Middle East WMD Free Zone Conference Likely to be Postponed

This is not good.

The NPT regime is at a fragile and sensitive moment for a number of reasons, but none more important than the failure of NPT parties to meaningfully progress the program of a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East.

The decision by NPT member states on whether to extend the NPT indefinitely in 1995 was not at all a foregone conclusion. Nuclear Weapon States were generally for it.  Many NNWS developing and developed states, however, had serious concerns, particularly regarding Nuclear Weapon States’ track record on implementation of NPT Article VI, and regarding the situation in the Middle East.

The final decision to extend was based upon a package deal of adoption of a set of principles and objectives, and a resolution on the Middle East which called on all states in the region to join the NPT, and further called on them to take practical steps towards the establishment of a WMD free zone in the Middle East.

In 2010 the Review Conference  adopted a Final Document by consensus, which included another Middle East resolution, specifically calling for a conference by the end of 2012 on the establishment of a Middle East WMDFZ.

I think it’s important to understand that many Middle Eastern and other developing states saw this Resolution in 2010 as a vital part of the bases on which they agreed to the 2010 Final Document. They also link this process directly back to the 1995 Middle East resolution, which they saw and continue to see as a vital part of the bases on which they agreed to the indefinite extension of the NPT. 

So as a result, to many NNWS the holding of a MEWMDFZ conference in 2012, the way in which the conference proceeds, and the continuing process and negotiations on universal Middle East NPT membership and a WMDFZ which that conference must beget, are perceived as directly related to their continued level of support for the 64 action items of the 2010 RevCon Final Document, and their overall commitment to the future RevCon process. 

To now see that the 2012 conference is apparently not going to happen – at the very least not in 2012 – is a very bad development, and the reaction particularly from Arab states will no doubt be very negative.

If support from Middle Eastern and other developing states for the NPT RevCon process disintegrates, this could have dire consequences for the ongoing relevance of the NPT.


16 Comments on “Middle East WMD Free Zone Conference Likely to be Postponed”

  1. Jean Pascal Zanders says:

    I am writing from Amman, where a 2-day conference is being held on regional disarmament. In the opening session yesterday, former Egyptian Foreign Minister and Secretary-General expressed his extreme disappointment as reports of the official statement started filtering through. These early reports spoke of cancellation of the entire process – which understandably set a gloomy tone.

    Early in the afternoon, Amb. Hannu Kyröläinen, Deputy to the Facilitator, read out the follwing statement, which had been made earlier by Amb. Jaako Laajava:

    The Conference will be convened by the United Nations Secretary-General, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States, who are committed to their mandate. No decisions regarding the convening of the Conference have yet been made.
    Many questions remain open. One of the key objectives is the attendance of all States of the region.
    The preparations for the conference continue with the parties concerned.

    During the afternoon presentations focussed on how regional and local stakeholders could already set up a number of initiatives in the biological and chemical spheres to broaden the comfort zones of regional actors (including states) and on possible structures for setting up the first conference and subsequent meetings, including on formats in which each of the main non-conventional weapon categories could be considered separately and together. The tone of the discussions had become much more constructive.

    Missiles and nuclear weapons are on the agenda today. The primary audience are government and military officials from Arab countries.

    • Jean Pascal Zanders says:

      Sorry – forgot to insert the name of ‘Amr Moussa’ as for Egyptian Foreign Minister.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      Thanks very much for this on-the-ground insight, Jean. It must have been a depressing mood when the announcement was first made. My impressions from talking to diplomats have been that they did in fact expect the conference to be held in December sometime, so I think this did likely come as an unwelcome surprise to many. It is imperative that the confence be held and that meaningful progress is made on the MEWMDFZ program. A central question is of course whether Iran and/or Israel will attend and participate. Israel’s failure to participate would be a stark and unhelpful reminder of its possession of nuclear weapons, and its unwillingness to sign the NPT and generally to cooperate with the rest of the international community on nuclear nonproliferation.

