International efforts to take forward the long-standing goal of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East are facing further setbacks, 38 years after this security objective was put on the international agenda by Egypt and Iran in 1974. At risk is a conference planned for 2012 with the aim of providing a forum open to all states from the Middle East to develop practical measures to implement the 1995 resolution on eliminating nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) from the Middle East. Frustrated with the lack of action to implement the resolution over fifteen years, Egypt piloted its proposal to hold a Conference on the Middle East through the 2010 Review Conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It was the most hard-fought proposal to be adopted in 2010, with direct input from US Vice President Joe Biden, and pressure on all sides to compromise. Speaking to the NPT meeting in Vienna this week, Egypt’s ambassador Ahmed Fathalla noted that “the 2012 Conference represents a crossroads for the Arab countries’ policies in the nuclear domain, and that its failure would invite them to revise their policies in this regard”.
Interpreted by some as a veiled threat, Fathalla’s statement followed a much-anticipated report from the Finnish Under-Secretary, Jaakko Laajava, who had been appointed eight months previously to facilitate preparations for the 2012 Conference on the Middle East. Although he promised that the conference would be hosted at the prestigious Finlandia Hall in Helsinki with a probable date in December, Laajava disappointed NPT parties by announcing that there is still no firm agreement on the dates, agenda or participation. Assuring NPT parties of his own goal and commitment to work for a successful conference, the Finnish diplomat pointed out that “ensuring a successful conference… [is] the responsibility of all states of the region”. He appealed for “full cooperation and engagement between the states” and invited more “concrete input” on what the relevant governments wanted to get out of the Helsinki Conference and said that he would welcome practical ideas for structuring the meeting and identifying the kind of outcome and follow-on process that they would like to see. Noting that the substantive issues would include chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, scope and geographical parameters of the zone, as well as verification, safety and security of materials and facilities, compliance and confidence-building measures, Laajava made clear that “in order to reach the shared goal of a zone (free of WMD), we must all ensure that the Helsinki Conference marks a successful starting point in the process leading to its establishment”. Without alluding specifically to any particular countries, Laajava underscored that “the participation of all states of the region is widely recognised as a prerequisite for a successful conference”.
The inability to forge the practical agreements at this stage is not for want of trying. Many acknowledged this, speaking warmly of Laajava’s “diligent work and extensive consultations” with governments and political and civic leaders across the region and with other key interlocutors in the United States, European Union, other nuclear-weapon-free zones and myriad other interested bodies. The problems lie chiefly in the differing political and security perspectives in the region. While no governments have absolutely closed the door and refused to participate, Iran and Israel have been wary and reluctant from the start, and Syria is now at loggerheads with the League of Arab States, the originators of the initiative. Israel, which has an estimated 80-100 nuclear weapons and is the only state in the region to remain outside the NPT, is worried that its long-held posture of “nuclear opacity” would be undermined as a process develops to deal with nuclear and other WMD in the Middle East. On the plus side, the Helsinki Conference also has the potential to address some of Israel’s concerns, including the Iranian nuclear programme. Corridor discussions in the last couple of days have been rife with speculation about the broader political impact of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s sudden consolidation of his position by persuading the centrist Kadima party to join a coalition with Likud, giving them a combined majority of 94 in the 120-seat Knesset.
The NPT depositary governments, Russia, the United Kingdom and United States, have special responsibilities for implementing the 1995 resolution on the Middle East and convening the 2012 Conference, together with the UN Secretary-General. In their joint statement, read by British ambassador Jo Adamson, they underlined that “for a Conference to be successful it should include at a minimum the representation of all the States of the Middle East… who are ultimately responsible for creating and establishing the political and security conditions that will provide a sustainable foundation for such a zone.” As constructive contributions were made by the League of Arab States and several national statements, both the US intervention and the collective statement of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) struck jarring notes of belligerent and accusatory rhetoric. Overall, however, the debate here in Vienna has shown that the majority want to use the 2010 agreements and the 2012 Conference as opportunities to reframe the issue and construct new ways of addressing nuclear problems and Middle East security.
