The U.S. says a proposed conference on banning nuclear weapons in the Middle East cannot be convened at this point because of current conditions in the region.
State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement released Friday that the U.S. would continue to work to create conditions that could result in a successful conference. But she cited political turmoil in the region and Iran’s defiant stance on nonproliferation.
Nuland says the U.S. supports the goal of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. But she said such a conference should discuss a broad agenda of regional security and have some sort of consensus among the nations in the region on how to approach the conference.
The Associated Press reported earlier this month that the meeting, planned to take place in Helsinki, Finland, before the end of the year, had been called off. A diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel had decided not to attend. Key sponsors had said that the meeting was possible only if all countries, especially Israel, would participate.
Israel declined to participate because of positions taken by Arab countries, the diplomat said.
Britain and the U.N. said on Saturday they hoped a conference aimed at trying to ban nuclear weapons in the Middle East could take place soon.
If and when this happens, the conference is likely to be fraught as Iran and Arab states say Israel's presumed nuclear arsenal is the main threat to security in the region, while Israel and the West see Tehran as the main proliferation danger.
Western diplomats and others believe the conference would make little headway because of that fundamental difference in opinion – something the U.S. has described as "a deep conceptual gap."
However, Britain and the conference's other organizers, which include Russia and the U.N. as well as prospective host Finland, believe it is worth a try anyway, and anti-nuclear campaigners would also like to see it take place.
"We support the convening of a conference as soon as possible. We endorse fully the work of the conference facilitator, Finnish Undersecretary of State Jaakko Laajava, to build consensus on the next steps," British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said in a statement. "We welcome [Laajava's] commitment to conduct further multilateral consultations with the countries of the region to agree to arrangements for a conference in 2013."
Laajava said on Saturday he would propose that multilateral consultations "be held as soon as possible."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon echoed Burt's comments, including the hope that the conference could be held next year at "the earliest opportunity."
"I reaffirm my firm resolve and commitment together with the Russian Federation, the U.K. and the U.S., in consultation with the states of the region, to convene a conference," he said in a statement.
The plan for a meeting to prepare the ground for the possible creation of a weapons of mass destruction-free Middle East was agreed to at a May 2010 conference of 189 parties to the 1970 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Like nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, Israel has never signed the treaty. It neither confirms nor denies having nuclear arms, although nonproliferation and security analysts believe it has several hundred nuclear weapons.
The U.S. State Department said on Friday that the conference could "not be convened 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."
It did not spell out when or if the event would take place.
Washington had feared that Iran and Arab states might hijack the forum to criticize Israel for other things such as its recent airstrikes on Hamas-controlled Gaza in retaliation for rocket attacks on southern Israel.
Iran, Israel's arch foe, announced earlier this month it would attend the conference, but some Western diplomats say Tehran may have only agreed to attend once it became clear that the meeting was likely to be postponed anyway.
Iran denies Western allegations it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.