      • Jean Pascal Zanders says:

        Thanks for your reply Dan.

        First, in reply to the points you raised: at a meeting on the Helsinki process organised by the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium in Brussels on 5-6 November Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, officially announced that Iran would participate in the ME disarmament conference, to be held in Helsinki. With this, Iran was actually the first country to formally announce its participation. While Arab states have repeatedly indicated their intent to do so, they have not yet formally confirmed their participation. Israel has thus far been the most non-committal about its intentions, but nevertheless, participated in Brussels with a high-level official and large academic delegation. Egypt refused to send any officials, because the seminar was labelled ‘academic’ to enable frank exchanges on the core of arms control and disarmament issues. It preferred a ‘political’ meeting. It was an issue that almost forced the cancellation of the Brussels seminar during the week before it was due to be held. Several Arab states, as well as Palestine, also attended, as did a large number of academics. Problematic as its convening appeared to have been, the actual seminar passed in a serene atmosphere with many interesting exchanges – both substantive and political.
        For programme and background papers:

        Second, yesterday (14/11) in Amman the focus was mostly on nuclear weapons and the NPT. Both themes aroused a lot of passion among the Arab participants and some strong-worded interventions resulted. In essence, these all revolved around Israel, its NW capacity and Western, especially US, support for Israel. As all speakers at the meeting were non-Arab and nobody from Israel attended, anybody who referred to Israel’s threat perceptions during the Q&A parts was informed that nobody ever discusses Arab threat perceptions resulting from Israel’s NW. During these exchanges I was writing a note to self during that the Arab colleagues appeared to be focussing on the NPT to the exclusion of all other issues in order to be able to isolate Israel as the centre of all problems. While obviously a contentious conclusion, even before I had finished my personal thought, a senior official from the Arab League confirmed my thought in the strongest possible way, adding that the Iranian nuclear issue was of secondary importance, because, (1) the real problem of an Iranian weapon would only manifest itself some 10-15 years into the future and should be dealt with at that time, and (2) it was a red herring by the West in order to divert attention away from Israel and offer some new justification for Israel’s NW arsenal. One Jordanian general advanced that nuclear weapons are not the problem, because they offer stability through deterrence (he did not go as far as stating what seems to be the obvious conclusion from this intervention), but that the non-resolution of the Palestinian matter was the root cause of all regional instability. Another person, whom I believe to be an Iranian national–possibly official in Amman, strongly reinforced opinions by other participants that Israel’s nuclear weapons were the most significant obstacle to regional disarmament and NWFZ (as originally proposed by Iran several decades ago).

        So, despite the fact that the quality of presentations by the invited speakers was uneven, I found the Amman conference most useful and instructive. Having a virtually Arab-only audience, the arguments flowed without the diplomatic or epistemic niceties of most other international meetings. I learnt a lot from the expressions of passion, the framing of the (not always factually correct) arguments, and the extreme focus on a single issue: the NPT and Israel’s position outside of it.

        The sad part of it for an outsider is perhaps that virtually all speakers came to Amman with suggestions for concrete initiatives to foster confidence and mutual trust between various stakeholders, including think tanks, academics and professionals, in various areas, but all such considerations were washed away by the passion of entrenched positions.

        To return to the Helsinki process, the statement issued by the Finnish facilitator on the 13th may be a response to certain Israeli concens, but in the light of issues prior to the Brussels seminar and the debates in Amman, I believe that in assessing opportunities for success we should look beyond Israel and Iran into the diversity of Arab positions, despite their silent agreement to join the Helsinki conference.

        These are just some personal reflections from a CBW, rather than a regional expert.

        Jean Pascal

      • Dan Joyner says:

        Your comments about the Amman meeting are fascinating, Jean, and really insightful in my opinion. Thanks so much for sharing them with us here. I think they illustrate how multi-leveled the issues underlying the MEWMDFZ program are, and as you say how fractious the debate about the identification and meaning of the various issues is. I’ve given some of my own thoughts about the underlying issues in my new post today.

