Talks on Mideast WMD Ban an Unintended Casualty of Egyptian Coup?

An Egyptian army soldier guards an entrance to Tahrir Square

Hassan Ammar/AP

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An Egyptian army soldier guards an entrance to Tahrir Square

Efforts to curtail weapons spread may be set back because of the political turmoil in Cairo

Egypt’s frustration over obstacles toward meeting its longtime vision of convening an international conference on banning weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East was high enough in April to prompt a disgruntled walkout by Cairo’s official delegation at a U.N.-sponsored meeting.

Just over two months later, though, the North African nation’s leading role in holding regional talks about the idea of a WMD ban may be poised to become a little-noticed diplomatic victim of last Wednesday’s dramatic military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi.

Given the political situation in Egypt, I doubt any high-level decisions about the conference can be made,” Chen Kane, a senior researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, told Global Security Newswire. “It is just not a priority.”

Amid the turmoil, “is hard to imagine that foreign policy issues in general — much less the issue of the proposed Middle East zone — will be high on the agenda of the political leaders, whoever they may be,” said William Potter, who directs the James Martin Center, based in Monterey, Calif.

A signature international initiative emerging from a major five-year Review Conference three years ago on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty had been to set a 2012 deadline for holding a U.N.-backed gathering of all Mideast nations to discuss the eventual creation of a WMD-free zone.

However, a designated facilitator for the conference, Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava, was unable to persuade regional nations to agree on the terms for a conference in Helsinki by the end of last year. The failure to meet this deadline is what prompted Egypt’s unilateral walk-out of the April NPT planning meeting in protest.

Laajava has urged Mideast nations to at least meet for advance multilateral consultations to hammer out an agenda for the major conference — an idea that Israel has embraced but Egypt, most notably, has rejected. The Swiss government has offered to host advance consultations in Geneva in early- to mid-September, according to Potter.

Cairo in the past has played a key role in instigating the WMD-free zone conference, having shepherded the original idea in 1995 and insisted in 2010 that NPT nations vow to hold the confab within two years. Early this year, Egypt led its fellow Arab League states in condemning Israel for failing thus far to commit to attending such a conference.

Israel is not a member nation of the 1970 nonproliferation accord and did not take part in the 2010 Review Conference at which the objective to hold a summit on creating the special zone was planned. However, its diplomats have taken part in pre-Helsinki planning and have not ruled out attending such a conference.

Israel does not publicly acknowledge its atomic arsenal, but is believed to be the region’s only known nuclear-armed power with an estimated stockpile of 80 or more weapons.

Now, with a military-appointed civilian caretaker — former constitutional judge Adly Mansour — leading Egypt in advance of new national elections, even the lurching efforts toward convening a conference could be replaced by virtually no action at all.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry will continue under their existing policy positions, which have not brought any progress, until new leadership make negotiating a compromise [with Israel] a priority,” Kane told Global Security Newswire on Thursday.

She said it is unclear whether Egypt, in the midst of its latest political upheaval, might allow the Arab League to take the lead on the WMD-free zone issue and perhaps hammer out a compromise with Israel for how the Helsinki conference could proceed. A Qatari envoy last week called for banning atomic arms from the Middle East as a means of reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism.

One event to watch will be the IAEA General Conference,” said Kane, referring to an annual meeting in Austria, to be held Sept. 16-20, of all 159 member states of the U.N. nuclear watchdog arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

There, she said, the Arab League is expected to resubmit a resolution rebuking Israel for its nuclear arsenal, which the United States in past years has rebuffed with varying degrees of success. The IAEA forum could also provide disaffected Mideast nations another opportunity to “disrupt” an international gathering and signal chilly prospects ahead for the Helsinki process, Kane said.

The [early] September time frame [for the Geneva consultations] is significant as it is designed to precede the IAEA General Conference,” Potter said. “The League of Arab States has made clear that it will push very hard this year on the so-called Israeli Nuclear Capabilities Resolution, and the failure to have a date set for the Helsinki conference will make it much more difficult for the U.S. and its allies to defeat the resolution this year.”

The lead U.S. diplomat pushing to convene the WMD-free zone talks said the time has come for regional parties to meet in consultations.

Unfortunately, while the … logistics of holding a conference are easy, the agenda of a conference is not easy,” Thomas Countryman, the U.S. assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, said in a June 18 address at George Washington University. “We have tried to pull together Israel and the Arab states to have a discussion about the agenda for such a conference, an agenda that can meet the needs of all parties in the Middle East.

And we’ve come close to doing it — we have hopes of doing it in the very near future — but we have not yet done that very simple meeting where they sit down face-to-face, agree on an agenda, and agree to move on to Helsinki,” he added.

Potter tried to be optimistic but said even this seemingly small step might be too great a hurdle, given the most recent turn of events.

While anything is possible,” he said, “it will probably require more magic than even the Finnish facilitator can muster to pull a date for the Helsinki conference out of the hat before the end of this year.”

Countryman disparaged what he called the “melodrama” of Egypt’s late-April walkout of a Nonproliferation Treaty meeting aimed at preparing for the next Review Conference in 2015, even if the move grew out of widely shared “frustration” about last year’s missed deadline.

The responsibility for holding the conference does not rest only with the organizers,” he said. “It rests with the regional states and their determination to talk to each other about the conditions that make such a conference — and, ultimately, such a zone — a reality.”

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