JERUSALEM — UNITED States efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East are entering a crucial phase as Israel continues to resist signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the nuclear-weapons capabilities of Iran and Iraq remain unclear.
Despite the acknowledged threat posed by Iran with an intention to acquire nuclear weapons, the US is looking to Israel for a more specific commitment to sign the NPT when prospects for peace improve in the Middle East.
But Israel says that it will not sign the treaty before a comprehensive Middle East peace is achieved with all its neighbors and ways can be found to effectively monitor nuclear proliferation bilaterally.
Egypt - backed by Syria and Saudi Arabia - says that it will not approve the extension of the NPT when it comes up for review in April unless Israel shows ``measurable progress'' toward signing the treaty. The NPT essentially requires those countries without nuclear weapons not to get them and those who already have them (US, Russia, Britain, France, and China) to try to stop the nuclear-arms race.
Israel has rejected Egypt's conditions, which are thought to include an Israeli freeze on the production and acquisition of weapons-grade nuclear materials.
Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak spoke by telephone Monday to try to allay growing tension between the two countries over Israeli's refusal to sign the NPT.
In recent remarks to the opening of the Cairo International Book Fair last week, to which Israel was not invited, President Mubarak reaffirmed his refusal to sign the accord unless Israel agrees to sign. ``If we are to sign an agreement, we must all sign,'' he told reporters attending the fair.
The US depends on Egypt using its influence to persuade other Arab states to cooperate with the NPT, and Cairo's tough stance is causing increasing concern in diplomatic circles.
During a visit to the region last week, US Defense Secretary William Perry said that the US favored a nonproliferation pact that applied to the ``whole area,'' but diplomats say he stopped short of requesting that Israel join the NPT immediately.
According to Jane's Intelligence Review, a division of the authoritative London-based Jane's Defense Weekly, Israel has some 200 nuclear warheads that are manufactured, tested, and stored at seven different sites.
But the Israeli government continues to neither confirm nor deny its nuclear-weapons capability, although several authoritative books and magazine articles have documented its existence.
Mr. Perry and Israeli officials differed on how close Iran is to acquiring a nuclear weapon. But the defense secretary and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin eventually agreed that, if left to develop nuclear weapons alone, it would take Iran seven to 15 years to acquire nuclear warheads.
Israeli intelligence sources had previously argued that Iran could develop a weapon within five years or even by mid-1996 if it had the full cooperation of China, Russia, and North Korea.
Russia announced last week that it had won an $800-million contract from Iran to complete construction of a nuclear facility that was frozen after the 1979 Islamic revolution. This would give Tehran access not only to Russian materials, but to nuclear scientists as well.
BUT US officials made clear that they were not swayed by the Russia-Iran deal and maintained that Israel should still sign the NPT, saying it was the best mechanism for containing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.
Israel insists that the NPT is not effective and the treaty has not prevented rogue signatories like Iraq from trying to develop nuclear warheads.
``Signing the NPT will not solve the problem,'' says Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman Oded Ben-Ami.
``Of course, we would like to see the region clear of nuclear weapons, but we believe this can best be achieved in arms- control talks,'' Mr. Ben-Ami says.
Zev Maoz, director of the Jaffee Center of Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, says that any further commitments on Israel's part - spelling out the conditions under which it would sign the NPT - would amount to a formal agreement.
``The US has always been ambivalent about Israel's ambivalent nuclear policy,'' Professor Maoz says.
Israeli security experts insist that it is reasonable for Israel to maintain a nuclear deterrent as long as it has neighbors bent on its destruction - such as Iran and Iraq - striving for a nuclear-weapons potential.
``Israel must retain an effective nuclear deterrent as long as it is being asked to make concessions and take risks in the peace process,'' says Joseph Alpher, director of the Israel-Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee.
``Egypt's position has created a dilemma for the US, because Egypt's influence to get the cooperation of other Arab states is vital,'' says Mr. Alpher.
``It is a bothersome issue coming from a country which has played such a constructive role in the peace process,'' he says. ``Now Egypt is making a demand which it knows Israel cannot meet.''