Russia, which was set to have co-hosted the U.N.-backed event along with the U.S. and Britain, is also insisting that the delayed meeting should be held before next April. The foreign ministry in Moscow said in a statement it would exert every effort necessary to make sure that happens.
As the co-depositories of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the U.S, Russia and Britain were to have organized the conference next month. Finland offered to host it, and a Finnish diplomat, Jaakko Laajava, was appointed as “facilitator.”
But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday it could not now take place “because of present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.”
She also said the U.S. “would not support a conference in which any regional state would be subject to pressure or isolation” – an obvious reference to Israel, the primary target for many proponents of a WMD-free Middle East.
At the weekend, Ban said in a statement he wanted Laajava to hold consultations “in the shortest possible time to allow the conference to be held in early 2013.”
He reiterated that his goal was “to make the whole world a nuclear weapon-free zone.”
The vision of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East has been promoted by Egypt since the 1970s – primarily to force Israel to admit and dismantle its undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal. Many nations also see the idea as a way to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.
The campaign received a new lease on life after President Obama in 2009 made strengthening the NPT a policy priority, and at a May 2010 NPT conference in New York, 189 signatories to the treaty called for the establishment of a “Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction” (MEWMDFZ).
During that May 2010 conference, the U.S. joined the other four permanent U.N. Security Council members in a statement of support for a WMD-free Middle East.
It did so even though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. did not believe the regional conditions were right for that to happen. “A comprehensive peace agreement [between Israel and the Arab states] would be helpful,” a State Department spokesman explained at the time.
Under former President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt led the MEWMDFZ drive and promoted it among the 120-member Non Aligned Movement (NAM), which it chaired from 2009. Following Mubarak’s downfall, new President Mohammed Morsi stressed that his Muslim Brotherhood regime would pursue the goal.
“Egypt stresses the necessity of mobilizing international efforts to hold the conference on achieving a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction before the end of the current year 2012,” Morsi said during his first speech at the U.N. last September, adding – in a clear reference to Israel – “with the participation of all concerned parties without exception.”
The Cairo-based head of the 22-member Arab League, Nabil Al-Arabi, on Sunday expressed dismay at the U.S. announcement.
“The cancellation of the conference will have negative impacts on the regional security and the international denuclearization efforts,” he said. The Arab League has called a meeting of senior officials from Arab governments on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss the issue.
Iran, which succeeded Egypt as NAM chairman this year, is also keen for a conference that will put pressure on its major foe, Israel.
Iran’s state-funded Press TV said Sunday the U.S. had canceled the event “over concerns that criticism at Israel would further isolate the Tel Aviv regime.”
“The Israeli regime rejects all the regulatory international nuclear agreements – the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in particular – and refuses to allow its nuclear facilities to come under international regulatory inspections,” it said.
Iran continues to deny that its own nuclear program has a military end goal. Iran is a party to the NPT, but the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), numerous times over an extended period, has found it to be in non-compliance with its obligations under the treaty.