Diplomats Bound for Geneva with Differing Aims for Mideast WMD-Ban Talks

A light installation illuminates the National Theater in Helsinki, Finland, in January 2013. The city is expected to host a conference of nations on banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East, possibly before the end of this year.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
June 20, 2014, 10:58 a.m.

In­ter­na­tion­al en­voys are headed to Geneva on Tues­day to be­gin a fifth set of con­sulta­tions on the idea of ban­ning all weapons of mass de­struc­tion from the Middle East, but each key play­er brings some bag­gage in the form of con­flict­ing ob­ject­ives.

“Dif­fer­ent parties are jug­gling dif­fer­ent balls,” says Tariq Rauf, who dir­ects the Arms Con­trol and Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Pro­gram at the Stock­holm In­ter­na­tion­al Peace Re­search In­sti­tute.

In some cases — as with Egypt and Is­rael, for ex­ample — “it’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent ob­ject­ives [they seek] to achieve from this pro­cess,” Chen Kane, a seni­or re­search as­so­ci­ate at the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies, said in an early-June in­ter­view.

Some factors af­fect­ing vari­ous na­tions’ polit­ic­al po­s­i­tions on the mat­ter ap­pear dir­ectly re­lated to the ques­tion of wheth­er and how to cre­ate a spe­cial zone in which no nuc­le­ar, chem­ic­al or bio­lo­gic­al arms are al­lowed, while oth­ers may be un­re­lated, is­sue ex­perts and of­fi­cials tell Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

Some spoke for this story on con­di­tion of not be­ing named, cit­ing dip­lo­mat­ic sens­it­iv­it­ies sur­round­ing the del­ic­ate talks.

Dir­ectly at is­sue is the idea — sponsored ini­tially by Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty mem­ber states in 1995 and bolstered in 2010 — of hold­ing a ma­jor sum­mit about cre­at­ing a Mideast WMD-free zone. Such a glob­al con­fer­ence was to have been held in Fin­land by 2012, but has been post­poned re­peatedly for lack of re­gion­al con­sensus on the event’s spe­cif­ic agenda and ob­ject­ives.

A Hel­sinki con­fer­ence of Mideast and sup­port­ing na­tions — Rus­sia, the United King­dom and United States — re­mains pos­sible for later this year, though, ac­cord­ing to those close to the is­sue.

Ar­ab na­tions have fo­cused mainly on the idea of elim­in­at­ing Is­rael’s es­tim­ated 80 or more nuc­le­ar war­heads and bring­ing the coun­try un­der the non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ac­cord as a non-atom­ic-weapons state.

Is­rael has neither con­firmed nor denied it re­tains a nuc­le­ar stock­pile. Its dip­lo­mats have in­dic­ated that they might par­ti­cip­ate in such a con­fer­ence, but only if dia­logue oc­curs in the wider con­text of cre­at­ing an en­dur­ing Middle East peace.

Thus far, at least, Ar­ab states and Ir­an have res­isted the idea of in­cor­por­at­ing an Is­raeli push for con­fid­ence-build­ing meas­ures — such as in­form­a­tion swaps or in­spec­tion vis­its — in­to the pro­cess of cre­at­ing a re­gion­al WMD ban.

A num­ber of Mideast dip­lo­mats have ar­gued that smal­ler steps of this kind could dis­tract from mak­ing timely head­way on the more sub­stan­tial ob­ject­ive of fully elim­in­at­ing nuc­le­ar, chem­ic­al and bio­lo­gic­al arms.

An ar­ray of oth­er in­ter­na­tion­al ac­cords also could play in­to the pic­ture. Is­rael has not yet signed or rat­i­fied the Bio­lo­gic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion; neither Egypt nor Syr­ia has rat­i­fied the BWC agree­ment, though each has signed it; and Egypt has not yet signed or rat­i­fied the 190-na­tion Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion.

Par­ti­cipants in the talks were said to have made some pro­gress at the most re­cent con­sulta­tion ses­sion, held May 14 in Geneva, when two in­form­al dip­lo­mat­ic doc­u­ments were cir­cu­lated that summed up na­tion­al po­s­i­tions and offered some ideas for a con­fer­ence agenda and out­comes.

“Of course, coun­tries in the Middle East have mul­tiple goals — and, of course, con­flict­ing goals,” one dip­lo­mat track­ing the pro­cess said in a phone in­ter­view.

