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Middle East Unrest Could Harm WMD-Free Zone Talks

March 9, 2011


Protesters chant slogans on Saturday during a demonstration outside an Egyptian state security building in the outskirts of Cairo. Recent political instability throughout the Middle East could complicate efforts to establish a regional weapons of mass destruction-free zone, current and former officials said (Wissam Nassar/Getty Images).

The unrest and revolutions sweeping through the Middle East have raised doubts over the potential for regional nations to hold previously planned talks focused on forming a weapons of mass destruction-free zone, Arms Control Today reported in its March issue (see GSN, March 1).

At the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference in New York, member nations agreed to hold a 2012 meeting on “the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.”

“We are absolutely committed” to the WMD-free zone meeting, White House WMD point man Gary Samore said in an interview last month. “But there’s a lot of uncertainty because of the unrest in the Middle East.”

In the last two months, longstanding regimes in Tunisia and Egypt have fallen, and protests in Libya have escalated into full-scale fighting between militants and forces loyal to Col. Muammar Qadhafi. Protests have also erupted in Bahrain, Jordan, Oman and Yemen.

The Egyptian instability began in January at a key point in planning for the 2012 WMD forum. Currently, no coordinator has been chosen to lead the meeting, the agenda is yet to be established and there is no consensus on which countries should participate. Nor has the timing or location of the forum been set.

Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have all given attention to hammering out the details for the conference. Diplomats say serious discussions on the matter are currently taking place. The European Union is to host an educational forum this summer to lay the groundwork for the 2012 gathering, EU envoys said.

Samore said conference sponsors wish to come to agreement “before the summer” with key Middle Eastern nations on the venue and facilitator of the conference. He underlined that there is no certainty that the meeting would take place. “We have to try to make it happen.”

“We don’t know what effect [the Middle East unrest] will have on foreign policy, and governments may be distracted,” Samore said.

Arab envoys said they would like to see March’s Arab League summit meeting in Iraq come to agreement on a facilitator, with an eye toward convening the WMD conference prior to next May.

“This is a major concern for us, that nothing has moved,” Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations Maged Abdel Aziz said. The diplomat was instrumental in leading calls at last May’s review conference for progress on establishing a Middle East WMD-free zone — a high priority for Cairo for some time (see GSN, June 10, 2010).

In 1995, Arab nations succeeded in convincing the 189 states parties to the NPT review conference to approve a resolution calling for the creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East in exchange for allowing the nuclear treaty to be extended indefinitely.

Iran and Syria are suspected by Western governments to have secretly launched nuclear-weapon efforts.
Arab nations including Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have launched efforts to establish civilian atomic energy sectors (see GSN, Feb. 23).

Israel is widely assumed to be the only Middle Eastern nation with a nuclear arsenal, though it has neither confirmed nor denied such a strategic ability (see GSN, Dec. 15, 2010).

Despite concerns that a WMD-free zone conference would focus on Israeli nuclear capabilities, Jerusalem has displayed increasing openness toward the forum without yet offering it formal backing Arms Control Today reported. U.S. and Israeli officials have underlined that Jerusalem would not participate if the conference is turned into an excuse for “Israel bashing” by Tehran and Arab nations.

“Israel is examining (the conference); we’re talking to the Americans,” Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said one month ago.

Arab countries are anticipated to use the conference to bring international attention to their view that the United States has been hypocritical in calling on other nations to sign and adhere to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while allowing Israel a pass on the matter.

The wording of the 2010 review conference document’s call for the WMD forum was vague enough to permit varied inferences, according to Arms Control Today. Still, there appears to be a basic understanding that next year’s conference would not be a “negotiating” meeting but a vehicle for “discussions.”

Samore said he sees “one battle after another” in the buildup to the conference.

“We see it as a give-and-take process,” Abdel Aziz said. “At the same time that Israel will join the NPT, we will join the [Biological Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention]. It’s a parallel process requiring progress on all three fronts.”

Egypt and Syria have both signed but not ratified the biological weapons treaty. Neither state has signed the chemical weapons accord.

“It’s a good opportunity for Israel to start getting rid of its nuclear weapons, and for Iran not to get nuclear weapons, and for the Arabs to join the chemical and biological conventions,” Abdel Aziz said.

Should the effort to establish a WMD-free zone be unsuccessful, Arab envoys have warned of a gloomy 2015 NPT review conference and a weakened nuclear nonproliferation regime (Anne Penketh, Arms Control Today, March 2011).


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