This Week – Hopes and Doubts about WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East

The increasingly violent clashes between security forces and protesters protests across the Arab world, inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, are causing some diplomats to raise doubts about the prospects for holding a conference next year on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

There is no sign of the unrest abating, and next Friday is expected to produce a new surge on the Muslim holiday as in recent weeks.

Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, and Yemen, four states where protests have turned violent, would be core states invited to the conference which is to be convened in line with a decision by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference last May. Egypt, which played a leading role in the successful outcome at the Review Conference, is still at a standstill and under army rule following the departure of President Hosni Mubarak. There has also been renewed unrest in Iran, which with Israel, would be a key state invited to attend the 2012 conference.

Under the worst case scenario, the clashes may be used by governments as an excuse to delay the conference, if not cancel it altogether. Diplomats in this region noticed that the co-sponsor states – the US, UK and Russia working with the UN secretary-general’s office – had already been slow to choose a facilitator who would start the ball rolling by holding consultations in the region. We still don’t know where the conference would be held or even which states exactly would be invited, although all involved want both Israel and Iran to attend. There is no date, and the event’s agenda still needs to be hammered out. All of these steps will involve difficult negotiations with the region, where governments may be distracted by domestic turmoil.

There are still hopes that a facilitator and host government will be decided by the summer, as co-sponsors are now seriously engaged on the issue. There are also plans afoot for a European Union seminar this summer, another preparatory step in line with the Review Conference document. Finally, whatever the outcome of the Middle East unrest in individual countries, it is extremely unlikely that governments would eschew their international treaty commitments and the wheels of diplomacy are likely to keep on rolling.

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