  2. Indeed, an interesting update Dr. Zanders,
    May I ask you if Israelis, whether officials or others, where invited or participated in the conference?

    • Jean Pascal Zanders says:

      Thank you for your query. As indicated in my reply to Dan above, no Israelis attended. Personally, I did not think this was a major issue, because the way in which the conveners set up the meeting, a number of foreign experts were to present their insights and views to an Arab audience. This set up could have served a completely different purpose than another meeting in the line of, for example, the Brussels seminar of 5-6 November.

      Several European participants, including myself, thought that the most relevant element to take away from the meeting was the dynamic of the inter-Arab discourse. Many of my European colleagues are much better versed in regional ME politics than I am.

      Jean Pascal

  3. Remember the 13 Practical Steps to Disarmament agreed in the 2000 PrepCom?

    “During the last NPT review cycle, much controversy arose over the presentday import of certain positions related to nuclear disarmament, i.e. the “Thirteen practical steps”, which were articulated in the Final Document of the NPT Review Conference held in 2000. The security environment has changed substantially since 2000, and we cannot assume that all suggestions made then necessarily remain relevant today. The United States believes that the “Thirteen practical steps” now constitute an inadequate set of policy priorities for achieving the goals of article VI and the preamble to the Treaty”


  4. Dear Dan,
    I am sorry for this dumb question, but this have anything to do with the NWFZ-conference to be held in Helsinki in December/January 2012?

  5. Jean Pascal Zanders says:

    2012 Conference on a Middle East Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction (MEWMDFZ)

    Press Statement
    Victoria Nuland
    Department Spokesperson, Office of the Spokesperson
    Washington, DC
    November 23, 2012

    As a co-sponsor of the proposed conference on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction (MEWMDFZ), envisioned in the 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference Final Document, the United States regrets to announce that the conference cannot be convened because of present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.

    The United States will continue to work seriously with our partners to create conditions for a meaningful conference. We are particularly grateful for the tireless efforts of Ambassador Jaakko Laajava, the appointed facilitator, supported by the United States, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation and the UN Secretary General, to lay the groundwork for a successful conference against the backdrop of turmoil and dramatic political change taking place in the Middle East and Iran’s continuing defiance of its international nonproliferation obligations.

    The United States believes that a deep conceptual gap persists in the region on approaches toward regional security and arms control arrangements. These differences can only be bridged through direct engagement and agreement among the states in the region. Outside states cannot impose a process on the region any more than they can dictate an outcome. The mandate for a MEWMDFZ must come from the region itself. That principle must underlie any serious undertaking on this issue.

    Looking ahead, we encourage states in the region to take a fresh look at the obstacles standing in the way of convening a conference and to begin to explore terms for a successful meeting. This will require that all parties agree on the purpose and scope of a conference and on an agenda and process that takes into account the legitimate security interests of all states in the region. We believe that this conference should discuss a broad agenda that covers regional security and all WMD issues, and that it must operate solely on the basis of consensus among regional parties.

    These are appropriate guidelines for official dialogue on security issues in the Middle East where none currently exists. They provide the necessary assurance that states can attend a conference on an equal footing. We would not support a conference in which any regional state would be subject to pressure or isolation.

    The United States will continue to work with our partners to support an outcome in which states in the region approach this issue on the basis of mutual respect and understanding and with acknowledgement of the challenges inherent in advancing regional security and arms control. A conference handled this way, with direct engagement of the regional states, will enjoy the greatest prospects for success.

    The United States fully supports the goal of a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction and we stand by our commitments. We further note our view that a comprehensive and durable peace in the region and full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and nonproliferation obligations are essential precursors for the establishment of such a zone.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      Thanks for posting that, Jean. Its official. The ME WMD FZ conference will not happen in 2012, and from reading this it doesnt look like there are any plans for holding it any time soon. Very, very bad news for the NPT regime.

