In Twist, Talks on Banning Mideast WMDs Shift to Geneva

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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.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
May 9, 2014, 9:40 a.m.

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.

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