WASHINGTON -- A senior U.S. State Department official in an exclusive interview called Egypt’s walkout from a recent U.N.-sponsored conference “theatrics” that do not help the Arab state’s bid to create a special Middle East zone free of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
Cairo made news in April when its delegate left the Swiss-hosted conference to protest a lack of progress on the proposed regional ban on weapons of mass destruction, after a 2012 deadline for convening a formal gathering to discuss the topic was missed.
“To attain the participation of all regional states … is a task not only for the conveners and the facilitators,” said Thomas Countryman, the assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation. “The states of the region who want this to happen must also engage with each other, in order to set the agenda and the conditions for the conference.
“I think that’s possible to do,” he said in a late-June dialogue at his Foggy Bottom office, “but it requires not theatrics but engagement. And that’s what we haven’t seen.”
The idea for the conference stemmed from a resolution drafted by Egypt nearly two decades ago and embraced in 1995 by member nations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
A subsequent NPT Review Conference in 2010 agreed to hold the special gathering by 2012. However, U.N.-appointed facilitator Jaakko Laajava, a Finnish diplomat, was unable by the end of last year to get all Mideast nations to agree to participate.
Speaking at an April Preparatory Committee meeting aimed at planning the 2015 NPT Review Conference, Egyptian Ambassador Hisham Badr condemned what he termed “unilateral postponement” of the WMD-free zone confab, which is to be held in Helsinki.
He said that Laajava and the states tasked with helping support the conference -- Russia, the United States and United Kingdom -- should not have delayed setting a date for the formal WMD discussions, even though Israel had not yet agreed to attend.
“This followed the expressed commitment of all but one country in the Middle East to attend such a conference,” said Badr. “We reject the excuses that were given.”
Countryman, in the interview, suggested that domestic considerations last spring by Cairo’s since-ejected government, led at that time by Mohamed Morsi, were the primary motivation fueling Badr’s protest. In particular, the U.S. diplomat hinted that Egypt and its Arab League partners were blaming the stalled conference plans on Israel rather than agreeing to meet with all parties in a multilateral preliminary consultation, as Laajava has proposed and to which Israel has agreed.
The Finnish facilitator “is employing normal tools of diplomacy to solve an issue and to take a step forward,” Countryman told Global Security Newswire. “I would hope that all parties in the region would give him their full cooperation.”
A 31-year veteran diplomat whose multiple foreign assignments have included more than four years working on political and security issues in Egypt, Countryman also addressed a wide range of other topics in the June 26 interview. Those will be the focus of two forthcoming installments in this three-part interview series.
Edited excerpts of Part 1 of the session follow.
GSN: Given the inability thus far to even name a date for a conference on a proposed WMD-free zone in the Middle East, didn’t Egypt have a point in expressing its frustration by walking out of the April Preparatory Committee meeting on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty?
Countryman: We’re determined to meet both parts of our mandate, which is to hold the conference and to attain the participation of all regional states. To accomplish that, it is a task not only for the conveners and the facilitators. But the states of the region who want this to happen must also engage with each other, in order to set the agenda and the conditions for the conference.
I think that’s possible to do, but it requires not theatrics but engagement. And that’s what we haven’t seen.
GSN: So are you calling on Egypt, in particular, to set aside what you call theatrics and to meet bilaterally with Israel to discuss what each nation feels it needs from the conference? Or are you calling on states simply to join in what Ambassador Laajava has proposed, the multilateral consultations, which Egypt has said it would not want to attend without Israel first committing to the full conference?
Countryman: First, Egypt’s action is better understood in terms of Egypt’s domestic politics than it is in terms of making a contribution to the convening of this conference.
Second, Egypt, like every other state in the Middle East, will make its own decision. But if states are incapable of talking to each other before the conference, it’s very difficult to see how the conference will produce results.
GSN: Do you think it’s reasonable if Israel says it wants to see action toward a broader peace with its Arab neighbors before moving on to a conference on a WMD-free zone?
Countryman: I’m not sure that’s what Israel has said. Israel did say yes to a specific proposal from the facilitator to hold multilateral consultations to prepare for a conference in Helsinki. Despite that yes from Israel, those consultations did not happen. We still believe that would be a valuable -- in fact, an indispensable -- first step to get to the conference in Helsinki.
GSN: What the Egyptians and their Arab-nation allies have said is they would like to see a commitment from Israel that it would attend a conference --
Countryman: And that it wouldn’t walk out?
GSN: And that it wouldn’t walk out, for instance. So how do you address what Arab nations see as a valid concern -- that they have not yet seen a clear indication from Israel that it would attend a conference?
Countryman: I’m not aware that Israel has a legal obligation to attend this conference. They’re not part of the NPT; they were not part of the decision to hold the conference.
I do believe that Israel can be persuaded to attend the conference. But that is a task not for pressure from the facilitator or the conveners, but [one] that can be accomplished by sincere engagement from other states.
GSN: From the U.S. perspective, what is the game plan for trying to help the parties achieve that kind of meeting of the minds before the next NPT Preparatory Meeting in 2014, and of course before the topic is formally revisited during the NPT Review Conference in 2015?
Countryman: Put them in the same room and have them talk to each other.
GSN: So the game plan is to follow what Ambassador Laajava has proposed?
Countryman: I have great confidence in Ambassador Laajava. … He is employing normal tools of diplomacy to solve an issue and to take a step forward. I would hope that all parties in the region would give him their full cooperation.
GSN: How would you describe the current state of affairs on that? Experts in the non-governmental organization community say they have seen little activity as of late. Is it now time for a breather, or how would you help us understand what is currently happening?
Countryman: NGOs and the press have an extremely valuable role to play. But starting a dialogue is a job for old-fashioned, quiet diplomacy. It will not be solved by interviews, public statements and … theatrics.
GSN: Can you assure that activity is occurring behind the scenes?
Countryman: Mr. Laajava is working very hard with full support from the conveners. He doesn’t broadcast his every conversation, nor should he.
GSN: So the idea that we are in a breather period right now probably is not a valid interpretation of what’s going on now?
Countryman: No, it’s not.
Editor’s Note: Watch next Monday for Part 2 of this three-part interview.
This article was published in Global Security Newswire, which is produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.