Fasten your seatbelts: nuke talks are about to get very bumpy

UN Secretary-General urges nations to make nuclear disarmament targets a reality at the NPT conference. Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.

Diplomats at the UN in New York have revealed that a long-awaited conference on establishing a WMD free zone in the Middle East has been cancelled. The meeting was due to take place in Finland next month, and was supposed to bring together representatives from across the Middle East—including Israel and Iran—to begin discussions on ridding their region of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their means of delivery.

The cancellation of an international conference might not sound like ground-breaking news, but it’s far more significant than many people will realise. Its roots go all the way back to 1990, when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of the zone, primarily as a way to deal with Israel’s nuclear weapons program. In 1995, the goal of creating the zone became embedded in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) review process when negotiators struck a series of political bargains to help drum up support for the NPT’s indefinite extension. A number of states in the Middle East had been reluctant to support the treaty’s extension, because their commitment not to develop nuclear weapons and to remain within the treaty would put them at a permanent disadvantage unless Israel, which has never joined the treaty and is widely known to be an undeclared nuclear weapons state, disarmed. Eventually, they were persuaded to drop their reservations. In return, all NPT parties pledged to ‘exert their utmost efforts’ to ensure that a ‘zone free of all nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems’ was established in the Middle East.

That was the deal. But that was nearly 20 years ago, and since then, NPT review conferences and their interim meetings (known as ‘PrepComs’) have come and gone, with very little progress being made. Not surprisingly, this has become a major bone of contention among the Arab states and other members of the Non-Aligned Movement, whose support for the treaty’s extension was always conditional. With a couple of important exceptions, their bitterness and feelings of betrayal have been on a display at every NPT meeting, as well as at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. What’s more, these feelings have often been exploited by Iran, which uses the situation to distract attention from and to dampen criticism of its own dubious nuclear activities.

The major exception to the lack of progress occurred in May 2010, when states attending the five-yearly NPT Review Conference agreed to a specific plan to jump-start the zone negotiations. In the final document, which was adopted by consensus, a deadline of the end of 2012 was set for convening an international conference on establishing the Middle East zone. This was considered a major breakthrough and, although delays following the Review Conference caused some frustration, expectations were high that the event would be held this year. In fact, many analysts believe the May 2012 NPT PrepCom, which was chaired by Australian Ambassador Peter Woolcott, ran much more smoothly than usual because so many states wanted to avoid a confrontation that might undermine the prospects for the December conference.

So why was the conference cancelled, and where does that leave us? According to the official account, it isn’t able to go ahead because of the difficult geopolitical situation in the Middle East (civil war in Syria, and escalating violence between Israel and Hamas). There’s no doubt those factors were an important part of the decision to cancel, but the truth is much more complicated: despite months of diplomatic scurrying, diplomats were unable to guarantee Israel’s attendance, without which the conference would have been meaningless anyway.

All of this is very bad news for the next NPT PrepCom, which is due to be held in April-May 2013, and for the health of the NPT in general. Unless a rescheduled conference can be convened in early 2013 and Israel can be persuaded to attend (an increasingly unlikely scenario), the political divisions that were submerged at the last PrepCom will burst back up to the surface and negotiators will have to prepare themselves for a very bumpy ride. One thing is for sure: Ambassador Woolcott will be feeling relieved that he won’t be chairing the 2013 PrepCom. And it would not be surprising if the Romanian ambassador, who jostled with his Hungarian counterpart for the honour to serve as the next Chair, is now wondering whether it is possible for even the most skilled diplomat to avoid a calamity on the difficult road ahead.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is a senior analyst in international strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.

Further reading: this Center on International Cooperation monograph (PDF) is a comprehensive review of the Middle east WMD-free zone proposal.