Add the Obama administration's WMD czar Gary Samore to the growing list of top officials who believe that Middle East peace is a necessary precursor to solving wider regional problems, including the drive to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Samore tied the peace process to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, currently ongoing in New York, by saying that one of the key signs of success would be if "at least some progress" can be made toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
"We recognize and I frankly think everybody recognizes that in the absence of a comprehensive and endurable peace settlement, achieving the zone... is just not likely to be the outcome any time soon."
He then took the argument one step further and said, "The Obama administration is working very hard to try to push the peace process forward and it seems to me that's an essential element to making progress in any of these zones... It's hard to imagine how you could have an arms control regime in the Middle East without having peace and diplomatic recognition... it's a precursor to negotiations."
It's longstanding U.S. policy that Israel should eventually join the NPT, but it's also longstanding U.S. policy not to push Israel to change its stance of neither confirming nor denying its estimated stockpile of 100-plus nuclear weapons. Samore said he does not personally support Israel changing its policy of ambiguity and that no such discussions were taking place that he was aware of.
He also sought to set clear expectations for what might come out of the four-week conference, namely that the administration was not expecting all of the conference members to sign onto any agreement together.
"We believe that if a strong majority of countries support an outcome that pledges support for the treaty and supports practical steps for all of the three pillars plus language on the Middle East, that would be a successful outcome... even if that document is not accepted by the conference as a whole."
Samore also defended the U.S.-Russia civilian nuclear agreement, which the White House sent over to Congress Tuesday. Some lawmakers see the agreement as an undeserved reward to Russia, before that country has publicly committed to signing onto a strong Iran sanctions resolution at the UN.
He said the deal, known as the 123 agreement, won't come into force until later this year and he predicted a UN sanctions resolution would materialize well before then. And he doubted that Russia would go through with the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Iran, which could also provoke opposition to the deal.
"We've made it very clear to the Russians that would have a very significant impact on bilateral relations and the Russians understand that the consequences would be very severe... I'd be surprised if those transfers take place," said Samore, declining to specify exactly what those consequences would be.
He also headed off another potential concern about the deal by saying, "As long as I've been in this job, there's been no concern about Russian entities providing nuclear assistance to Iran."
Samore said the START treaty with Russia will probably be submitted to Congress this week.