UNITED NATIONS – The U.S. administration has sought to keep a tight focus on the suspected nuclear activities of Iran and North Korea at month-long talks here on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But other countries also have highlighted the impact of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal on efforts to establish a Middle East nuclear-free zone.
To be sure, diplomats from Arab and developing countries said they share some of U.S. President George W. Bush’s concerns about Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
During open debate that has lasted for the past two weeks, however, speaker after speaker also has urged the international community to help set up a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East by urging Israel to give up its nuclear weapons program.
"The presence of nuclear arms is an impediment to peace not only in the region, but in the world," Qatari diplomat Nasr Al Ali told delegates at the talks, held every five years.
"These weapons are a major obstacle to peace and security in the region," Saudi representative Naif Bin Bandar Al-Sudairy said in a statement.
Demands to establish a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East stem from a number of U.N. General Assembly resolutions and recommendations made by consensus at past NPT review conferences.
Armed with an estimated 200-300 nuclear bombs, Israel has said that it is willing to join the treaty but only after a comprehensive peace agreement has been reached with its Arab neighbors, many of whom it has described as "hostile" nations.
"A Middle East nuclear weapons free zone will be viewed very favorably by Israel once we have a comprehensive peace in the area," said Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon recently, "and there are no dangers of attacks or delegitimization by any other country."
Israeli officials said their nuclear arms do not pose a threat to other countries and that they serve as a deterrent against invasion by larger neighbors.
"The real risk of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East emanates from countries that, despite being parties to the international treaties, do not comply with their relevant international obligations," said Alan Bar, director of the Israeli foreign ministry’s arms control department.
"These countries," Bar added, "are engaged in ongoing efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile efforts that have a destabilizing effect on not only in the region, but on a global scale as well."
Bar said Israel has "never threatened its neighbors nor abrogated its obligations under any disarmament treaty."
Arab diplomats rejected those assertions.
"Peace is not based on possession of weapons of mass destruction," said Sudairy. "Real peace must be founded on confidence, trust, and good intentions. It is based on freeing the region from injustice, occupation, and aggression."
Pro-Israel policy advocates specializing in nuclear issues, however, said Iran stood out as the greatest potential source of nuclear destabilization in the Middle East.
"The question now is whether the whole NPT regime is threatened by Iran and not whether a nuclear free zone is immediately feasible," said Ariel Cohen, a senior analyst at the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation.
"It may be feasible at some point, but right now you see a threat to the NPT regime coming in the aftermath of both India and Pakistan and North Korea delivering blows to nonproliferation," Cohen told IPS.
Both India and Pakistan, which tested nuclear weapons in 1998, have refused to sign the nonproliferation treaty. North Korea, defying U.S. pressure to abandon its nuclear program, opted out of the treaty about two years ago.
"If Iran violates NPT," said Cohen, "there will be a domino effect that may involve Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, at which point Israel may go hot. Meaning Israel may not just hide behind creative ambiguity as it did so far, but will put its nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and that will be Iran’s contribution to a more unstable Middle East."
Cohen’s fear about nuclear instability in the Middle East is something that many U.S.-based independent-minded researchers and analyst also share but from a radically different perspective.
"The world does well to remember that most Middle East weapons programs began as a response to Israel’s nuclear weapons," said Joseph Cirincione, director for nonproliferation at the liberal think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-author of its recent study, "Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security."
"Everyone already knows about Israel’s bombs in the closet," he said. "Bringing them out into the open and putting them on the table as part of a regional deal may be the only way to prevent others from building their own bombs in their basements."
Cirincione said it would not be easy to create such an agreement but nevertheless insisted there is no time to lose.
Seeing current diplomatic trends in the Middle East as being favorable to the Bush administration, Cirincione said "this is precisely the time" to intensify efforts to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons.
"It should be obvious that Israelis are better off in a region where no one has nuclear weapons than in one where many nations have them," he said. Interviews with the U.S. diplomatic sources did not indicate significant movement in such a direction.
"Our position has been the same," an official from the U.S. permanent mission to the United Nations said. "We have urged Israel to join the treaty. We have a long-standing concern over its safeguard facilities."
The official’s response suggested that while Washington recognizes the need for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, it has no public intention as yet of convincing Israel to sign the NPT.
In the 1990s, the United States, Israel, and Arab nations all had supported the goal of nonproliferation but they failed to make any progress toward it after the Palestinian-Israeli peace process collapsed.
Numerous delegates, citing what they described as U.S. attempts to make Iran the focus of international debates on proliferation while turning a blind eye to Israel’s illegal possession of nuclear weapons, said they were compelled to dub the U.S. nuclear policy as based on double standards and hypocrisy.
"Some states which are waging war against nuclear weapons are defending Israel and thwarting initiatives to establish a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East," said Syrian Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad, in an obvious reference to the United States, which has accused Syria of supporting terrorist groups.
Even so, while voicing disappointment with the U.S. role, Arab diplomats are actively participating in the review conference negotiations. Egypt has emerged in a leadership role. Representing the Non-Aligned Movement of 115 developing countries, the Egyptian delegation is urging the conference to set up a subsidiary body to implement its past resolutions on nuclear weapons-free zones.
"This conference should establish a practical roadmap that guarantees the establishment of nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East," Egyptian envoy Ahmed Fathallah told delegates.
This month’s talks are scheduled to wind down on May 27. Few if any diplomats said they expect significant progress on the Middle East or any other major items on their agenda. But that will not stop them from pressing the case.
"Israel has to be brought in," Mekdad said. "We are not going to give up. We’ll be there talking about it."