The long-awaited announcements on the delay to the Helsinki ‘2012 Conference’ on a nuclear and other WMD free zone in the Middle East came out over the weekend from the co-sponsors. The appointed facilitator for the conference, Ambassador Jaakko Laajava, called for multilateral consultations to be convened as soon as possible but a Friday announcement by the US claimed that the conference could not be convened, blaming ‘present conditions in the Middle East’ and the lack of agreement over the ‘conditions for a conference’. The US announcement called on states ‘to take a fresh look at the obstacles’, placing its support clearly in the Israeli camp that the conference needs a ‘broad agenda that covers regional security’. It pointedly gives little hope that the conference will be convened anytime soon, and leads some analysts to conclude that this is actually a cancellation rather than a postponement. The UK calls for the conference to be convened as soon as possible in 2013, and Moscow deplores the fact that not all Middle East nations have agreed to attend the conference and said that the conference must happen before April 2013, the date of the next NPT Preparatory Committee.
So, what next?
The US announcement clearly states that they ‘would not support a conference in which any regional state would be subject to pressure or isolation’, and with recent events in Gaza it must have been an added concern that states representatives would have found it difficult not to use the event to criticise Israeli actions if held in December. Any Iranians that read this statement would be forgiven for sensing the irony that the United States was willing to protect any regional state from pressure to attend a meeting that has become critical to the health of the NPT, the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime. The level of frustration within parts of the diplomatic community over the historic lack of will to follow through on the 1995 resolution, seen as a betrayal of good faith in extending the NPT indefinitely, should not be underestimated. But underlying this is a more powerful deep-seated sense of injustice throughout the region that one country outside the NPT and with nuclear weapons is protected in that status by their superpower sponsors. It’s not so much that people feel directly threatened by that arsenal, as that its existence outside the (NPT) law fundamentally brings that law into disrepute and undermines efforts to enforce it elsewhere. The Israelis have hugely benefited from the NPT over the last decades without any legal obligation to it.
The Israeli elections will be held on January 22nd and from the US announcement, the conclusion must be drawn that the Obama Administration will not be looking to put any hint of pressure on Israel in any sense at least until after the election. The understandable fear must be that an Israel under pressure is one with a strong narrative of standing alone, needing every tool at its disposal, and hostile to any negotiations. Not unlike the current narrative in Tehran over the sanctions.
So this opens a three month window between the end of January and April 22nd, when the next NPT Preparatory Committee will open in Geneva. If the PrepCom is convened before the Conference it will host a poisonous atmosphere that will certainly raise the stakes and demand focused and cooperative leadership if a disaster is to be averted.
Given the importance of getting some sort of a process on a WMD-free Zone started--one that includes the Israelis--the question that must be on everyone’s mind is 'how can this best be achieved?'. This will demand compromise now on everyone’s part – the thinking afresh that the Americans call for. The Israelis will need to be heard that their need for security is taken seriously by others. The process will need to take this into account in such a way that does not hold up negotiations, or present unrealistic preconditions. It is premature at this stage for the Americans to be stipulating that a Zone cannot come into force until there is ‘a comprehensive and durable peace in the region and full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and non-proliferation obligations’. As discovered throughout the Cold War, arms control measures can be an important confidence-building ingredient in their own right.
It is important for Israel, Iran and every other state in the region to recognize that their security today is not predicated on the possession of nuclear weapons and other WMD, with or without a comprehensive and durable peace.
These are the views of the author.