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Concern Grows Over Prospects for Middle East Disarmament Meeting

Elizabeth Whitman

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 25 2011 (IPS) - Four months before 2012 – the year a conference is slated to be held on freeing the Middle East region of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) – no date, facilitator, or host country has been named.

At the Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in 2010, parties to the treaty agreed to organise a conference in 2012 involving all states in the Middle East to discuss biological, chemical, and nuclear disarmament in the region – in accordance with the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East. The United States, the United Kingdom, Russia and the United Nations Secretary General were to lead these efforts.

Though planning discussions are underway among high level officials from both Middle Eastern governments and the governments leading the planning effort, the fact that these countries have not yet named a host country, facilitator, or date – all of which are necessary to hold the meeting – is “disappointing,” said Anne Penketh, Washington director of the British American Security Information Council, in an interview with IPS.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association also noted that intensive consultations to plan for the meeting were taking place. But he expressed worry that, provided the conference does happen, states will have been too focused on logistics in the lead up to the meeting rather than its substance to make it productive.

Though many issues have contributed to the delay in settling on the essential logistics of the conference, a significant one is the fact that states cannot agree over who should host the conference or serve as facilitator.

The very act of bringing together states in the Middle East is a challenge, Kimball emphasised, and agreeing simply to hold a conference was a “breakthrough,” he told IPS. “This is a very challenging proposition – to get Israel and Egypt and Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia in the same meeting room and to do so in a way that produces a constructive conversation.”

Elephant in the Room

Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal remains an obstacle in many areas of political discussion, but is especially sensitive when the discussion revolves around disarmament. Israel took offence at the final document of the 2010 NPT review conference, which singled out the country for not being a signatory to the agreement.

As a result, according to Penketh and Kimball, the Israeli government is concerned that the 2012 conference could evolve into a meeting focusing singularly on Israel and its nuclear weapons programme.

Yet such a possibility only enhances the benefits to Israel if it participates in the conference. Attending would improve Israel’s credentials in the region, Kimball pointed out. “It would give Israel the opportunity to point out the ways in which other countries in the region need to meet their own chemical, biological, and nuclear non-proliferation obligations,” he added.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East that is not party to the NPT and the fact that it possesses an undeclared nuclear arsenal is widely accepted. Syria and Iran are party to the treaty but are widely believed to be developing chemical and nuclear arsenals, respectively.

Israel’s level of commitment to the 2012 conference is uncertain. It has said in the past that it would participate on the condition that Israel would not be singled out for criticism, and Kimball said that Israel has been “cagey” about whether or not it would participate in the conference.

Yet Penketh said she had spoken with Israeli officials who were “open” to discussions on a WMD free zone, and she said the Israelis remained engaged in the discussion process.

The Israeli Mission to the U.N. did not respond to a request for comment.

Peace in the Middle East

The current political upheaval and uncertainty sweeping through many countries in the Middle East does not simplify discussion over what is already an extremely complicated and sensitive topic.

Recently, disarmament “has not been the top issue on the diplomatic agenda for these countries,” Kimball noted. As a result, the planning process has been delayed.

Yet even if governments are preoccupied, the unrest makes the case for a disarmament conference, especially one where Israel sits down with all of its neighbours, all the more compelling, said Penketh.

She said that some countries might seize on the unrest as an excuse not to attend the 2012 conference but that she hadn’t seen concrete evidence that any countries actually intended to do so.

Disarmament has always been closely connected to the Middle East peace process, especially because for one of the key players in the peace process, Israel, security is a top priority.

In an email to IPS, Richard Butler, former U.N. weapons inspector, called disarmament “intrinsically important” to the peace process.

But Penketh suggests there is a “strong argument” for separating the peace and disarmament processes.

Regardless of the connection between disarmament in the Middle East and the peace process in the region or what form it takes, however, both are long and complicated efforts requiring time and consistent commitment. Disarmament in the Middle East cannot be accomplished over the course of a single conference, but without such an initiative, progress is even more unlikely.

“Things are moving too slowly,” Penketh concluded. “But they are moving.”

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