Mideast Envoys Weigh Two New Bids to Jolt WMD-Ban Talks

Iranian students set an Israeli flag afire during a protest to defend their country's nuclear program outside the Fordo Uranium Conversion Facility in the northern town of Qom in November. Neither Iran nor Israel has ruled out participating in a major summit to explore a ban on nuclear, chemical and biological arms from the Middle East.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
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Elaine M. Grossman
June 6, 2014, 9:36 a.m.

In­ter­na­tion­al dip­lo­mats par­ti­cip­at­ing in in­form­al talks about ban­ning weapons of mass de­struc­tion from the Middle East re­turned to their cap­it­als from Geneva last month bear­ing two new doc­u­ments, ac­cord­ing to en­voys and ex­perts.

The so-called “non-pa­pers” — an Or­wellian term craf­ted to al­low au­thors and com­menters alike to re­main non­com­mit­tal — were aimed at identi­fy­ing where pro­gress might be made to­ward set­ting an agenda and ob­ject­ives for a ma­jor sum­mit in Fin­land, sources said.

The Hel­sinki con­fer­ence was to have been held by the end of 2012, but has been re­peatedly post­poned as Ar­ab states, Is­rael and Ir­an have bickered over what should be dis­cussed. Some say the event could yet oc­cur later this year.

Mideast na­tions also have not yet agreed on the type of pro­cess or frame­work that might fol­low a one- or two-day in­ter­na­tion­al sum­mit. Those of­fi­cially spon­sor­ing the dis­cus­sions in­clude the United Na­tions, a U.N.-ap­poin­ted “fa­cil­it­at­or,” and the na­tions of Rus­sia, the United States and United King­dom.

The ul­ti­mate goal would be to make the Middle East a re­gion­al zone in which all nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al and chem­ic­al weapons are pro­hib­ited.

A ma­jor point of con­ten­tion has been over how to get to that end ob­ject­ive. Ar­ab na­tions prin­cip­ally want to see pro­gress in dis­mant­ling Is­rael’s pre­sumed 80-war­head-or-so nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al and bring­ing the na­tion un­der the Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty as a non-atom­ic-weapons coun­try.

However, Is­rael has nev­er con­firmed pub­licly that it main­tains a nuc­le­ar stock­pile, and has said that it would par­ti­cip­ate in such a con­fer­ence only if dis­cus­sions ad­dress the broad­er con­text of cre­at­ing an en­dur­ing Middle East peace.

For starters, Is­raeli lead­ers would like to see the pro­cess res­ult in con­fid­ence-build­ing meas­ures among the un­easy neigh­bors, ar­guing that to dis­arm as a first step would put the cart be­fore the horse.

Ar­ab na­tions have been reti­cent to ac­cept that idea, though. They con­tend that swap­ping in­form­a­tion and vis­its would be a dis­trac­tion from — and an un­ac­cept­able sub­sti­tute for — mak­ing sub­stan­tial head­way on nuc­le­ar and oth­er WMD dis­arm­a­ment in the re­gion.

“They just see it as buy­ing time on what they con­sider the main is­sues,” Chen Kane, a seni­or re­search as­so­ci­ate at the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies, said in a Wed­nes­day phone in­ter­view.

If the spe­cial-zone concept were to come to fruition, Is­rael likely would have to join not only the NPT agree­ment, but also sign and rat­i­fy the Bio­lo­gic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion; Egypt must sign and rat­i­fy the 190-na­tion Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion; and Egypt and Syr­ia must rat­i­fy the Bio­lo­gic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion, which they have already signed.

At the May 14-15 con­sulta­tion ses­sion in Geneva, Finnish fa­cil­it­at­or Jaakko Laa­java is said to have cir­cu­lated among 18 par­ti­cip­at­ing na­tions the two non-pa­pers in hopes of spur­ring fur­ther use­ful dis­cus­sion about the con­fer­ence agenda and out­comes, an ar­ray of mul­tina­tion­al sources tell Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. Some spoke for this art­icle on con­di­tion of not be­ing named, cit­ing dip­lo­mat­ic sens­it­iv­it­ies.

One of the doc­u­ments rounds up ideas put forth by the vari­ous par­ti­cipants, these sources said. The oth­er — re­portedly draf­ted by a spon­sor­ing del­eg­a­tion — of­fers some spe­cif­ic ele­ments for pro­cess out­comes.

The good news emer­ging from Geneva last month, says one dip­lo­mat track­ing the pro­cess: “Nobody re­jec­ted the non-pa­pers. On the con­trary, they were found to be use­ful.”

Sev­er­al oth­ers shared that view, but many re­main pess­im­ist­ic for the long-term out­look.

“My sense is that the pro­spects for a break­through with re­spect to agree­ment on a date for the con­fer­ence in Hel­sinki has di­min­ished in the past three months,” Wil­li­am Pot­ter, who dir­ects the James Mar­tin Cen­ter, said in an email late last month.

