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NPT Review Conference Struggles To Find Common Ground

  • Nikola Krastev

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged conference participants to "to be pragmatic, to abandon rhetoric, and to look beyond narrow national interest," Ban said. "There is too much at stake for the conference to end in failure, as it did last time."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged conference participants to "to be pragmatic, to abandon rhetoric, and to look beyond narrow national interest," Ban said. "There is too much at stake for the conference to end in failure, as it did last time."

UNITED NATIONS -- Hopes were that the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, which ends on May 28, would result in a resolution showing the strength of the global nonproliferation effort.

But as the 189 treaty members mulled over a draft final declaration, it appears they might have to wait for the next treaty review in five years to move forward.

The contentious draft pertains to the idea of how to achieve and ensure a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East, and calls for the UN secretary-general to organize a meeting of Middle East states in 2012 to sign on to the creation of a zone free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The sticking point revolves around Israel, a nonmember of the NPT that has never declared its nuclear weapons, but is widely suspected of having them. The chances of reaching the goal of a WMD-free Middle East would be boosted greatly by Israel's participation in the 2012 meeting. But the United States on the one hand, and the Arab states on the other, appear to be embroiled in a dispute over whether Israel should actually be named in the final declaration.

An Iranian protester makes his stance clear.
If Israel were named, according to the Arab states' argument, then it should join the NPT, declare whether and how many nuclear weapons it has, and then get rid of them. The United States, a staunch Israel ally, objects to such a formula, according to UN diplomats.

Far From Nuke-Free Zone

Anne Penketh, program director at the British American Security Information Council in Washington, says that some countries in the Middle East, particularly Egypt, are very determined to get a resolution on a nuclear-free Middle East.

"Egypt is really taking a very hard line on this, saying that unless we can get a deal on the Middle East, then all bets are off and the conference is going to collapse," Penketh says.

The nuclear-free Middle East is not actually a new idea, it dates from a 1995 NPT conference resolution, but little has been done since for its full implementation.

The latest draft of the final resolution, Penketh says, calls for the appointment of a special UN coordinator to prepare for a conference in 2012 where all Middle East states, including Israel and Iran, will sign on to a nuclear-free Middle East.

"This conference is all about the package. If there's agreement on the Middle East conference, then other things on which there are wide divergences may well fall into place," Penketh says. "If there isn't a deal on the Middle East, then it could mean that there would not be a final statement and the conference would have been a failure."

Speaking at UN headquarters on May 26, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that the conference was far from consensus and urged participants to find common ground.

"I urge delegations to be pragmatic, to abandon rhetoric, and to look beyond narrow national interest," Ban said. "There is too much at stake for the conference to end in failure, as it did last time."

The previous conference in 2005 ended without a final resolution, which can only be approved by a unanimous vote, and was deemed a failure as a result.

Even Talks A Success

Michael Levi, who is a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York and author of the book "On Nuclear Terrorism," says that compared to the 2005 NPT conference, participants in 2010 do not have the sense that the future of the 40-year-old treaty itself hangs in the balance. Chances for a final declaration are low, he says, but many of the participants feel a declaration is not necessarily the highest priority.

Earlier this month, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad attacked the nuclear powers for not disarming.
"The goal has never fundamentally been a comprehensive universal declaration coming out of the meeting," Levi says. "There are enormous differences amongst parties present and unanimity should not, and I don't think it will be, the sole or even most important test of success."

If named in the resolution, chances that Israel will decide to participate in a conference aiming at a nuclear-free Middle East are slim. "The fundamental problem here is that none of the states that are potentially targeted by an effort to create a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East are interested in talking about it," Levi says.

If the Middle East conference initiative were to prove successful, it could provide a spectacular sight in two years in which arch-enemies Iran and Israel would be sitting at the same negotiating table.

Iran and its noncompliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) over the nature of its uranium-enrichment program was not named in any of the final document drafts. Tehran threatened that if named, it would block the adoption of a final resolution.

Some Progress Made

Other issues of importance also emerged at this year's conference.

The idea for universality of the treaty, i.e. that all UN member states should become a party to the NPT, has been promoted again and again but with little chance of success. India and Pakistan are both nuclear states that are known to possess nuclear weapons, but which are not members of the NPT. North Korea withdrew in 2003 and successfully conducted its own nuclear weapon test in 2006.

There are too many and too divergent interests at play when it comes to the issue of nuclear nonproliferation to expect much success when they are all brought under a single umbrella, Levi says.

Still, the conference has been useful "in prompting actions by states who are attending it," Levi says. "We've seen steps by the United States and Russia together in developing the new START treaty, steps just recently by the United Kingdom in being more transparent with its [nuclear] arsenal.

"So, states have stepped up in order to minimize negative consequences for them at the meeting and regardless of whether there's a final agreement, those things that those countries have done will still stand."
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