Finland to Chair International Conference on Nuclear-free Mideast

Conference to be held in 2012, with the aim of a achieving a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

Finland was appointed Friday to chair the first international conference next year on establishing a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The United Nations, the United States, Russia and Britain selected Finland as the host country and the country's foreign minister, Jaakko Laajava, as chairman of the conference.

Nuclear reactor, Isfahan, Iran - AP - 2009/2011

The UN and those countries took the decision based on a recommendation adopted at last year's review meeting on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). A WMD-free Middle East conference was first proposed in 1995 and the NPT talks last year decided that it should be convened for the first time in 2012.

But the low-key announcement of an important conference made at UN headquarters in New York draw some criticism.

Anne Penketh, program director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) in Washington, said the announcement amounted to "burying good news" because it had taken so long to decide on the conference.

"It's the first concrete step since the decision to convene a conference was taken at the end of the NPT review conference, in May last year, so it should be welcomed," Penketh said. "It's a positive sign that things are moving along, albeit too slowly."

She said Finland will try to bring Israel and Iran to the conference. Israel, which is alleged to have a nuclear arsenal but has not admitted to possessing the weapons, is not an NPT member.

Iran signed the NPT and has denied it possesses nuclear weapons despite a widespread belief by western nations that is attempting to develop them.

A specific date for the conference has not been set.