Do not let the Helsinki conference on a Mideast WMD-Free Zone fall off the “to-do” list

If Russia, the UK, and the US – as the co-conveners of the Helsinki conference on a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East – had a priority list of foreign policy agenda items, convening such a conference would likely be hidden somewhere on pages 4 or 5 of a double-sided document, printed in 11 pt. Calibri font. Even among key stakeholders, the mounting crises in the region might reduce the diplomatic impetus for convening the conference, at least within the intended deadline of “as soon as possible” and certainly before the 2015 NPT Review Conference. Nevertheless, downplaying the significance of meeting in Helsinki risks stalling progress on a number of issues.

A substantial list of crises threatens to take up the diplomatic resources and political capital that may be required to finish the process of bringing the parties to the table, and the perception of political risks that have been there all along for attending the Helsinki conference now seem to be elevated. The conflict in Gaza has flared with a rising death toll that supersedes the number of casualties from previous Israel-Hamas clashes; the “Islamic State’s” insurgency in Iraq (formerly the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”, or ISIL/ISIS), has exacerbated sectarian divides within the state and heightened instability; the civil war in Syria just witnessed one of its deadliest weeks yet; and ongoing conflicts have again reared up in Libya and Yemen. Even the co-conveners are not immune: billowing tensions between the US and Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, and allegations of violating the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, reflect an ever-worsening relationship between the two powers.

The Zone’s demotion on the security agenda is not new. Two years ago, when the original goal of holding a conference by the end of 2012 was missed, officials cited differences over “core issues” and “modalities” around a conference, as well as the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, the (then)-rising civil war in Syria, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet, engaging in simultaneous efforts to convene the Helsinki conference, while managing emerging developments and crises, remains worthwhile for several reasons.

1. Convening the Helsinki conference might contribute to the strengthening of the non-proliferation regime at a critical juncture. Called for as part of the final outcome document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, convening the Helsinki conference could boost the chances of success as the 2015 NPT review cycle comes to a close. Furthermore, though the extension of the interim deal between Iran and the P5+1 (E3+3) could ultimately increase momentum for the establishment of the Zone in the region, existing concerns over the intentions of the Iranian nuclear program might elicit considerations of a power-rebalancing strategy among some Gulf States, primarily Saudi Arabia, and elevate proliferation risks under a nuclear energy disguise. A Zone where regional parties are reassured of the peaceful intentions behind established or emerging nuclear programs would be highly beneficial, especially as more plans may emerge to expand existing programs. Alternatively, the repercussions of failure could jeopardize the non-proliferation regime by exacerbating and reinforcing heightened threat perceptions, mistrust, lack of transparency, and power-balancing dynamics.

2. Recent crises remind us of the potential for WMD use, and a successful Helsinki conference could lower this risk in the region. Despite the relative success story surrounding the dismantlement of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles after a heinous sarin attack massacred civilians, it remains unclear whether the government’s initial stockpile declaration was free from discrepancies. Syrian citizens have also witnessed the systematic use of chlorine gas against them — although chlorine gas is not considered a chemical weapon, its use presents an ominous harbinger of the continued risk posed by non-conventional materials in warfare. Similarly, the Islamic State occupied a former chemical weapon facility in Iraq, and later seized low-grade uranium from a research center at a university in Mosul. Though US officials agreed that it would be very difficult to use the chemicals stored at the facility for military purposes, and that low-grade uranium does not pose a serious nuclear security threat, the Islamic State seems to be actively pursuing opportunities in which they could access WMD materials; a trend that does not bode well for regional security. Discussions about a WMD-Free Zone that are followed by the implementation of verification mechanisms and the creation of peer-reviewing regional agencies, would contribute to the regulation of these risk-prone materials.

3. The Helsinki conference might prove to be a prime conduit for regional dialogue. Such a dialogue could, in turn, help build confidence, encourage compromise and boost cooperation by fostering a deeper understanding of different threat perceptions and rallying the parties around common security interests. The ripples of success in this context – a WMD security architecture wherein Mideast states work together – might trigger further cooperation in additional areas – including energy and maybe even conventional security. As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius explains, “[in the Middle East] we need multilateral talks for regional security,” but the first step is convening such talks and investing sufficient diplomatic energy to guarantee their success. Although the past five Glion-Geneva meetings among key regional parties, including Egypt and Israel, have not produced a breakthrough on the modalities and possible outcomes of the Helsinki conference, the meetings have served as a platform for keeping much needed communication channels open. It is of paramount importance that these channels remain open, if there is to be hope for strengthening regional cooperation, security, and inter-state stability.

While the list of priorities might be long, parties to a potential Zone, alongside the co-conveners, should make every effort to engage readily in discussions about holding the conference while simultaneously dealing with mounting regional challenges. The alternative would not only mean missing out on the potential gains to be had from engaging within the conference framework, it could also have the long-term effect of adding even more serious crises to that already daunting list.

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