The 2012 conference on WMD-free zone in Middle East bites the dust

It’s the final presidential debate on American foreign policy tonight and you can expect Iran’s nuclear program to come up.

But there’s an equally topical and important issue that is extremely unlikely to be discussed by President Obama and Mitt Romney in the context of Iran: the 2012 Helsinki conference on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. This conference, planned since May 2010 under a consensus decision at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, would bring Iran and Israel to the table for the first time to discuss nuclear disarmament in a region threatened by a nuclear arms race.

My understanding is that the Helsinki event, penciled in by diplomats for December in the Finnish capital, is not going to happen this year after all. The Obama administration’s dilemma is whether to announce before the presidential election the delay in holding the conference.

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On the surface, the postponement of a conference that many had thought would not happen anyway in a U.S. election year is not going to create a ripple in the campaign. But when the words Israel and Iran are mentioned in the same sentence, anything can happen. Romney would search for another way of accusing the president of “throwing Israel under the bus.” Yet the signs are that the Obama administration is in fact yielding to Israeli pressure by deciding that the conference can’t be held this year.

Holding the conference in a U.S. election year was always going to be tough, although Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava, the conference facilitator, has given it his best shot since his appointment at the end of last year. The “Arab Spring,” with its mix of revolution and war, has further clouded the picture. Not to mention the Israeli elections to be held in January.

But the administration never really promoted the idea, despite Obama’s personal interest in nuclear non-proliferation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has flatly opposed sending officials to the conference, while keeping up a pretense that his government hasn’t yet made a determination. The Israeli calculation seemed to be that they didn’t want to be cast in the role of spoiler, if the Iranians ended up staying away. And without Israel and Iran, there would be no point in holding the conference, expected to be attended by all the countries of the region as well as the U.S., U.K. and Russia, which are sponsors of a 1995 NPT resolution providing for the conference.

It’s a disappointing outcome, particularly given that the Arab Group has been willing, for the past two years now, to shelve action at the International Atomic Energy Agency in which Israel has been condemned over its nuclear capability. So it remains to be seen whether the announcement of delay is coupled with a promise to hold the conference as soon as possible in 2013. If it’s not held by May, the U.S. can expect trouble from the Arab Group, and the non-aligned movement now chaired by Iran, at the next NPT preparatory conference. Once the 2012 date slips, the whole process toward eventually creating a zone could lose momentum.

It’s also a missed opportunity. Because if ever there is an agreement with the big powers on curbing Iran’s nuclear program, it can only be sustainable if the existing Israeli arsenal of an estimated 100 to 200 nuclear warheads are included in a negotiation. If there is one fundamental issue that Israel understands, it is security. For now, Israel (which is not an NPT member) has the monopoly on nuclear weapons in the region. But how long will that last?