“[Still] one can see some com­mon ground,” the en­voy ad­ded. “If one can find enough com­mon ground to at­tend the con­fer­ence “¦ this com­mon ground could be ex­pan­ded in small steps, not in months but in the longer term.”

Some of the con­sid­er­a­tions fa­cing key par­ti­cipants in the con­sulta­tions — fa­cil­it­ated by Finnish dip­lo­mat Jaakko Laa­java — in­clude these, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­viewed of­fi­cials and ex­perts:

United States: Seni­or Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have in­dic­ated sup­port for the Mideast WMD-ban idea for years. But they also have staunchly de­fen­ded ally Is­rael’s con­cerns that it not be singled out for cri­ti­cism at any Hel­sinki con­fer­ence, par­tic­u­larly in light of grow­ing alarm throughout the re­gion that Ir­an might de­vel­op its own nuc­le­ar-arms ca­pa­city in vi­ol­a­tion of its Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty com­mit­ments.

“The Ar­ab states and some of the oth­er [Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty] parties have blamed the United States for the slow pro­gress,” Gaukhar Mukhatzhan­ova, also of the James Mar­tin Cen­ter, said in a re­cent Arms Con­trol Today ana­lys­is.

“Rus­sia bolstered the per­cep­tion of U.S. back­track­ing from the NPT prom­ises by pub­licly stat­ing that the United States had uni­lat­er­ally de­cided to post­pone the Middle East con­fer­ence when it had no right to do so,” she wrote. “If the con­fer­ence is not con­vened with­in a year, the United States can ex­pect to re­ceive a large share of the blame [at a five-year NPT Re­view Con­fer­ence] in 2015, even if its in­flu­ence on the out­come is less than it is widely per­ceived to be.”

Seni­or U.S. en­voy Thomas Coun­try­man in an in­ter­view last sum­mer ac­cused Egypt — which has taken the glob­al lead in press­ing for a Mideast WMD-free zone — of sta­ging “the­at­rics” rather than work­ing con­struct­ively on the mat­ter.

Coun­try­man, the as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of State for in­ter­na­tion­al se­cur­ity and non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, led the U.S. team at Laa­java’s earli­er mul­tina­tion­al con­sulta­tions in Gli­on, Switzer­land. Adam Schein­man, Coun­try­man’s seni­or ad­viser for nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, subbed for his boss at the May ses­sion, a State De­part­ment of­fi­cial con­firmed this week.

The de­part­ment of­fi­cial, who was not au­thor­ized to speak on the re­cord, said the lower-rank­ing of­fi­cial rep­res­en­ted Wash­ing­ton on that oc­ca­sion be­cause of schedul­ing con­flicts, and that Coun­try­man would per­son­ally lead the del­eg­a­tion at next week’s con­sulta­tion.

At the same time, the is­sue is far from the top of U.S. for­eign policy pri­or­it­ies.

Wash­ing­ton is “fo­cused on [the] Ir­an nuc­le­ar file, with­draw­al from Afgh­anistan, Ukraine, Syr­ia, Libya, Ir­aq, [and] mid-term elec­tions loom­ing,” Rauf said. “Win­dows [are] nar­row­ing for Obama on sev­er­al of these.”

At the same time, the White House would like to build the ground­work for a suc­cess­ful Re­view Con­fer­ence on the Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty, set for next spring in New York, and “does not want to have [it] fail on [the Mideast] is­sue,” Rauf said.

Egypt: In April 2013, Cairo’s del­eg­a­tion walked out of an NPT Pre­par­at­ory Com­mit­tee ses­sion in Geneva to protest the fail­ure to hold the Hel­sinki con­fer­ence by 2012.

Des­pite polit­ic­al tur­moil in the North Afric­an na­tion since then, For­eign Min­is­ter Nab­il Fahmi has voiced strong sup­port for the WMD-zone pro­cess and his na­tion has re­turned to the dis­cus­sions.

In gen­er­al, Egypt would like to strengthen its hand in its re­la­tion­ship with Is­rael and its clout as a Middle East lead­er at a time of sig­ni­fic­ant in­stabil­ity across the re­gion. At the same time, Cairo has long been anxious about the po­ten­tial that Ir­an will de­vel­op a nuc­le­ar-arms ca­pa­city and has hin­ted it could de­vel­op a sim­il­ar ar­sen­al of its own, in re­sponse.

Newly elec­ted Egyp­tian Pres­id­ent Ab­del Fat­tah el-Sisi this week named Sameh Shoukri, a former am­bas­sad­or to Wash­ing­ton, to re­place Fahmi.

