An announcement is widely expected this week that the intergovernmental conference in Helsinki, on the establishment of a nuclear and WMD-free Zone in the Middle East, will be postponed. US officials have for some time been trailing this outcome, but until after the Presidential election it was difficult to tell whether this was an attempt to control expectations out of concern that the situation was simply not amenable to any progress (particularly in the light of Syria), whether it was felt too threatening to Israel to hold the conference at this moment in time, or whether this was simply a ploy to protect Obama from Romney’s electoral criticism. In weighing up the pros and cons of this approach, US officials will need to have considered the level of disappointment in the Arab world, and possible future frustration caused by a delay.
There remains some hope that this may still be a rumor and that the conference preparations, particularly those of the Finnish Facilitator, Jaakko Laajava, and his team, have already invested will still bear fruit. However, if the rumors are true, then the Americans will need to consider means to ensure that the damage from delay is minimized and that the momentum behind the process is not lost. There are several ways to achieve this, but it is most important that people are left in little doubt as to US commitment to the process. The best way to do this is for the co-convenors (US, UK, Russia and the UN Secretary General), along with the Facilitator, to announce a date for the conference well before the 2013 NPT Preparatory Committee in May. There is no doubt that if the Helsinki Conference is delayed there will be a flurry of activity beforehand to try to ensure participation from the region. It may be tough for Israeli officials to participate with any mandate prior to the elections later on in January, so it seems likely that the delay will take the meeting into February, but it would be a mistake to delay it much further than that.
Last week the Iranians announced their intention to attend the conference giving the process a boost that was not entirely costless to the Iranians; it closes down options for them to decide closer to the date, but also means they cannot be accused of being part of the problem. Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, made the announcement in Brussels at a conference on the WMD-free Zone in the Middle East convened by the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium. The week before, BASIC convened a small roundtable in Istanbul with a broad cross-section of people representing perspectives in the region.
Also this week--BASIC will also be holding its third Strategic Dialogue on Capitol Hill today, this time on Nuclear modernization, with Ambassador Linton Brooks and Hans Kristensen. The discussion proves very timely, given the anxiety in Washington about fiscal cliffs and the costs around modernization of the triad nuclear weapon system.
These are the views of the author.