Mideast Talks Facilitator: ‘Divergent Views Persist’ on WMD-Free Zone

Iranian Shahab-2 and Shahab-3 missiles stand on display in front of a large portrait of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a square in south Tehran, circa September 2008. Iran has sat out the latest consultations aimed at convening a major conference to discuss banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman
May 5, 2014, 7:18 a.m.

An en­voy fa­cil­it­at­ing talks on po­ten­tially ban­ning weapons of mass de­struc­tion from the Middle East had some pos­it­ive and neg­at­ive things to say last week.

On the one hand, Finnish dip­lo­mat Jaakko Laa­java said he and oth­er spon­sors of the pro­cess have been “im­pressed” by a “read­i­ness to en­gage” on the part of na­tions in the re­gion. He said Middle East par­ti­cipants “wish to make pro­gress,” and have taken an “open and con­struct­ive ap­proach” to the idea of hold­ing ma­jor talks in Hel­sinki, Fin­land.

On the oth­er hand, “di­ver­gent views per­sist re­gard­ing im­port­ant as­pects of the con­fer­ence,” Laa­java said. The chal­lenges will re­quire a “con­tin­ued con­struct­ive at­ti­tude and read­i­ness to find the ne­ces­sary com­prom­ises,” he said.

Laa­java was re­port­ing on Thursday to an on­go­ing Pre­par­at­ory Com­mit­tee meet­ing be­ing held in New York in ad­vance of next year’s five-year Re­view Con­fer­ence on the Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty.

The vet­er­an dip­lo­mat is the des­ig­nated fa­cil­it­at­or of the U.N.-sponsored pro­cess to con­vene the Hel­sinki con­fer­ence, aimed at dis­cuss­ing a fu­ture WMD ban in the Middle East. Laa­java has led three con­sultat­ive ses­sions on the mat­ter since Oc­to­ber in Gli­on, Switzer­land, for re­gion­al states to in­form­ally con­sider how such a ground­break­ing in­ter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence might play out.

Seni­or rep­res­ent­at­ives of Egypt, Is­rael and oth­er key Middle East coun­tries have at­ten­ded the be­hind-closed-doors con­sulta­tions. Ir­an — whose nuc­le­ar activ­it­ies have drawn sus­pi­cions about pos­sible mil­it­ary ob­ject­ives that are now the fo­cus of talks between Tehran and six ma­jor powers — at­ten­ded the first Gli­on ses­sion last year but sat out sub­sequent meet­ings in Novem­ber and Feb­ru­ary.

At the Swiss re­sort town, the un­easy Mideast neigh­bors have been try­ing to hash out an agenda, lo­gist­ic­al de­tails and rules of pro­ced­ure for the ma­jor con­fer­ence of na­tions in Hel­sinki. No date has been set yet for the big gath­er­ing, but Laa­java said he hopes “con­sensus can be reached this year” about tim­ing. Fin­land stands ready to host it at “short no­tice,” he said.

Laa­java said the Gli­on ses­sions have “con­trib­uted to a bet­ter aware­ness and un­der­stand­ing” of the “pos­sib­il­it­ies and im­plic­a­tions” that a sum­mit in which na­tions dis­cuss such a ban could af­fect “peace and sta­bil­ity in the Middle East re­gion and bey­ond.”

Three na­tions are of­fi­cially spon­sor­ing the pro­cess as “con­veners”: Rus­sia, the United King­dom and the United States. However, like their Mideast coun­ter­parts, the con­ven­ing na­tions have bickered at times over the polit­ics and motives swirl­ing around the ne­go­ti­at­ing pro­cess.

Rus­sia and Egypt have cri­ti­cized the United States for al­low­ing a delay in hold­ing the Hel­sinki con­fab past Decem­ber 2012 — a dead­line set by the 2010 NPT Re­view Con­fer­ence — when Wash­ing­ton’s closest ally in the re­gion, Is­rael, would not con­firm its par­ti­cip­a­tion. Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu’s gov­ern­ment also has nev­er ruled out at­tend­ing such a con­fer­ence, but has en­joyed Wash­ing­ton’s sup­port in de­mand­ing that any such talks ac­com­pany a broad­er re­gion­al ef­fort to­ward re­gion­al se­cur­ity and con­fid­ence-build­ing.

Laa­java told NPT mem­ber na­tions last week that he would con­tin­ue to fa­cil­it­ate the in­form­al meet­ings and — in what may be a bid to Ir­an to reen­gage on the mat­ter — said the “act­ive in­put and con­tri­bu­tion by all states of the re­gion are needed.”

The Finnish en­voy also ap­peared to min­im­ize ex­pect­a­tions — voiced by Egyp­tians and oth­ers in past years — that the Hel­sinki con­fer­ence should launch ac­tu­al ne­go­ti­ations over cre­at­ing a zone free of nuc­le­ar, chem­ic­al or bio­lo­gic­al weapons in the Middle East.

Rather, na­tions should “ini­ti­ate a gradu­al change in the re­gion, from con­front­a­tion to co­oper­a­tion, with im­port­ant im­plic­a­tions to wider in­terests of re­gion­al and in­ter­na­tion­al peace,” Laa­java said.

Speak­ing to the same NPT Pre­par­at­ory Com­mit­tee meet­ing on April 28, An­gela Kane — the top U.N. of­fi­cial for dis­arm­a­ment af­fairs — said the ef­forts to ban the most dan­ger­ous weapons from the Middle East “have greatly be­nefited in re­cent months from the con­struct­ive en­gage­ment of the states of the re­gion in the series of mul­ti­lat­er­al con­sulta­tions con­vened in Gli­on.” She ex­pressed hope that the ma­jor Hel­sinki con­fer­ence could be held “as soon as pos­sible in 2014.”

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