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    Middle East
     Dec 4, 2012

Nuclear-free chance 'squandered'
By Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

JERUSALEM - After the cancellation of an international conference to create a nuclear-free Middle East, leading experts have warned that an important opportunity to create stability in the region has been squandered.

"The 2012 meeting in Helsinki was a precedent. For the first time, the important decision (was taken) of convening a special meeting to study the requirements of a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East," Ayman Khalil, director of the Amman-based Arab Institute for Security Studies, told IPS. "That in and of itself was an important decision and a milestone. Sadly, this didn't materialize."

The conference on building a nuclear-free Middle East was set to take place in December in Finland, sponsored by the United


Nations and backed by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom.

United States State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated that the conference was cancelled due to "a deep conceptual gap [that] persists in the region on approaches towards regional security and arms control arrangements", and because "states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions" for the meeting.

The meeting is now expected to be held in early 2013.

According to the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs (ECFA), holding the conference was especially important at this time given "Iran's non-response to the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency on one hand, and Israel's threat to launch a military attack on Iran on the other hand".

The ECFA stated that the Arab Forum for Non-Proliferation would hold a meeting December 12 in Cairo to discuss how to get the process re-started. "Making the Middle East free of mass destruction weapons will create the appropriate environment for regional stability and security in the region," it stated.

The decision to hold a special conference on the creation of a nuclear-free Middle East was made during a 2010 review meeting of states that are party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Signed into force in 1970, the NPT aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons technology, and further the goal of nuclear disarmament around the world. Currently, 190 parties have signed the treaty, including the five official nuclear-weapons states: China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and the United States.

There are currently five nuclear-weapon-free zones in the world, according to the UN: Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Africa.

Israel, which has long been believed to possess nuclear weapons yet maintains a policy of "nuclear ambiguity", has not signed the NPT. Many have said that the decision to cancel the Helsinki conference may be linked to Israeli fears that it would be singled out for criticism.

According to Paul Hirschson, deputy spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel was never formally invited to the Helsinki conference and therefore never agreed or disagreed to participate.

"I think that we probably agree with the Americans that the conditions aren't right... I don't think we've really got much to talk about anything," Hirschson told IPS. "The subject's a nice subject, but what we're really interested in is peace with the Palestinians, diplomatic relations with the Saudis; we've got a hundred things ahead of us before we start devoting time to that."

Over the past year, Israel has publicly voiced its opposition to Iran working to acquire nuclear weapons, a charge that Iranian officials have denied. Israeli leaders have gone so far as to suggest that they might pre-emptively strike Iranian nuclear facilities, causing diplomatic tensions with its largest ally, the United States.

According to Ayman Khalil, however, Israel's nuclear ambiguity remains the "elephant in the room", and it, not a nuclear Iran, constitutes the biggest obstacle to building a nuclear-free Middle East.

"All countries in the region have basically signed the [nuclear] non-proliferation treaty, including Iran. One country, and one country alone, remains outside of these arrangements, and that is Israel," Khalil said.

"Arabs wanted this meeting [in Helsinki] to take place in good faith to reach an acceptable arrangement with Israel. If this meeting would have taken place as planned, it would have been a massive confidence-building measure between members of the region."

(Inter Press Service)

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