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."