Among the more than a dozen meetings Hillary Clinton has had on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit here in Washington, one stands out. The U.S. secretary of state had an intense 90-minute session with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit.
Also in the meeting on the American side were two crucial officials: Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher and Special Envoy for the Middle East George Mitchell.
The main topics of the meeting? The Middle East peace process and the upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference to be held at U.N. headquarters in New York in May.
The Cable caught up with State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who gave us an exclusive readout.
Clinton and Tauscher spoke at length with Aboul Gheit about the NPT review conference, as they are doing in a host of meetings yesterday and today. The Obama administration is using this week's summit to lay the groundwork for the May conference, which is sure to be more controversial and more heated than the sessions this week, which have focused on the need to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorist groups.
On Monday, Aboul Gheit reiterated Egypt's call for a nuclear-free Middle East, urging that Israel's unacknowledged nuclear weapons be put on the table along with Iran's nuclear program. The possibility that Egypt, along with Turkey, might raise was the official reason for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's last-minute decision to skip the D.C. summit.
The State Department wants to head off any plans to disrupt the NPT conference and also start the discussions about what countries would be bringing what agendas to New York next month.
"We recognize that this is an issue that many countries are concerned about and we want to make sure we are prepared for that," Crowley said, no going so far as to say the U.S. is trying to dissuade Egypt from making the NPT review conference all about Israel.
"There clearly will be a subtext to the NPT Review Conference, just as there is here. We recognize that," Crowley said.
On Middle East peace, he said Egypt is "in tune with what the Arab league is thinking about things," and so the United States wanted to touch base.
Crowley said he wasn't aware of any meetings between Clinton, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg (who is also milling about) or Mitchell with the Israeli delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, but he didn't rule that out.
As for Turkey, Clinton met with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. The substance of that conversation was on how to move forward with the Turkey-Armenia agreement that Clinton has been pushing for some time.
"The discussion was about how to take specific steps on progress on both sides," Crowley said.
Clinton will join President Obama's meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and also his bilateral with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan.
When asked what the Turkish foreign minister about the prospects for a breakthrough between the two historically estranged neighbors, Crowley said, "Anyone who knows Davutoglu knows that he is always optimistic."
What about Iran's nuclear program? Crowley said there wasn't enough time to discuss the issue in the meeting, but noted that Clinton and Davotoglu will meet again before he leaves for Ankara Thursday.
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