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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