Published November 10, 2012
VIENNA – Attempts to find Arab-Israeli common ground on banning weapons of mass destruction from the Mideast have failed, and high-profile talks on the issue have been called off, diplomats said Saturday.
The two diplomats said the United States, one of the organizers, would likely make a formal announcement soon saying that with tensions in the region remaining high, "time is not opportune" for such a gathering. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge the cancellation ahead of the formal announcement.
The meeting — to be held in Helsinki, Finland, by year's end — was on shaky ground since it was agreed to in 2010 by the 189 member nations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Its key sponsors were the U.S., Russia and Britain, but they said such as meeting was only possible if all countries — especially Israel — agreed to attend.
The decision to postpone, if not to scrap it, will cast doubt on the significance of the NPT and its attempts every five years to advance nonproliferation. Any new attempt is unlikely until the NPT conference meets again in 2015.
Hopes for such a meeting were alive as recently as Tuesday, when Iran joined Arab nations in saying that it planned to attend, leaving Israel as the only undecided country. Tehran's announcement came at a Brussels seminar on a Mideast nuclear-free zone also attended by Israel and the Arab countries, and described as largely free of regional tensions. But the two diplomats said the decision to call off the Helsinki meeting had already been made by the time Iran declared Tuesday that it would attend.
But a decision to give up on staging such a gathering after it was approved by the NPT is more than a reflection of Mideast realities. It also is bound to weaken efforts at future NPT conferences to reconcile clashing visions of disarmament and nonproliferation efforts.
Daryl Kimball, head of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, warned that "an indefinite cancellation of the long-awaited conference on a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone will only worsen the proliferation risks in the future and undermine the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty."
Iran, the Arab nations and most other developing countries say the emphasis should on the U.S. and other nuclear-armed states that are NPT members to disarm. Such nations also castigate the West for supporting Israel and its widely suspected nuclear weapons program. Washington and its allies say Iran, North Korea and Syria are the greatest proliferation threats, even though Tehran and Damascus deny allegations of secret nuclear activities linked to weapons.
The Arab proposal to create a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Mideast and to pressure Israel to give up its undeclared arsenal of perhaps 80 nuclear warheads, was endorsed by the 1995 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty conference but never acted on. The conference meets every five years.
The two diplomats who spoke Saturday are from nations that were invited to the Helsinki meeting, which was to be open to all NPT-member nations. The diplomats also are from member nations of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.
While Syria's civil war, nuclear tensions with Iran and other Mideast frictions will be cited as the official reason for the cancellation, one of the diplomats acknowledged that the decision is mainly being taken because Israel has decided not to attend. The diplomat — from a Western nation sympathetic to Israel — said Arabs countries have refused to budge from positions that made it impossible for the Jewish state to participate.
Israel has long said that a full Arab-Israeli peace plan must precede any creation of a Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction. The region's Muslim neighbors in turn have asserted that Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal presents the greatest threat to peace in the region. They insist that Israel declare its arsenal and join the NPT as part of any peace talks.
The diplomat said that while the announcement that the Helsinki meeting has been canceled might be made in the name of all three co-sponsors — the U.S, Russia and Britain — it would likely be delivered only by the United States, reflecting tensions between Moscow and Washington on the issue. He said the Russians have opposed declaring the meeting dead at this point.