NEW YORK – Israeli diplomats have been conspicuously absent from the month-long nonproliferation treaty conference at the United Nations. But with representatives from 189 parties to the NPT huddled in the corridors of the UN this past month, Israel’s presumed nuclear stockpile has dominated negotiations.
In the final days of the NPT review conference, which ends Friday, the importance of Israel and a final resolution on the Middle East prompted at least one Western diplomat to remark to Reuters: “If we can’t get a deal on the Middle East in the next few days, the NPT review conference will probably collapse.”
That is how many described the last NPT conference, in 2005, which failed to reach a final resolution. Unwilling to negotiate on any document that singled out Israel, the Bush administration went head to head with countries, notably Egypt, whose main priority was implementing a 1995 resolution that would establish a nuclear-free Middle East. President Barack Obama, promoting international cooperation, has taken a different approach.
This time, too, Egypt jumped into the arena early with backing from other Arab states all supporting the implementation of the 1995 resolution, as well as a Mideast conference to jump-start negotiations toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials have stayed out of the fiery debate in Turtle Bay, but point to Iran’s nuclear ambition as the greatest regional threat.
And so, concurrent to the discussion at the NPT is a US-led push for a fourth round of sanctions on Iran. Indeed, behind the scenes of the NPT’s struggle over a nuclear-free Middle East, a power struggle between the US and Iran dominated negotiations. In recent days, the US and Egypt have been working toward some kind of compromise that may include Egypt’s support for sanctions against Iran.
FROM THE very start of the conference, which opened on May 3, Iran and the US went head to head in fiery speeches before the treaty members.
“Unfair policies applied by a select few expansionist states have obscured the prospect of international security,” said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from the General Assembly hall.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Ahmadinejad of “wild accusations” against the US and others. “Iran will do whatever it can to divert attention away from its own record and to attempt to evade accountability,” she said.
By mid-May, the NPT review conference was eclipsed by back-to-back announcements by Iran and then the US concerning Iran’s nuclear program.
Following an announcement that Iran would turn over half its stockpile to Turkey and Brazil, the US announced an agreement with Russia and China to impose a fourth round of Security Council sanctions on Iran.
“This announcement is as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Teheran over the last few days as any we could provide,” Clinton said, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
FOUR DAYS before the conference was set to close, the conference president introduced a final draft resolution that would pave the way for a nuclear-free Middle East. Iran repeatedly backed the concept, which would force Israel to acknowledge its arsenal and sign the NPT as a non-weapon state.
Israel has not acknowledged its nuclear arsenal, and it is among three nations – including India and Pakistan – that are not party to the NPT and did not participate in the review conference.
In early May, the five permanent members of the Security Council released a unanimous statement in which they expressed support for a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.
The US previously expressed support for a nuclear-free Middle East, but only if there is regional peace.
“Given the lack of a comprehensive regional peace and concerns about some countries’ compliance with NPT safeguards, the conditions for such a zone do not yet exist,” Clinton told reporters in early May at the UN.
In the waning days of the conference, American diplomats were entrenched in negotiations with Egypt over a proposed conference to jump-start negotiations toward the arms-free zone.
Egypt, with the backing of Arab states and the powerful 118-block of
nonaligned member states in the developing world, envisioned such a
conference next year. Western diplomats countered, suggesting a
conference in 2012 or 2013.
For the Americans, Egypt’s support is key to securing backing for Iran sanctions.
As for Israel, government officials have focused on the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post
month, Ambassador to the UN Gabriela Shalev said Israel’s accession is
not the main issue, rather a distraction from the Iranian threat.
“The global threat now, not only to Israel and not only to the Middle
East, is the Iranian race to reach nuclear capabilities,” she said.
“Once the Middle East will be an area where there will not be any
threat to Israel... then we can rediscuss the NPT.”