Remarks to the Conference of the Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East

Ambassador Adam Scheinman, Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Federal Foreign Office of Germany
Berlin, Germany
March 11, 2015

It is my great pleasure to be here today. I have deep appreciation for the work of the Academic Peace Orchestra Middle East and I want to thank in particular Professor Bernd Kubbig for the kind invitation to talk today about the challenges and opportunities for the Middle East WMD Free Zone conference to be held in Helsinki.

What I would like to do is share U.S. perspectives on the effort convene the Helsinki conference and touch briefly on implications for the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference that opens next month. I’ll also offer an academic observation to close.

Let me start by reaffirming that the United States is sincerely committed to bringing the regional states together for a conference on a Middle East zone, as called for in the consensus 2010 Review Conference decision. Very significant efforts have been undertaken toward this end. In the past year, Israel and the Arab states have participated in five rounds of consultations to discuss aspects of the conference. The conveners (the U.K., Russia, the UN, and the United States), and facilitator, Finland’s Ambassador Laajava, have expended incredible effort to push the process forward. If time, mental energy, and miles flown were a measure of success, we could have claimed victory long ago.

Of course, that is not how we measure success. We were hopeful that a conference in Helsinki could have taken place before the start of the RevCon next month, but despite good faith efforts the regional states remain apart on key issues. This has prevented us from scheduling a conference with full participation of the regional states, the criterion written into the 2010 NPT final document.

The United States took the decision to work on convening a regional conference not to paper over differences or preserve consensus at the 2010 review conference, but to advance a long-stalled idea for a Middle East WMD free zone. Agreement to pursue a regional conference was the first practical step agreed in the fifteen years since the 1995 Middle East resolution and the collapse of the Arms Control and Regional Security talks.

As I’ve noted, the conveners and Facilitator have worked countless hours together on this issue, and we will continue our efforts as long as the regional states believe these efforts remain constructive. Members of the panel have been partners in this work and can offer their own views on the process to date and what is needed to bring it to a successful conclusion.

The challenges and differences that have prevented the parties from agreeing on terms for a conference are not dissimilar to those that block progress toward achievement of a zone.

Near the top of that list is the very different concept of negotiations among the parties. If I could simplify, one group emphasizes simplicity – that we take the example of South Africa and the African NWFZ and apply it to the Middle East. The other group emphasizes complexity – that security concerns are dealt with seriously and through practical and detailed discussions before starting to discuss a zone. Underlying this difference is the basic lack of trust and confidence in the region. Because of it, there is a tendency among parties to seek agreement or pre-decision on virtually every aspect of the conference before a process can start. This reinforces obstacles to progress that in our view can only be addressed through direct engagement of the regional states.

These challenges cloud prospects for a conference, but they do not doom it – the problems are surmountable. Throughout the consultative process held in Glion and then in Geneva, the regional states have engaged and interacted; they developed a stronger appreciation for the perspectives of others; and all have shown some flexibility – for example on many procedural arrangements and support for consensus decision-making.

It should be recognized that a Middle East WMD free zone is anything but simple. The Middle East is unlike any other region that negotiated a nuclear weapon free zone agreement – and it would be the first in history to include all categories of WMD plus delivery systems.

Unlike the other regions with zone treaties, the states of the Middle East lack a common culture and language; the region is heavily proliferated and has experienced the recent use of chemical weapons by Syria; it is undergoing substantial political change and is riven by military conflicts; it has a history of non-compliance with the NPT; and one key player is not recognized by the vast majority of others.

Further, none of the other regional zones sought to negotiate an agreement under UN auspices or with outside help; none resorted to international resolutions or pressure as a tool of engagement; and all viewed a zone as part of a larger effort to create regional security architectures.

These are serious obstacles – but obstacles to achievement of a zone – not to the start of a dialogue, which we hope Helsinki can serve. A dialogue on a Middle East zone that includes discussion of security concerns common to states in the region should not be viewed as a complication or excuse for delay. Disarmament and security are not separable in the context of the Middle East. This concept is reflected in consensus UNGA resolutions on the zone that have passed by consensus for almost thirty years. It’s also reflected in the Secretary General’s report to the 2012 UN General Assembly, where he calls on “concerned parties inside and outside the region to seek to create stable security conditions and an eventual settlement that would facilitate the process of establishing a MEWMDFZ.”

