NPT: A nuclear weapons free Middle East? Pressure on Israel grows.

The NPT conference is breathing new life into a 15-year-old proposal to create a nuclear weapons free Middle East. The West is focusing on Iran, but Israel would have to play ball, too.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference at the UN headquarters in New York Monday. In the speech, she offered support for a plan for a nuclear weapons free Middle East.

A 15-year-old proposal for a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East is seeing new life as the Obama administration pushes for a world with no nuclear weapons and some Middle East countries pressure Israel about its nuclear arsenal.

The US is working with Egypt, the loudest advocate for progress on a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone, to come up with a statement at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference under way here. The intent is to satisfy advocates of the zone while protecting Israel.

US officials are employing a two-birds-with-one-stone strategy on the prickly issue, linking any progress toward a nukes-free zone to conclusion of a comprehensive Middle East peace.

Egypt is doing a little linkage of its own – declaring that the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East cannot be tied solely to Iran’s nuclear ambitions but must also address the region’s only existing nuclear power: Israel.

"We refuse the existence of any nuclear weapons in [the Middle East], whether it is in Iran or whether it is in Israel," Egypt’s UN Ambassador Maged Abdel Aziz declared in New York recently.

Nuke progress dependent on peace plan

Israel does not acknowledge its nuclear status and is not a signatory of the 40-year-old NPT, but it is estimated to possess around 200 nuclear bombs. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday reiterated US support for the proposal, which was first approved with American backing at the 1995 NPT review conference.

Warning that the Middle East presents “the greatest threat of nuclear proliferation in the world today,” she said: “We want to reaffirm our commitment to the objective of a Middle East free of these weapons of mass destruction [WMD], and we are prepared to support practical measures that will move us toward achieving that objective.”

But progress towards a WMD-free Middle East is dependent on a successful peace plan, said Ellen Tauscher, one of the administration’s top weapons-treaty negotiators, last week. That is the only scenario under which the US sees all concerned parties willing to participate.

"We are concerned that the conditions are not right unless all members of the region participate, which would be unlikely unless there is a comprehensive peace plan which is accepted," said Ms. Tauscher, who is under secretary of State for arms control and international security.

Emphasizing 'practical measures'

Still, the US is eager to demonstrate a cooperative approach to the proposal – the “practical measures” referred to by Secretary Clinton. Those might include an international conference to discuss the steps required to realize the nuclear-free zone – an idea the US is discussing with Russia – and a “balanced” statement of renewed support from the ongoing NPT review.

Furthermore, the US recognizes that other Mideast countries bristle at the international community’s pressure on Iran – which insists its nuclear program is limited to peaceful purposes – while Israel faces no similar pressure.

Egypt is proposing a conference statement that calls on Israel to join the NPT “as a non-nuclear power state.” Egypt and other nonaligned countries are also proposing a measure that would call on nuclear-weapons states that have supplied Israel with nuclear material or “know-how” – assumed to be the US and France – to offer information on those transfers. US officials say that proposal will go nowhere, however.

The point Egyptian officials are emphasizing is that what the US wants – multilateral pressure on Iran – is only possible if progress is made on an even-handed approach to nuclear weapons in the region.

Says Egypt Ambassador Abdel Aziz: “Success in dealing with Iran will depend to a large extent on how successfully we deal with the establishment of a nuclear-free zone" in the Middle East.


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