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Four reasons the US could get Israel to talk about a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction

It won’t be easy, but without Israel, there can be no meaningful talks on creating a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.

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Third, Iran has good reason not to spoil regional talks. Joining a regional process would present Iran with a clear chance to break free of its growing isolation and demonstrate its peaceful intentions if they are genuine. A negotiation involving Israel would also put Iran’s rhetoric to a more rigorous test. And if Iran fails this test, it will face a more united regional coalition of states as a consequence.

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Finally, outside powers have bigger stakes in Middle Eastern stability than they did in the recent past.

China and Russia have vital and growing energy and economic interests. France recently opened a military base in the Persian Gulf. The US has troops deployed in the heart of the region. Proliferation and war in the Middle East will affect every region of the world. The major powers understand the need for agreed-upon security rules to promote Middle East stability.

Getting the parties to the negotiating table won’t mean they’ll see eye to eye.

To prevent yet another failure of Middle East diplomacy, the US has a crucial role to play in the organization of the proposed 2012 conference. It must steer the parties of the region toward a process that is incremental and continuous, encouraging initially modest and reversible commitments to build confidence and security along the way. A conference to discuss a WMD-free zone is only the first step in a long process. Israel will need particular reassurance from the US to move forward.

The scope of negotiations must be broad and include not only regional arms control and disarmament, but also nonproliferation and peace-process issues. The goal should be no less than a settlement of territorial disputes involving Israel, diplomatic relations between Israel and the rest of the region, and the creation of a zone free of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The results of negotiations must include a verification regime for monitoring compliance with disarmament commitments, and region-wide acceptance of the strongest possible safeguards to ensure that nuclear energy development in the Middle East remains peaceful.

Israeli leaders might prefer not to talk about their country’s nuclear arsenal. But when pressed, they say regional peace must precede disarmament. Arab states and Iran want to see the sequence moving in the reverse order. The only way forward is to deal with both issues beneath a single negotiating framework.

Martin B. Malin is the executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.