  6. younda says:

    UK on Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone Conference
    24 November 2012
    Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt: “We regret that it will not be possible to convene a successful conference to be attended by all states of the region as planned in 2012”.
    Commenting on the prospects for a conference on achieving a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, Minister Alistair Burt said:
    “The British Government supports the objective of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East. We regret that it will not be possible to convene a successful conference to be attended by all states of the region as planned in 2012. More preparation and direct engagement between states of the region will be necessary to secure arrangements that are satisfactory to all.
    “We support the convening of a conference as soon as possible. We endorse fully the work of the Conference Facilitator, Finnish Under-Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava, to build consensus on next steps. We welcome his commitment to conduct further multilateral consultations with the countries of the region to agree arrangements for a conference in 2013.
    “We will continue to work with our fellow convenors (the US, Russia, and the UN), with the Facilitator, and with countries of the region, to meet our undertakings to convene a conference on this important issue, as soon as possible.”

    Russian Press Statement on the 2012 Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction
    The decisions of the 2010 NPT Review Conference entrusted Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, as the depositaries of the Treaty and the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East, as well as the UN Secretary-General to convene in 2012 a Conference on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery (MEWMDFZ).
    Since 2010 the “co-conveners” of the Conference have been making significant efforts for the preparation of the event. Finland was selected as the “host country” of the Conference. The Facilitator responsible for the preparation and organization of the Conference – Under Secretary of the MFA of Finland J.Laajava – was appointed and has started active work since taking office in October 2011. The “co-conveners” and the Facilitator held numerous joint and individual consultations with representatives of the States of the region. Considerations on organizational modalities and substance of upcoming Conference are at an advanced stage.
    Unfortunately, not all of the States in the Middle East have so far agreed to participate in the Conference. In this regard, there are voices in favor of postponing the Conference for 2013.
    The Russian Federation, being strictly committed to its commitments and the “conveners'” mandate, believes that in the given conditions a decision to postpone the Conference can be justified only if there is a clearly expressed consent of the countries of the Middle East and the dates for the Conference are fixed.
    Moscow presumes that in case of the expressed consent of the regional States to the postponement of the Conference, the new dates should be fixed right now in order to convene the Conference at the earliest possibility, but no later than April next year. We are convinced that these several extra months would be enough for proper preparation and success of the Helsinki Conference on the establishment of MEWMDFZ.
    Russia intends to make all the necessary efforts to this end and to continue to work closely with the other “co-conveners” and the Facilitator.

    Statement by the spokesperson of EU High Representative Catherine Ashton on the postponement of the Helsinki Conference on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction
    Brussels, 24 1ovember 2012
    The spokesperson of Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the Commission, issued the following statement today:
    “The High Representative notes with regret the postponement of the Conference on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, which the 2010 Review Conference of the “on-Proliferation Treaty had scheduled for 2012.
    The EU supports the ongoing preparations for a successful conference with the participation of all States of the region and the efforts of Ambassador Jaakko Laajava, the appointed Facilitator, and his team, to that end. The High Representative is particularly grateful to the Facilitator for his tireless efforts to lay the groundwork for a successful conference, against the backdrop of turmoil and dramatic political change taking place in the Middle East.
    The High Representative hopes that the Conference will be convened as soon as possible, since its goal of promoting the establishment of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East is an objective to which the EU, along with all the members of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, subscribed in the Barcelona Declaration in 1995. The EU remains actively engaged in supporting this process, notably through its “on-Proliferation consortium and a series of seminars on the topic, such as those organised in 2008, 2011 and “ovember 2012.”

  7. […] to the top of the list. As a number of commenters have pointed out in the comments to my related post a couple of weeks ago, it’s now official that the ME WMD Free Zone conference that was agreed […]

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