The US statement castigated others for singling out Israel, and then proceeded to put heavy emphasis on Iran and Syria, referring to “the corrosive effect of Treaty non-compliance”. Expressing “deep concern over Iran’s persistent failure to comply with its nonproliferation obligations, including IAEA safeguards obligations and UN Security Council resolutions”, it appeared almost as though US Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation. Thomas Countryman, wanted to provoke Iran into boycotting the 2012 conference, cutting across the conciliatory tone of Laajava and others. Iran’s ambassador Ali Soltanieh responded by criticising the UN Security Council for its “inaction” over Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran as well as Israel’s development of nuclear weapons. He accused the United States and European Union of hypocrisy and double standards over Germany’s decision to supply Israel with “Dolphin” submarines that could (according to Iran) be used to deliver nuclear weapons and reminded delegates of the “Fatwa on the prohibition of nucIear weapons”, quoting Iran’s Supreme Leader as saying: “the Iranian nation has never been after nuclear weapons and it will never go after such weapons.” Throwing a provocative spanner into the works from Iran’s side, Soltanieh declared that the 2012 Middle East Conference should be treated as a “subsidiary forum” of the NPT, so that NPT rules of procedure should apply. Of course that won’t fly, since Israel is not party to the NPT and so would be consigned to an observer’s seat. Iran knows that the decision to hold the Helsinki Conference under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General was taken to encourage Israeli participation on an equal footing, so its assertion that NPT rules should be applied looks like a tactical ploy to undermine international efforts to encourage Israel to participate fully in a regional process to establish a Middle East zone free of nuclear and other WMD.
US politics is also an important factor affecting the timing and agenda of the Helsinki Conference. American engagement and leverage is considered vital, particularly in view of Washington’s close relationship with Israel and some of the other states in the region. With US presidential elections scheduled for early November (followed by Thanksgiving), December is the only feasible month for the conference unless governments decide to “stop the clock” and hold it early in 2013. This diplomatic fall-back would only be allowed to happen as a last resort, however, as the Arabs are suspicious that the United States is referencing the “historic events unfolding in the region” in order to push for the conference to be delayed. Egypt made a point of turning the challenge around, arguing that “the revolutionary developments in the Arab world have rendered the current nuclear situation in the Middle East more untenable.” The Arab states have time and again insisted that the 2012 date agreed by the 2010 NPT Review Conference should be strictly adhered to. In this they are supported by Russia. Contrasting markedly with the US approach, which stressed that “failing to acknowledge and address the underlying political and security realities in the region will diminish the prospects for a successful conference in Helsinki”, Russian ambassador Mikhail Uliyanov declared it “utterly erratic and counterproductive to raise the idea that it is worth to postpone the Conference until the total stabilization of the situation in the Middle East and creation of the necessary political conditions first”.
Where does all this leave the 2012 Conference and efforts to establish a zone free of WMD in the Middle East? Statements from Egypt and others voiced a widely-held recognition that the fate of the 2012 Conference on the Middle East will affect the wider credibility and effectiveness of the non-proliferation regime as a whole.
Laajava has listened carefully to everyone, and will continue to consult with all interested parties. He has promised to draw in more participation from civil society, especially from the region, where grassroots campaigns are now joining academic institutions to mobilise for effective progress to be made to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons at both the regional and international levels. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), for example, now has campaigners in Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and also Turkey (a NATO country with nuclear weapons adjacent to the “Middle East” region as generally understood), while Pugwash and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) have built up networks of concerned scientists and physicians in every country of the Middle East. When governments and diplomats get stuck, the people have to become more informed and vocal to demand and bring about the change needed to establish regional and global security. The Helsinki Conference on the Middle East is a tool that can open up the options, but the message from Vienna is: use it or lose it!
This is the third in a series of articles by Rebecca Johnson writing for openDemocracy from the UN's PrepCom for the 2015 NPT Review in Vienna