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UNITED NATIONS, Oct 19 2011 (IPS) - After much delay, Finland has been chosen to host a 2012 conference to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in the Middle East. The meeting aims to bring together all Middle Eastern countries, some of which share a long history of disagreement, such as Iran and Israel.
Jaakko Laajava, under-secretary of state in Finland’s ministry of foreign affairs, will act as the facilitator for the conference, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced Oct. 14.
The long-awaited decision, announced jointly by Ban and the governments of the Russia, the UK and the U.S., is one step forward in a painstaking process that has spanned more than two decades since Egypt first proposed the idea in 1990.
Arms control and disarmament groups welcomed the decision and the choice of Finland as host, but they also raised concerns about the implications of the delay in naming the host and facilitator, as well as remaining challenges to holding the conference and ultimately establishing a WMD-free Middle East.
Appointing someone was “positive, obviously”, said Anne Penketh, programme director in Washington for the British American Security Information Council (BASIC).
“But the fact that it has taken until mid-October does raise questions… over whether logistically it’s going to be possible to organise such a complex event in 2012,” she told IPS.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, called the decision “a very good development”. Now, he said, “the task is to make the meeting happen, to ensure that all of the key parties in the region show up and constructively engage on the topic,” an achievement that “is by no means certain”.
Attention should turn to “beginning a practical dialogue among these countries about nuclear, chemical and biological weapons issues… whether that’s Iran or Israel or Syria,” Kimball said.
Will progress remain elusive?
Following Egypt’s proposal in 1990, a WMD-free zone in the Middle East was first officially called for during the 1995 Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, but not until 2010 NPT review conference did states agree on a process to accomplish that goal.
One of the steps agreed upon then was to hold a conference in 2012, with Russia, the UK, the U.S. and the U.N. leading those efforts.
Finally, deciding on a host and facilitator for the conference indicates progress in the effort to bring together countries over such an intractable issue, but it does not guarantee that the conference will be a success.
“It’s absolutely vital that the key governments come to this meeting with constructive ideas about how the region can move along the path towards” disarmament, Kimball said. “Doing so is going to require some initial steps.”
Each country has certain steps to take in terms of signing and implementing treaties, be they nuclear, biological or test ban treaties, he said.
Yet diplomatic language discussing efforts leading up to the conference is laced with doubts, caveats and preconditions.
“We hope the 2012 conference will be an opportunity for productive discussion,” Kurtis Cooper, deputy spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the U.N., told IPS. He said the U.S. has urged states to take “practical and constructive steps to remove the obstacles to achieving this goal”.
A WMD-free Middle East is “an achievable goal”, he said, “but it will not happen overnight.”
“We recognise that this goal can only be achieved in the context of a comprehensive and durable peace in the Middle East, and after Iran and Syria return to full compliance with their existing international agreements.”
In a similar statement, the UK said it remained committed to the establishment of a Middle East free of WMDs. “But it will not happen overnight nor without the commitment and support of all states in the region.”
It called the conference “a first step in what will be a challenging process” and “a real opportunity for the region to discuss”, but only with “the full commitment of all the states in the region, and the wider international community”.
If doubts about how productive the meeting will be are not serious enough, then concerns about current conditions in the Middle East affecting the conference’s prospects certainly are.
“Practical issues” such as the ongoing Arab spring or an alleged plot by Iran to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. can hinder the process, Penketh said. “This kind of conference is not operating in a vacuum”, and many “political sensitivities… need to be navigated”.
Laajava outlined the proposed time frame as being broadly 2012, according to Helsingin Sanomat.
That choice of words, particularly “broadly”, “opens the door to a possible delay”, said Penketh.
Separately, the fact that Laajava is not known for having a background in Middle Eastern affairs “could be an asset in this situation”, Penketh said. As an outsider, he could be able to identify problems much more clearly than people who have been heavily involved or invested over the years.
Israel, the only state in the region with nuclear weapons, has expressed concern that – and the desire not to attend if – the conference would target it for its undeclared arsenal.
Kimball stressed that ensuring the conference is productive continues to be a challenge, even though the conference’s locale has been established. Countries have to be prepared to take action both prior to and following the conference.
“This has to be the beginning of a process,” he said. “It’s important that this meeting is not just an exercise in getting certain diplomats from certain countries to show up and then leave.”
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