Inter-American problems and regional policy
Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation at International Organisations in Vienna Mikhail Ulyanov’s interview with Kommersant newspaper, published on November 18, 2019
Question: What is the importance of the UN Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, which opens in New York on November 18?
Mikhail Ulyanov: This subject is extremely important for the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). At the same time, it is a major source of irritation that complicates discussions on the strengthening of the non-proliferation regime and a matter of veritable diplomatic battles at the NPT Review Conference and the sessions of its Preparatory Committee.
Arab countries, which are led by Egypt in these battles, argue, and rightly so, that the obligations the participating states assumed in 1995 are not being honoured. No matter how much the other countries cite security problems in the Middle East and other circumstances, it is an undeniable fact that the 1995 resolution is not being honoured, which is complicating the implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If we take the heat off the issue of a WMD-free Middle East, this will simplify the implementation of the NPT.
Question: The issue of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East has been on pause for 25 years, yet nothing catastrophic has happened. What can happen now?
Mikhail Ulyanov: Anything. It is bad when the treaty is sharply criticised at the review conferences. For example, because of the lack of any progress on the Middle East issue, some representatives said at the latest NPT Review Conference in 2015 that their countries’ accession to the NPT had been a big mistake and that a nuclear arms race was imminent in the Middle East. Of course, this is a distant prospect so far, but it is alarming that such statements are being made at all.
Question: Several countries, primarily Israel and the United States, which is supporting it, intend to boycott the New York conference. What can you say about that?
Mikhail Ulyanov: I believe that it is an error of judgement. There is no indication in the UN General Assembly’s decision on the need to convene the conference on November 18-22 that anything would be forced on Israel, contrary to what Israeli and US diplomats claim. There is nothing of the kind there. The resolution stipulates the convocation of the conference and invites all regional countries, including Iran and Israel, of course, to attend it. It is a form of reaching out and an invitation to discuss the problem. Arab countries have actually given Israel the right of veto. Any substantive decisions are to be adopted exclusively on the basis of consensus.
By taking part, Israel would in fact have control over this process and be able to preclude any unacceptable developments. Without it, other countries will decide on the essence and phrasing of the agreement on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. I do not think that this would be in Israel’s interests. Attendance at the conference would give our Israeli colleagues an opportunity to also raise other security related topics. It is always better to talk than not to talk.
Maybe Israel will change its position in a year or two. As far as I can see, it will take a long time to draft a treaty on a WMD-free zone. The General Assembly decision stipulates annual sessions. The first one will be held now, and other sessions will be held every year until the drafting of the agreement is finished. This may take several years.
Question: Speaking about the nuclear component of weapons of mass destruction, only Israel has this kind of arsenal in the region. Yet, that country does not recognise this fact and is not a party to the NPT, let alone any agreements to destroy those weapons. Is the idea of creating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East doomed before we even start?
Mikhail Ulyanov: Indeed, without Israel, the Conference and all other discussions on this subject will be significantly depreciated, of course. But they will still have value. It is a process that creates a specific environment. And I cannot confidently say that Israel will never join this process. Earlier, Israel took part in the preparatory meetings in Glion and Geneva, and saw value in them.
Question: Were they held in a closed door format?
Mikhail Ulyanov: They were unofficial, without the UN flag. The very fact that the Israelis participated in those meetings and that they outlined their priorities means that such a dialogue can be of some value to them.
Question: And for Russia, what is the value of the opening conference?
Mikhail Ulyanov: First, in 1995, we made a commitment to help achieve the goal of creating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. So we have a special responsibility, along with the United States and the UK.
Second, the creation of this zone would be a significant contribution to strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime, which is in Russia's national interests. If the process gets off the ground and gains a positive momentum and furthermore, if it leads to a tangible result, such as a draft agreement ready for signing, it would be an important achievement.
Third, our honest and open position on the creation of this zone strengthens Russia's reputation in the Middle East. Moreover, we are not quarrelling with Israel. We have no controversy on this issue with them. They understand that we act in this way precisely because we are the guarantors of the 1995 agreements and care about nuclear non-proliferation.