As long ago as 1995 Britain, Russia and the United States were asked by the United Nations to work together on the concept of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. For a variety of reasons - some acceptable, others not - little or no progress has been made despite the obvious importance of the idea which has grown with concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Now Finland has stepped into the breach, planning a major international conference in Helsinki in December. Some seventy preparatory meetings have already been held in the Middle East at a middle-rank diplomatic level and although no country is yet committed to attend, none has yet refused. The participants at the conference would ideally be Iran, Israel, the Arab states and Turkey, together with the initial signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 (China, France, Russia, UK, US), as well as the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency.
Israel will find difficulties with the proposed timing of the conference given the emphasis it is placing on the necessity to act soon against Iran; for the United States it would follow after the presidential election in November. President Obama has stressed the need for diplomacy to be thoroughly tested and this Finnish initiative appears to answer that call. A single meeting will achieve little but it could get a much-needed process going at last.
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