Last updated: 14 October, 2011

Finland to host Mideast nuclear weapons conference

The United Nations on Friday named Finland to host a sensitive conference next year on making the Middle East free of nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction.

A Finnish government envoy will also take charge of international efforts to convince arch-rivals Iran and Israel to attend the meeting.

Preparations are going ahead amid mounting Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Israel is widely believed to have an atomic arsenal but refuses to confirm or deny its existence.

Finland’s under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, Jaakko Laajava, faces a “daunting task” organizing the conference, said Anne Penketh, program director for the British American Security Information Council (BASIC).

Most of the major powers consider the Middle East to be the world’s powder keg region because of the Palestinian-Israel conflict, other rivalries and disputes and the heady mix of weapons already established or being worked on.

The idea of moving toward a weapons-free Middle East was given formal backing at a 2010 meeting on the 1995 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The United States, Russia and Britain were the the main sponsors.

The three countries have led efforts to find a venue for the conference and the envoy to work with Middle East nations. None however made any immediate comment on the progress toward holding the meeting.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon has also made nuclear disarmament one of his top priorities. He held talks with envoys from several Middle East countries on Thursday to discuss the conference. But he also has made no comment about the conference.

Penketh, at BASIC, said the announcement of the conference venue was the first concrete step since the NPT review meeting in 2010. “It’s a positive sign that things are moving along, albeit too slowly.”

She raised questions about the low key announcement of the event.

“It reflects the political sensitivities in organizing this hugely important conference, which aims to bring Israel and Iran to the table for discussions on their mutual security for the first time.”

Israel is not a member of the NPT and has so far refused to commit to attending the event.

A senior Israeli official told AFP that the government was watching developments and would like to be involved, but was worried that the conference would become an “Israel-bashing” event.

Iran, which is a member of the NPT, has also refused to state a position on the proposed conference.

The UN Security Council has imposed four rounds of sanctions over Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment. Western nations accuse Iran of seeking a nuclear bomb, a charge that Tehran denies.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is to release a new report on Iran’s activities on November 17, which many diplomats predict could increase pressure for a new debate at the Security Council.

Arab nations have traditionally tabled a motion at the IAEA’s annual meeting urging Israel to sign the NPT. But at this year’s meeting last month, the resolution was withdrawn in what Arab nations called a sign of “good faith” for the Middle East conference preparations.