The European Union is readying plans to convene a meeting early next month at which government officials and issue experts are to discuss prospects for eliminating weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (see GSN, May 20).
Invitations to the July 6-7 "seminar" in Brussels, Belgium, are set to go out by next week to as many as 180 potential participants, according to Annalisa Giannella, the EU personal representative for WMD nonproliferation.
Attendees could include representatives of EU member states and institutions, all Middle East countries, nuclear-weapon states, international organizations, and academic institutions, according to the Council of the European Union.
Speaking Monday by phone from her Brussels office, Giannella said longstanding obstacles to establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East should not be allowed to hamper innovative thinking and dialogue.
"I don't think that because something is difficult, you should not even try to work on it," she said in an interview. "Many things are difficult in this world. And so, if you just give up before trying, that's a mistake."
The objective of creating a special zone free of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons might seem particularly remote in a region where Israel is widely believed to maintain—but does not acknowledge—an arsenal of some 100 atomic warheads.
At the same time, Iran and Syria have stirred concerns that their civil nuclear energy programs have a military dimension, despite official denials. The U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has repeatedly cited Tehran and Damascus for failing to comply fully with international safeguards (see GSN, June 2 and June 2).
Several Middle East nations are known or presumed to have chemical-weapons stocks, with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq reported to have actually used such arms against Iran and its own Kurdish population during the 1980s.
Iraq in 2009 joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, a 188-nation pact that calls for the elimination of all chemical arms. However, neither Egypt nor Syria has signed the pact, and both are believed to have retained weapons banned by the agreement. Israel has signed but not ratified the accord.
Jerusalem is also one of 23 governments not party to the Biological Weapons Convention. Egypt, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates have signed the bioweapons treaty, which forbids the production or retention of disease-based arms, but they have not ratified the agreement.
Issue experts say a protracted series of setbacks in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has contributed to dampening hopes that Jerusalem and its neighbors could discuss these delicate issues—let alone ever agree on radical changes to the regional security dynamic that a WMD-free zone would represent.
In the Middle East, long-running differences over the details of prospective negotiations and deep-seated concerns about the end game "have a history of blocking initial progress towards peace and security because, as soon as they are considered and discussed, they overwhelm and paralyze substantive debates," said Patricia Lewis, deputy director and scientist-in-residence at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.
Perhaps the primary obstacle to making headway toward eliminating weapons of mass destruction in the region is so-called "sophisticated cynicism," she said. A prevalent view in governments and the nonproliferation community is that realizing the objective of a special Mideast zone is so unlikely as to make even working on the issue appear naïve, according to Lewis.
"We are not naïve, it is clear that it is difficult to imagine that the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East could take place independently from a comprehensive peace settlement," Giannella, an Italian national, said in December 2009 in prepared remarks at a NATO conference.
Advocates of dialogue "hope to illustrate the achievability of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East before all parties get snared in the multitude of traps and pitfalls made from political preconditions and other seemingly intractable impossibilities that are so well known and treasured in the region," Lewis said.
At the very least, discussions about such a zone hold the potential for bringing regional antagonists to the same table, easing strains and building confidence, according to issue experts.
"If we could have all the countries in the region there, that per se, would be a success," Giannella said of the July seminar.
Another sign of progress during the event would be "to have a real discussion, meaning not the repetition only of the well known national positions ... but a real discussion on the real issues," she said. "An open discussion where people dare think something which is beyond or below what they say officially."
"A success will be defined by its taking place and people discussing the issue," agreed Lewis.
The Council of the European Union last December said the seminar "would enable focused and structured discussion on the requirements that might in [the] future lead to the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other WMD and their delivery systems."
The goal, according to the E.U. Council, would be to "increase mutual understanding of issues affecting the regional security landscape," develop an "understanding of practical steps required" for establishing a WMD-free zone, and "contribute to efforts to universalize" nonproliferation and disarmament treaties, among other matters.