He noted that Wash­ing­ton did not dis­patch its top dip­lo­mat re­spons­ible for the is­sue, Thomas Coun­try­man, to the latest con­sulta­tions, and that a seni­or en­voy rep­res­en­ted Egypt there but was re­l­at­ively new to the Mideast WMD-free zone mat­ter.

The May con­sulta­tion was the fourth such in­ter­na­tion­al dis­cus­sion event over­all, but the first held in Geneva.

Laa­java has led three pri­or ses­sions at a hotel in the Swiss re­sort town of Gli­on since last Oc­to­ber. However, Ar­ab states and Ir­an have pro­tested that Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty na­tions had called for talks to take place un­der U.N. aus­pices.

For its part, Ir­an at­ten­ded the first Gli­on ses­sion but is not ex­pec­ted to re­join the con­sulta­tions while high-pro­file ne­go­ti­ations with world powers over its nuc­le­ar pro­gram re­main un­der way.

Is­rael — not a party to the NPT ac­cord and not dir­ectly in­volved in the ori­gin­al ef­fort to cre­ate a Mideast WMD-free zone — has bristled at meet­ing on the top­ic in U.N. ven­ues, par­tic­u­larly giv­en its com­plex his­tory with the in­ter­na­tion­al or­gan­iz­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to en­voys and ex­perts.

Is­rael­is “are not too keen on high vis­ib­il­ity or [a] role for the U.N., giv­en the U.N.’s stance on [the] state of Palestine, and oth­er is­sues of se­cur­ity [and] polit­ic­al im­port­ance for Is­rael,” said Tariq Rauf, who dir­ects the Stock­holm In­ter­na­tion­al Peace Re­search In­sti­tute’s Arms Con­trol and Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Pro­gram.

Laa­java ended up con­ven­ing the mid-May meet­ing at a U.N. build­ing in Geneva but apart from the headquar­ters. U.N. flags pos­ted in the meet­ing room ap­par­ently caused an ini­tial stir, one ex­pert source said, but the ven­ue com­prom­ise ul­ti­mately ap­peared to be ac­cept­able to all par­ti­cipants.

The next such con­sulta­tion — tent­at­ively slated for June 24-25 — is also to be held in Geneva.

A bit of ad­di­tion­al drama is said to have marred the latest con­sulta­tions.

Ar­ab dip­lo­mats grumbled that the Is­raeli del­eg­a­tion ab­ruptly backed out of the planned second day of the May con­sulta­tions. Is­raeli en­voys re­portedly said that the change in plans was un­re­lated to the in­form­al talks and purely lo­gist­ic­al in nature, and that they in­tend to con­tin­ue par­ti­cip­at­ing in the pro­cess.

Some sources noted, though, that it was un­clear wheth­er there would have been suf­fi­cient reas­on for meet­ing on a second day any­way.

Many of the en­voys at­tend­ing last month’s con­fab lacked de­cision au­thor­ity, so a num­ber of del­eg­a­tions in Geneva were un­able to com­ment on the non-pa­pers without check­ing back with their home cap­it­als, of­fi­cials and ex­perts said.

The in­clu­sion of lower-rank­ing dip­lo­mats, com­pared to earli­er ses­sions, meant some were “in­de­cis­ive and not fully em­powered to de­cide on the fa­cil­it­at­or’s pro­pos­als,” Rauf said.

Laa­java has voiced “a long­stand­ing com­plaint” that na­tions should send “fully em­powered del­eg­ates, at the right seni­or­ity level, to at­tend his con­sulta­tions with the au­thor­ity to take de­cisions on the [con­fer­ence] agenda, tim­ing [and] mod­al­it­ies,” Rauf said in a Tues­day email, re­spond­ing to ques­tions.

Mean­while, the na­tions have set aside for now an idea floated earli­er this year to peri­od­ic­ally break in­to smal­ler work­ing groups that could tee up agenda and out­come pro­pos­als for all par­ti­cipants to con­sider in full plen­ary con­sulta­tion ses­sions, ac­cord­ing to sources.

Is­rael’s neigh­bors — which have strived to speak with one voice on the mat­ter via the Ar­ab League — to date have not sor­ted out how work­ing-group mem­bers could make head­way on their own, sources ex­plained. For now, the con­sulta­tions will con­tin­ue to be held with all parties around a big table, ac­cord­ing to those closely fol­low­ing the is­sue.

Sep­ar­ately, form­al work­ing groups on polit­ic­al mat­ters, tech­nic­al is­sues and con­fid­ence-build­ing steps might be cre­ated fol­low­ing a Hel­sinki con­fer­ence as part of any con­tinu­ing pro­cess aimed at even­tu­ally es­tab­lish­ing the zone, Kane and oth­er is­sue ex­perts said.

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