Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman speaking to reporters in Geneva

Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman speaking to reporters in Geneva State Department

U.S. Envoy Questions Middle East Verve for WMD-Free Zone

In interview, State Department's Thomas Countryman says that Egypt's work on the issue is "theatrics." By Elaine Grossman

A senior U.S. State Department official in an exclusive interview called Egypt’s walkout from a recent U.N.-sponsored conference “theatrics” that do not help the Arab state’s bid to create a special Middle East zone free of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

Cairo made news in April when its delegate left the Swiss-hosted conference to protest a lack of progress on the proposed regional ban on weapons of mass destruction, after a 2012 deadline for convening a formal gathering to discuss the topic was missed.

“To attain the participation of all regional states … is a task not only for the conveners and the facilitators,” said Thomas Countryman, the assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation. “The states of the region who want this to happen must also engage with each other, in order to set the agenda and the conditions for the conference.

“I think that’s possible to do,” he said in a late-June dialogue at his Foggy Bottom office, “but it requires not theatrics but engagement. And that’s what we haven’t seen.”

The idea for the conference stemmed from a resolution drafted by Egypt nearly two decades ago and embraced in 1995 by member nations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

A subsequent NPT Review Conference in 2010 agreed to hold the special gathering by 2012. However, U.N.-appointed facilitator Jaakko Laajava, a Finnish diplomat, was unable by the end of last year to get all Mideast nations to agree to participate.

Speaking at an April Preparatory Committee meeting aimed at planning the 2015 NPT Review Conference, Egyptian Ambassador Hisham Badr condemned what he termed “unilateral postponement” of the WMD-free zone confab, which is to be held in Helsinki.

He said that Laajava and the states tasked with helping support the conference -- Russia, the United States and United Kingdom -- should not have delayed setting a date for the formal WMD discussions, even though Israel had not yet agreed to attend.

“This followed the expressed commitment of all but one country in the Middle East to attend such a conference,” said Badr. “We reject the excuses that were given.”

Countryman, in the interview, suggested that domestic considerations last spring by Cairo’s since-ejected government, led at that time by Mohamed Morsi, were the primary motivation fueling Badr’s protest. In particular, the U.S. diplomat hinted that Egypt and its Arab League partners were blaming the stalled conference plans on Israel rather than agreeing to meet with all parties in a multilateral preliminary consultation, as Laajava has proposed and to which Israel has agreed.

The Finnish facilitator “is employing normal tools of diplomacy to solve an issue and to take a step forward,” Countryman told Global Security Newswire. “I would hope that all parties in the region would give him their full cooperation.”

A 31-year veteran diplomat whose multiple foreign assignments have included more than four years working on political and security issues in Egypt, Countryman also addressed a wide range of other topics in the June 26 interview. Those will be the focus of two forthcoming installments in this three-part interview series.

Read more at Global Security Newswire.