Discussion topics during the event are to be introduced in a neutral manner by academics unaffiliated with national governments, in hopes of setting a fair and balanced tone, Giannella said.
A not-for-attribution format should also encourage nations in the region to send representatives to take part in a candid exchange about some sensitive topics, she said.
"You have to find a way of convincing everybody to participate in an open dialogue, which will address in different sessions the problems and the weaknesses of each of them," she said.
Following a first such E.U.-sponsored session on a Mideast WMD zone, held in Paris in June 2008, Giannella said she is "optimistic" that even nations such as Israel, Iran and Syria might attend. Participants in the earlier seminar recommended that this year's follow-up event include representatives from more governments.
"It is not true that they cannot be in the same room and they cannot talk," she told Global Security Newswire. "It is possible."
Progress on the issue has been long in the making. An effort in 1995 to initiate talks on creating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East languished for more than a decade, amid setbacks in Arab-Israeli dialogue and, for a time, disaffection with Bush administration arms control and nonproliferation policies.
A major conference held last year in New York to review progress in implementing the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty gave the initiative new impetus. Egypt led an effort to include in the 2010 NPT review conference "final document" a commitment 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 U.N. secretary general and three supporting nations -- Russia, the United Kingdom and United States -- have yet to name a facilitator to guide the 2012 conference process, in consultation with Mideast nations. The NPT document also calls on these leaders to identify a host government, but similarly this has not yet been done.
Israel is not party to the Nonproliferation Treaty and did not directly take part in drafting last year's review conference statement. However, the U.S. delegation reportedly conferred about the issue with Jerusalem's representatives on the sidelines of the New York gathering. Afterwards, both Washington and Israel publicly objected to wording in the consensus final document that singled out Jerusalem for criticism in remaining outside the treaty.
Recent behind-the-scenes discussion about the 2012 conference has centered on the possibility of naming a Northern European government -- possibly Finland, Norway or Sweden—to sponsor next year's event, with a facilitator potentially being a diplomat who hails from one of those nations.
However, the European Union's seminar is not directly linked with the NPT process. The E.U. event can go forward next month regardless of whether a facilitator and host nation have been named for the major 2012 conference.
"We don't depend on the appointment of a facilitator [or] on the announcement about the venue of the conference of 2012, nor do we intend to have a document adopted by the seminar," Giannella said. "It is sort of a self-standing initiative."
Still, she added, "if it is successful, it may be useful" in advancing dialogue next year about the creation of a special Middle East zone.
"Many diplomats had hoped that the facilitator would be in place prior to the Brussels meeting," said William Potter, director of the James Martin Center. "I fear that absent a facilitator, the Brussels meeting will take on more of an academic flavor, but hopefully it will spur more timely action by key states parties."
One drawback in holding the seminar before the NPT process has made initial headway might be that a 2012 conference facilitator could not take part in the impending E.U.-sponsored discussions, Giannella said.
"I think it would be useful for the facilitator to participate in our seminar," she said. "But I don't think that it makes a big change for us if the facilitator is appointed before or afterwards."
Potter said the increased global attention to the issue prompted by the EU event could spur new progress in planning the larger regional conference, which issue specialists say might be postponed until 2013.
"The E.U. seminar may be helpful in shining the spotlight on the failure to date by NPT states parties to select a venue for the 2012 [Middle East] conference and a facilitator for that event," Potter told GSN on Thursday.
Giannella said the E.U. process could actually benefit from being separate from the high-stakes NPT initiative, which will undergo another progress assessment during the next NPT review conference in 2015.
"The fact that everything is delinked" could "facilitate the participation of the countries in the region, and facilitate the openness in the debate, because this character of preparation [for] the [2012 regional] conference is not there," she said.
As the E.U. seminar in Brussels approaches, a consortium of European security think tanks will prepare up to eight background papers that could form the basis of discussion.
The so-called EU Nonproliferation Consortium -- formed last year between la Fondation pour la Recherche Stratigique, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute -- will post the papers on its website prior to the July event.
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