Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 May 2010
Issue No. 997
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Breakdown just avoided

Egypt and the US have been working to salvage the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, though tangible outcomes are few, Ezzat Ibrahim writes from New York

At the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in New York, Egypt -- which currently chairs the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the New Agenda Coalition -- has negotiated with the main nuclear powers to reach a conciliatory agreement on starting talks to establish a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. The United States had used all leverage at its disposal to assure that the Arab Group would not block the final communiqué.

Ellen Tauscher, US undersecretary of state, told Al-Ahram Weekly, "we are working with our friends in Egypt and many members of the Non-Aligned Movement and other Arab states on the 1995 Middle East WMD [weapons of mass destruction]-Free Zone Resolution. Israel is not a party to the NPT and will not be at the NPT [review conference]. What's important is that we have a very good opportunity to go forward both on having a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, and on areas of non-compliance -- the countries of non-compliance that are also in the Middle East."

American diplomacy identified specific goals for the 2010 NPT review conference based on President Barack Obama's speech in Prague last spring, where he set out a new direction for US nuclear weapons policy, declaring America's commitment to pursue world peace and security without nuclear weapons. Egypt and the Arab Group received a blueprint US-backed Russian working paper on the issue last week. The Arab side, however, rejected the requirements of the working paper that called for achieving a comprehensive peace in the region before the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone, as well as inviting Arab states to accede to other international agreements and to refrain from enriching uranium as opposed to appealing to Israel to accede to the NPT. Arab diplomats in the UN confirmed that the Russian proposal was rejected by Arab delegates at the third meeting of the Preparatory Committee of the NPT review conference.

According to a NAM source, the Egyptians and Americans are still discussing an advanced draft of the paper. Concurrently, the statement of the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) sent a strong message to the international community to spare no effort to ensure the accession of all states to the NPT, and urged Israel, Pakistan and India to join promptly and without conditions. NAC members Egypt, Brazil, Sweden and New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa and Mexico all highlighted the goal of a nuclear free Middle East region and the lack of progress made towards that end to date. Parallel issues -- in particular the US-Iranian dispute over Tehran's nuclear programme -- put any deal in jeopardy. Indeed, the international community conspicuously failed to use the NPT review conference to soothe tensions around the Iranian issue, leaving the Middle East in limbo.

Prior to the Iranian president's statement in the UN General Assembly Monday, the US administration warned that the Iranian leader would use the NPT review conference as a platform to spread untruths and false accusations. The reciprocal sparring between Tehran and Washington has resulted in a dilemma for both governments. The US is pushing towards imposing new sanctions on Iran and at the same time is interested in achieving a tangible result by the end of the review conference. Meanwhile, Iran, while obliged to defend its interests, needs friends as it seeks to develop its nuclear programme. Ahmadinejad tried to address prevailing fears: "Iran is not in need of nuclear bombs for its development and does not regard it as a source of honour and dignity." Yet before the Iranian president had finished his speech, representatives of the US, UK, France, Germany and Austria had walked out in protest.

President Ahmadinejad sketched the United States as the world's leading nuclear violator: "The main suspect in the production, stockpiling and use and threat of the use of nuclear weapons, insists to assume the leadership role in reviewing the NPT," he said. Furthermore, he proposed the suspension of membership in the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) Board of Governors of those states that use or threaten to use nuclear weapons -- a veiled reference to the US. In another proposal, Ahmadinejad referred to the necessity to punish any country that threatens to use nuclear weapons or to launch an attack against peaceful nuclear facilities, calling for a swift reaction from the UN and the termination of all cooperation of NPT states with the aggressor state -- taken by some as a veiled reference to Israel.

Earlier, Susan Rice, chief US diplomat to the UN, specified the aims of US diplomacy at the conference: "We continue to pursue a dual-track approach. And the purpose of our efforts with respect to sanctions in New York is to clarify the choice that Iran faces; that it remains out of compliance not only with its NPT obligations and IAEA obligations, but also its Security Council obligations." In response, Ahmadinejad told the Americans, "There will be no room in the future for bullying."

"Iran will do whatever it can to divert attention away from its own record in an attempt to evade accountability," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. Siding with the UN, Clinton said: "as the [UN] secretary-general said, in this regard the onus is on Iran. So far, it has failed to meet its burden. Iran is the only country represented in this hall that has been found by the IAEA Board of Governors to be currently in non-compliance with its nuclear safeguards obligations -- the only one. It has defied the UN Security Council and the IAEA, and placed the future of the non-proliferation regime in jeopardy. And that is why it is facing increasing isolation and pressure from the international community."

Clinton didn't mention Israel in her conference statement, or even in the pressroom following her speech. She simply asked non-member states to sign the NPT. Clinton tried to assure her audience that while committed to disarmament and non- proliferation, the US wouldn't stand in the way of the peaceful use of nuclear energy: "We unequivocally support the rights of states that are in compliance with the [NPT] to access nuclear technology and energy for peaceful purposes. The IAEA's high-end projection for new nuclear capacity has nearly doubled since the last review conference five years ago. And the United States wants to help expand the ability of all states to utilise peaceful nuclear energy."

The NPT review conference is held every five years with the participation of 189 countries in order to discuss progress made towards non-proliferation. Several countries that possess nuclear weapons are outside the treaty -- notably India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel.

Clinton also announced that the US would disclose the size of its nuclear stockpile, noting that the United States and Russia own 95 per cent of the world's total arsenal. While Secretary Clinton was speaking, Washington revealed for the first time that the US nuclear arsenal comprises 5,113 active and inactive warheads, down from the 22,217 warheads in late 1989.

For his part, Ambassador Maged Abdel-Fattah, permanent representative of Egypt to the United Nations, told the Weekly that Egyptian diplomacy was focussed on the success of the conference, but there remained a need to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue and Israel's ambiguous nuclear capabilities. The NAM called on the international community to push Israel to sign the NPT to avert regional instability. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, addressing the review conference on behalf of NAM, insisted that the right to peaceful nuclear technology is "inalienable".

But focussing on Iran, one Arab diplomat said, would allow Israel to evade increasing international pressure to swiftly join the NPT. Meanwhile, US officials sought to reaffirm US support for a WMD-free Middle East, but with a clear link to progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Undersecretary of State Tauscher said that the Obama administration might agree to a conference "that would work to an opportunity in the future when conditions in the Middle East are more favourable." When such conditions might come about -- and how -- remained a mystery to many. Indeed, the US will face an even greater dilemma by the time of the next NPT review conference if the Iranian nuclear issue is yet unresolved. In 2015, when the next conference convenes, Tehran will chair NAM -- the largest bloc of common interest and solidarity in the UN General Assembly and international community.

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