Amid the turmoil of this year's Arab Spring protests and concerns over Iran's nuclear program, representatives of Israel and some Arab states are in Vienna for talks about a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East.
Hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the two-day meeting on creating a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East has been in the works for years. In opening remarks, the IAEA's director general, Yukiya Amano, said there is broad international support for such a zone -- and he hoped the forum would help promote dialogue.
"But, among countries of the Middle East region and beyond, there are also long-standing differences of view related to the establishment of such a zone and the application of comprehensive agency safeguards to all nuclear activities in the region," Amano said.
The idea has precedence. Nuclear-weapon-free zones have been established in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the South Pacific and parts of Asia. But the Middle East is particularly problematic.
Israel is the only country in the region that has not joined the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- and it has neither confirmed nor denied the widespread belief that it has nuclear weapons. Israel says will join the NPT only when there is a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement. And evidence appears to be mounting that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb, with a new IAEA report strongly suggesting a military dimension to Tehran's nuclear activities.
But Malcolm Chalmers, research director at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, believes the Vienna meeting serves a purpose. "There is concern that unless there is vigorous arms control pressure, unless Iran is prevented in one way or another - or decides not to acquire nuclear weapons - we could have a situation in 20 years time in which there are many nuclear weapons states in the Middle East," he stated.
Chalmers says just having the various actors around the table is a plus, since some Middle Eastern nations -- like Iran - don't even recognize Israel's right to exist. But Iran said on Friday it would not attend the Vienna meeting. It's not yet clear how many Arab countries are attending.
Still, Chalmers discounts writing off the concept of a nuclear-free Middle East. This year's Arab Spring has uprooted many certainties.
"The Arab Spring - actually precisely because the outcome is so uncertain -- we really don't know where we're going to be in six months time, never mind 10 years - that things which might not have been conceivable three or four years ago, perhaps should be back on the agenda," Chambers stated.
The forum is a precursor to another international meeting in Finland next year, aimed at ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.