though, that Cairo did not favor an Israeli-supported focus on initiating regional confidence-building measures, wanting instead to move directly to discussing nuclear disarmament. Egypt also disagrees with Israel about what the objectives should be for the Helsinki conference, she said.

To Israeli leaders, establishing peace and security in the region should be the main goal of any talks aimed at leading to disarmament, government representatives have emphasized.

One former Israeli official last week said how the event proceeds should take into account continued regional volatility following the 2011 Arab Spring.

The neighboring nations must “focus on the relations between the core Middle East parties as the cornerstone of any [WMD-free zone] arrangement,” Ariel Levite, previously an Israeli Atomic Energy Commission policy deputy, said in a paper prepared for last week’s EU symposium. “The zone must emerge from the region and be the creation of the regional states working in partnership.”

“If you solve the problem of insecurity, you will solve the problem of weapons,” said Kane, describing an Israeli position with which she agrees.

Laajava has recommended that confidence-building and disarmament be pursued in parallel, Kane said. However, she said, “if countries won’t speak directly to each other, why are we speaking about disarmament?”

Potter said it seemed unlikely that the conference could be held prior to a planned April 2013 preparatory meeting in Switzerland on reviewing the NPT agreement, at which progress on the Mideast talks would certainly be discussed. However, he said, “it is conceivable that a date might be announced for such a [WMD-free zone] meeting in advance” of the Geneva gathering.

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