This article originally appeared in Global Security Newswire, produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group whose mission is preventing the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
As the one-year anniversary approaches on an international commitment to discuss the elimination of weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, little progress has been made on even the most preliminary steps.
At a month-long meeting last May at the United Nations, member states to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty agreed to convene a regional conference in 2012 "on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction."
The initiative dates back to a pledge first made by the accord's 189 member nations at a similar five-year NPT review conference in 1995. With virtually no headway made toward establishing such a zone over the ensuing 15 years, Egypt successfully led an effort last May to make regional WMD elimination the centerpiece of the 2010 treaty review conference.
Though many diplomats and experts acknowledge that the end objective might never be achieved, they argue that simply airing regional concerns and undertaking confidence-building measures could go a long way toward reducing the risk that nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons would be used sometime in the future.
"The aim at the moment is to get a process started," said one foreign envoy. This official and several others interviewed asked not to be named in this article because of diplomatic sensitivities.
To get the latest initiative going, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and three sponsoring nations -- Russia, the United Kingdom and United States -- were to name a facilitator to guide the process, in consultation with states in the region. They would also identify a host government for the 2012 gathering.
Despite a flurry of consultations over the past several months, though, these initial steps have yet to be taken.
The sluggish pace of planning is not only throwing into doubt the feasibility of holding a conference in 2012. To some extent, the viability of international consensus on nuclear nonproliferation is at stake, according to officials and experts.
The recommendations for pursuing a special zone in the Middle East "allowed buy-in" last year by the 116-nation Nonaligned Movement for other nonproliferation and disarmament provisions in the NPT conference final text, said William Potter, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Without that key initiative, consensus at the 2010 review conference likely would have fallen apart, he said.
A failure to make progress on the WMD-free area could spell trouble for international cooperation on nonproliferation and disarmament as the next NPT review conference approaches in 2015.
"If we are unable to implement the recommendations on the Middle East, we will see the unraveling of the other points," he told Global Security Newswire in an interview late last month.
The statement that emerged from last year's NPT conference included 64 action items on a range of issues related to the nonproliferation pact's "three pillars": stemming nuclear proliferation, working toward the global elimination of existing arsenals, and making civil nuclear energy available to nations in good standing under the accord.
Examples include a commitment by member states not to explosively test weapons nor take "any action that would defeat the object and purpose" of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, pending its entry into force. Another action item encourages all nuclear-armed nations to offer assurances that they would never target member states without such arsenals.
Obstacles to moving forward with the WMD-zone conference are based primarily on longstanding animosities and distrust in the region. Israel is the only nation in the Middle East believed to have nuclear weapons, but Jerusalem has never confirmed their existence.
To complicate matters further, Israel is not a member of the 1970 nonproliferation treaty, so it did not participate in last year's review conference. U.S. officials did consult separately with their Israeli counterparts at the time, though, and coordinated with other diplomats on the possibility of Jerusalem's cooperation in planning for a regional conference.
Still, following the release of the meeting's final document, U.S. and Israeli officials decried the Middle East resolution for calling on Israel by name to join the nonproliferation accord as a non-nuclear state. They warned that perceived antagonism of this kind might hinder Jerusalem's participation in a 2012 regional conference.
"The result is a very one-sided document that singles out Israel, makes no mention of the Middle East member states of the NPT that noncomply repeatedly with the NPT," retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom said at a Carnegie conference on nuclear policy held here in March. "I am referring, of course, to Iran and Syria, which makes the whole idea of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East somehow unrealistic."
Israel would also like to ensure that any such conference address the full range of WMD threats, to include chemical and biological weapons, as the NPT final document text states.
Neither Egypt nor Syria has signed the treaty calling for the elimination of all chemical weapons, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and both are widely suspected of having retained for decades arms banned by the pact.
Israel, which has signed but not ratified the chemical arms accord, is also one of 23 nations not party to the Biological Weapons Convention. Egypt, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates have signed the bioweapons treaty, which bans the production or retention of disease-based arms, but they have not ratified the agreement.
"I think Israel is very interested to speak with its neighbors about issues of arms control and nonproliferation, [and] how to limit the danger of weapons of mass destruction proliferation in the Middle East," Chen Kane, a senior research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said in a Tuesday interview. "The question is which forum and what... topics are going to be discussed. And this is not going to be only a one-way discussion."
That prospect might already have some nations in the region spooked. Potter noted that the Arab League appears "to have major reservations about this conference," specifically noting reluctance expressed by Syria, Iran, and Algeria. "So it's not at all clear that you'll gain the support of key players as this moves forward."
"Basically the whole point is not about the [final document] text, but more an issue of political will," Khaled Shamaa, an Egyptian diplomat, said at the Carnegie conference. He spoke alongside Brom during the panel discussion.
From the perspective of Israel's neighbors, Jerusalem has been a freeloader on an international regime -- the NPT agreement -- aimed at preventing others from acquiring nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the United States has indulged its ally and held others in the Middle East to a double standard, Shamaa said.
"As long as Israel rejects the NPT as an instrument," one must question why Jerusalem "is so adamant about states in the region complying with that treaty," he said. "The status quo of one state being a free rider on a legal regime in the region does not help to strengthen that regime."