Dip­lo­mats and ob­serv­ers noted that Fahmi for the first time dis­patched a high-rank­ing for­eign min­istry of­fi­cial — though one without deep back­ground in the WMD-free zone is­sue — to last month’s Geneva meet­ing. Pun­dits said it was not im­me­di­ately clear how to in­ter­pret the change in Egyp­tian rep­res­ent­a­tion.

“It is par­tic­u­larly im­port­ant for Egypt, the main pro­moter of the WMD-free zone, to show flex­ib­il­ity and lead­er­ship at this time and not let the pro­gress achieved in re­cent months slip away,” says Mukhatzhan­ova.

Is­rael: Many for­eign policy and de­fense ex­perts re­main highly skep­tic­al that Is­rael would ever con­tem­plate elim­in­at­ing its un­con­firmed nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al, and some say for that reas­on would be un­likely to take part in a Hel­sinki sum­mit on the top­ic.

Still, it has en­gaged fre­quently in dis­cus­sions with Laa­java and re­peatedly sent a high-rank­ing en­voy, Jeremy Is­sachar­off, to the mul­ti­lat­er­al con­sulta­tions.

For Is­rael, a main in­cent­ive for en­ga­ging with its Mideast neigh­bors on the WMD-free zone would be to make pro­gress to­ward its stra­tegic ob­ject­ive of gain­ing Ar­ab and Ir­a­ni­an re­cog­ni­tion of it­self as a state and a per­man­ent peace in the re­gion, many ex­perts agree.

“The Is­raeli side, with the con­cur­rence of the [United States and United King­dom], says that the price for it to at­tend the con­sulta­tions and the pro­posed con­fer­ence is to look [at] the big­ger se­cur­ity pic­ture, not just WMD, and that it is not bound by NPT out­comes as it is not a party to the treaty,” Rauf said.

Ir­an: Tehran took part in Laa­java’s first con­sultat­ive ses­sion last fall in Gli­on, but has not sent rep­res­ent­at­ives to such meet­ings since then.

Ir­a­ni­an of­fi­cials “found it dif­fi­cult to re­turn” to the pro­cess after fa­cing do­mest­ic cri­ti­cism “for par­ti­cip­at­ing in a meet­ing that in­volves Is­raeli of­fi­cials out­side the U.N. premises,” ac­cord­ing to Mukhatzhan­ova. Oth­er is­sue ex­perts have echoed that view.

In fact, Ir­an’s dip­lo­mat­ic fo­cus has re­mained squarely on its top pri­or­ity of on­go­ing ne­go­ti­ations with world powers over its con­tested nuc­le­ar pro­gram, in which Tehran may re­ceive long-term re­lief from eco­nom­ic sanc­tions in ex­change for lim­its on its atom­ic work.

The Ir­a­ni­ans “do not want to en­gage in oth­er fora, lest any state­ments by them be mis­in­ter­preted or provide fod­der for do­mest­ic and for­eign naysay­ers to the [nuc­le­ar ne­go­ti­ations] track,” Rauf told GSN. “Ir­an has giv­en a com­mit­ment that it will at­tend the [Hel­sinki] con­fer­ence when it has been de­cided to hold the con­fer­ence, based on an agreed agenda [and] mod­al­it­ies.”

A num­ber of oth­er ir­rit­ants also may be fuel­ing the Ir­a­ni­an de­cision to hold back from the WMD-free con­sulta­tion pro­cess for now, the ex­pert said.

For the time be­ing, at least, this has posed some chal­lenges for Laa­java.

The Finnish zone-talks fa­cil­it­at­or “wants fully em­powered del­eg­ates at a level au­thor­ized to take de­cisions, and for all states of the re­gion of the [Middle East] to be rep­res­en­ted at his con­sulta­tions,” Rauf said.

Laa­java and Ar­ab na­tions must “con­tin­ue en­ga­ging Ir­an to se­cure its buy-in on the de­cisions re­gard­ing the agenda and out­comes of the meet­ing,” in Mukhatzhan­ova’s view. “If the Middle East con­fer­ence con­venes and es­tab­lishes a pro­cess ad­dress­ing WMD is­sues and re­gion­al se­cur­ity in­volving all rel­ev­ant act­ors, in­clud­ing Ir­an, it would be an un­pre­ced­en­ted de­vel­op­ment for the re­gion and a boost for the cred­ib­il­ity” of the Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty, she said.

Cor­rec­tion: This art­icle was mod­i­fied after pub­lic­a­tion to note Shoukri’s ap­point­ment.

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