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A Nuclear Muddle in the Middle East

Paul Meyer on what the failure to hold a conference on a WMD-free Middle East will mean for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

By: /
2 May, 2013
Paul Meyer
By: Paul Meyer
Adjunct professor of international studies, Simon Fraser University

The 190 states parties to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) have enough problems trying to cope with current challenges to the treaty without adding the Middle East into the mix, but stuck with it they are. This year’s meeting of the preparatory committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference which is currently underway in Geneva has been marked by sharp exchanges over the failure to hold a conference on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. The conference was supposed to have occurred in 2012; organized by the three convenors of the conference (the US, UK and Russia – the three NPT depository governments) with the help of a facilitator, and attended by all states in the region. Agreement on holding the  conference was crucial to achieving a consensus outcome at the NPT’s 2010 Review Conference.

Last year saw the selection of a host government and the appointment of a facilitator: Finland, and senior Finnish diplomat Jaako Laajava.  Ambassador Laajava got to work immediately and engaged in an intensive process of shuttle diplomacy. Initial reports from him seemed positive and although Israel, the only non-NPT state in the region, did not publicly commit to attend, the conference appeared to be on track for Helsinki in December 2012. But it was not to be, for in late November of that year it was announced in a series of separate statements by the convenors that the conference would have to be postponed.  A close reading of the statements issued by the three convenors revealed that the common front they had presented to date had cracked under the strain.  On one side, Russia criticized the postponement decision and said it should only have been countenanced if new dates, no later than April 2013, had been agreed to by the parties.   On the other side, the U.S. statement set no time frame for the conference and declared its opposition to any conference in which any participating state “would be subject to pressure or isolation.”

Behind the scenes the facilitator continued to engage with regional parties and proposed the convening of multilateral consultations on the parameters for the conference, prior to the convening of the NPT’s preparatory committee session.  The Arab League states submitted a paper to the facilitator outlining its views on the scope and modalities for the conference, stressing that its agenda should be restricted to the establishment in the Middle East of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and related follow-up measures. It emerged however that such a restricted agenda would not be acceptable to Israel, which wanted to have other issues such as regional security, conventional arms, and confidence building added to the agenda.  Finding themselves at an impasse,  the nerves of the key protagonists began to show signs of strain.

The facilitator’s studiously optimistic report to the current NPT session seemed to represent the victory of hope over experience. Ambassador Laajava recalled the more than 300 rounds of discussions with various concerned parties that he and his team have conducted.  He noted the separate papers on the agenda, modalities and rules of procedures he had prepared and shared with the parties, and his eleventh hour proposal last November for convening multilateral consultations to consider the subject of the conference. While he acknowledged that all this had come to naught, and that the “postponement was very unfortunate,” he still found grounds for optimism. He took heart from the fact that all states were still willing to continue the preparations for the conference and claimed, “we are in fact and in spite of the remaining challenges closer to the convening of the conference than ever before.”  He urged delegations to focus on the positive and concluded, with reference to the recent agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, that “Sometimes virtually intractable problems get solved, against all odds.”

Although the facilitator’s perseverance with his mission is admirable, there are clearly negative repercussions from the postponement decision. The inability to bring the parties to the envisaged “talks about talks” has negatively influenced the atmosphere for the current preparatory committee session. Various players are giving vent to their frustration: the Russian representative decried the unilateral nature of the postponement decision, saying that Russia had never given its consent to this action. The Arab League stated that “the unilateral postponement by the conference organizers should be considered a shirking of their responsibilities… ,” and that the continued failure to convene the conference “will unquestionably have a negative impact on the current review session and indeed on the non-proliferation regime itself.”  The Egyptian representative, in an April 29 statement decried the postponement as “a flagrant non-fulfillment of agreed commitments,” and his delegation walked out of the rest of the preparatory committee session by way of protest over “this unacceptable and continuous failure.”   The Head of the U.S. delegation (Thomas Countryman, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security) stressed that direct engagement of the concerned parties was essential if the present impasse was to be overcome. Ensuring participation by all regional states in the eventual Helsinki conference “will only be possible if each State believes its key concerns can be addressed within the agenda of the Conference. And that agenda simply cannot be dictated from outside the region… ” At a separate public event Mr. Countryman was even blunter, stating that Israel was not obligated by the 2010 NPT decision to which it was not a party and that the U.S. “could not and would not” force it to attend the envisaged conference. The current squabbles as to the format for the multilateral consultations about the conference amounted to so much “diplomatic bull****” that would have to be overcome if the 2010 decision was ever to be realized.

The Iranian representatives at the preparatory committee session were delighted with the imbroglio over the Helsinki conference as it allowed them to shift the critical spotlight off their own nuclear activities and redirect it against the “intransigent policy of the Zionist regime” and its “clandestine development of nuclear weapons.”  Indonesia, speaking on behalf of the powerful Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) bloc of states, “deplores that Israel continues to undermine the convening of the Conference by not declaring its intention to participate in it.”  The NAM called for convening the Helsinki conference at the earliest date in 2013 and sought from the convenors “credible assurances regarding the unconditional participation of Israel.”  Looking ahead to the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the NAM said it would press for the establishment of a standing committee to “follow up inter-sessionally on the implementation of the recommendations by the Review Conference concerning Israel’s prompt accession to the NPT and placement of all its nuclear facilities under IAEA full-scope safeguards…”

As the above brief survey of opinion on the part of influential states indicates, the controversy over the failure to hold the conference on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East is casting a pall over the proceedings of the NPT. If left unresolved, this dispute could have the potential to derail the major decision-making NPT Review Conference in two years time.  Although Israel is within its rights to ignore the 2010 NPT decision to which it was not a party, this decision was part of an outcome that was supported by many of its key supporters, most notably the U.S.  While Arab states would no doubt seek to have any eventual conference focus on Israel and its non-adherence to the NPT, the conference mandate and some of its participants would allow for discussion of Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, all of which have WMD-related issues meriting critical scrutiny.  In order to mount some kind of conference before the end of 2013, it will take not only the facilitator’s dogged diplomacy but a revival of common efforts by the three convenors and a degree of flexibility on the part of the states of the Middle East.  If this year ends again without a credible event in keeping with the 2010 NPT Review Conference decision, the ensuing damage will be felt less in the region than by the NPT regime itself. 

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