Despite Israel's admonitions, it has not ruled out taking part in a conference and has even shown some early signs of openness to discussing this type of zone. The main concern for Jerusalem, according to several issue-watchers, is to ensure a constructive discussion at the event, one that would not devolve into Israel-bashing on the part of Arab states and Iran.
"If all these elements will be assured, I would stay that [there is] a fair chance that Israel will consider coming to it," said Brom, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Uncertainty remains, though, about how plans for the gathering will unfold in the context of a stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. President Obama on Thursday delivered a major address intended to kick-start Middle East talks, but continuing rancor in that arena could well spill over into the WMD-free zone initiative, experts said.
At the same time, Arab nations are mulling the possibility of reintroducing a resolution at the U.N. nuclear agency this fall calling on Israel to join the nonproliferation treaty, a move that might spoil any nascent plans for the 2012 conference.
The International Atomic Energy Agency's 151-nation General Conference narrowly rejected such a measure last September after a vigorous U.S. diplomatic lobbying effort in support of Israel.
The Egyptian-spearheaded effort to hold the WMD conference also comes amid heightened anxiety throughout the region about the prospect that Iran might build a nuclear arsenal of its own. While Cairo is primarily concerned about Jerusalem's stockpile next door, it is increasingly eyeing a potential threat from Tehran, one that might someday prompt Egypt to acquire its own atomic arms.
Despite widespread views to the contrary, the government in Tehran insists that its nuclear energy efforts are purely peaceful. However, one former Iranian diplomat suggested that the only way to force Israel to ultimately eliminate its nuclear stockpile is for other nations in the region to acquire their own atomic arsenals.
"I believe Israelis would be ready to consider this initiative seriously when [and] if other countries like Iran and Egypt and Turkey then gain capability on [the] nuclear issue," Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a visiting research scholar at Princeton University, said during the Carnegie panel discussion. "When they gain, then Israel would be ready to leave the monopoly."
Iran next year is expected to succeed Egypt as chairman of the powerful Nonaligned Movement of developing states, which might also affect prospects for the conference.
In the meantime, the revolutions and instability in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the region have increased the potential for shifting government positions on disarmament and nonproliferation matters. The regional developments this year seem to justify postponement of the conference, according to the Obama administration's point man on the issue.
"Whether or not we can still make that 2012 meeting is, I think, much less clear," Gary Samore, National Security Council coordinator for arms control and nonproliferation, told Arms Control Today last month. "Given the disagreements in the region on these issues and given the turmoil and uncertainty in the region, this whole thing is going to be a very challenging enterprise."
Egyptians and key figures at the United Nations, though, do not want to delay the conference, according to those closely tracking the matter.
"None of the developments in the region [has] undermined the international consensus on the desirability of achieving a zone in the Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery," said one U.N. diplomatic source.
The Egyptians "say they will never postpone this conference," Kane agreed. "They are afraid if it does not happen in 2012, it will not happen at all."
Most of the burden of garnering consensus on a facilitator and host nation for the event has fallen on the three sponsoring nations, with Washington in the lead, several issue experts said.
The process has produced long lists of names perceived by one side or another to be insufficiently neutral on Middle East matters, according to those close to the issue. Candidate nations to host a conference and provide a high-level diplomat as facilitator initially included Canada and, later, Austria, according to U.S. and other sources.
However, in international consultations these nations appear to have been ruled out in favor of a Northern European government, potentially Finland, Norway or Sweden, these sources said. The NPT final document text also allows for the possibility that a facilitator would hail from somewhere other than the conference host nation.
Nonproliferation advocates are getting increasingly antsy about the timing. There was widespread hope that the conference could take place before an NPT preparatory review meeting in May 2012, in the lead-up to the next five-year conference in 2015.
However, many international issue specialists will be taking part in a nuclear security conference in Seoul, South Korea, already slated for March 2012. There is little time left this year for an as-yet unnamed facilitator to hash out regional consensus over an agenda and objectives for a Mideast conference prior to that, several experts worry.
"My fear is that this selection process will be so delayed that there will be little time for the facilitator to do his [or] her job," Potter said.
Bets now are that if the conference ever gets off the ground, it will take place either in the second half of 2012 or sometime in 2013, several experts said.
To Obama administration officials, the question has become "how much political capital are we willing to pay" to help Egypt achieve this political success, said Kane. Suspicions are percolating that even if a Mideast conference is held, Egypt will return to the NPT review conference in 2015 and argue that insufficient progress has been made toward the goal of actually establishing the special zone, she said.
Government officials in Washington are treading very carefully to ensure that Israel is brought along every step of the way, particularly following Jerusalem's harsh reaction after being called out in the NPT final document text.
"They're very nervous about upsetting the Israelis again," the foreign diplomat said of the Obama administration.
"The U.S. is in a very difficult position," Kane said. "They are concerned about the success of NPT 2015 review conference, they are concerned about proliferation in the Middle East, and they know the 2012 [conference] will not solve any of these problems. But they have made a commitment and they need to deliver. The question [is] at what cost."
In spite of the obstacles, advocates say they remain motivated by a remote-yet-thrilling possibility that the process could have extraordinary ramifications.
A unifying objective for many of those involved is the prospect of an Israeli partnership with Egypt to lead the fight against WMD proliferation in Iran, Syria and throughout the region.
Such an outcome is not out of the question, said Kane, assuming "mature leadership in both countries."
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