Rather than allow the question of whether to address security issues in Helsinki block progress, we have encouraged the regional states to think openly about how the issue might be framed to make discussion of it acceptable to all.

Of course, once the parties set a date for Helsinki, the question of how to sustain the dialogue and take it forward is equally important. There are many issues that could be addressed, from legal and organizational questions – to the role of security and confidence-building – to effective verification and enforcement of compliance. But all should understand that follow-on activities are not for the conveners or facilitator to determine. This is a first principle of regional zones – that they be based on arrangements freely arrived at by the regional parties. There is no room for coercion or compulsion. This is a voluntary endeavor, or there is no endeavor.

Helsinki can start a constructive dialogue to close the trust deficit among parties and generate greater mutual understanding. States of the region should seize this opportunity and avoid reverting to failed methods or arguments of the past. We can offer no assurance that Helsinki will lead to negotiations of a Middle East zone. But we can guarantee that in the absence of Helsinki the zone has no immediate future. It will remain purely aspirational with no content or operational meaning.

We continue to believe the Helsinki conference can be held this year. We will continue to offer our suggestions and support. But ultimately this is a project for the regional states, not the United States, the conveners, or the facilitator – or the NPT Review Conference – to dictate. The impetus must come from the region, and we remain hopeful they will make the tough decisions needed for this process to start.

Turning to the NPT Review Conference next month, while our commitment to making progress toward a Middle East Zone is real, we will nonetheless reject efforts to turn the NPT process into a referendum on Middle East issues alone. The NPT is much larger than any one issue, and efforts to strengthen each of the Treaty’s three pillars should not be delayed on account of delays getting to Helsinki.

We would also caution against the temptation to reopen the 2010 mandate, as that would only invite revisions that will lack consensus backing. The 2010 mandate shouldn’t be read too narrowly; we regard it as sufficiently flexible to accommodate the priorities of all participating states. Attempts to re-litigate the mandate in New York are bound to fail.

We hope others will approach the Review Conference with a similar focus and set their sights on working toward a consensus outcome. We have made progress toward Helsinki—even if halting—and believe we’re headed in the right direction. But progress can be undone quickly by a contentious NPT meeting that features finger-pointing and recriminations rather than cooperation. We should embrace a do-no-harm-to-Helsinki principle, leaving prospects for a conference no worse off when we enter the Review Conference than when we leave it. Hopefully, the prospects will be improved.

We understand that some seek to use NPT meetings to score political points or ratchet up pressure on a zone. But pressure is a tactic, not a diplomatic strategy. States must see the benefit of starting a process, and for that they need clarity on the fundamentals up front. Helsinki can help serve this purpose, which is why we are so insistent that it succeed.

Before closing, I would like to offer a number of possible guidelines for Helsinki drawn from a speech that Under Secretary Gottemoeller recently gave reflecting on her experience in US-Russian nuclear talks. In reading her speech, I was struck how the lessons apply to our project in the Middle East.

First, build relationships. Take advantage of meetings like this. Chat during coffee breaks; eat meals together; pick up a phone when needed; and never underestimate the power of a human gesture.

Second, establish trust. This takes longer than building relationships and requires familiarity and a willingness to handle sensitive matters away from public viewing.

Third, create value for both sides. To succeed, the process should not be viewed in zero-sum terms. Parties must negotiate for mutual benefit, with all sides believing there is something to be gained through talks.

Fourth, negotiate process and substance. Discussion of process is a good place to start, but substance is what keeps the parties at the table. Talks on process can only carry you so far. This is precisely what we have seen in the Helsinki consultations and it is why we believe the time has come for the regional states to negotiate an agenda.

Fifth, be prepared and build capacity. The United States and Russia have forty years of experience negotiating nuclear agreements. We have vast bureaucracies for this and layers of technical expertise and experienced inspectors. This capacity and experience is almost nonexistent in the Middle East. It must be built up, which is why meetings like this are so important.

So I apologize for ending on an academic note, but after all this is the Academic Peace Orchestra.

Thank you and I look forward to your questions.