Although concerns about the North Korean nuclear arsenal and Iran’s nuclear ambitions will also be on the agenda at the conference, which runs from April 27 through May 22, Russia says it wants to break a deadlock over the drive for a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ).
Russia is one of three co-depositories of the NPT – the U.S. and Britain are the other two – and has long supported the Mideast NWFZ campaign.
“For us, a task will be to overcome the stalemate in creating a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East,” Moscow’s Itar-TASS news agency quoted foreign ministry non-proliferation chief Mikhail Ulyanov as saying last week.
Adopting a final document on the issue in New York would “be a significant result,” Ulyanov said. “Everyone expects a final document. It will be a tragedy for us if it is not adopted.”
Although the proposed region for the zone stretches roughly from Libya to Iran, and from Yemen in the south to Syria in the north, Israel and its undeclared nuclear weapons capability is the primary focus.
For its part, Israel has long said discussion on a NWFZ cannot take place in isolation from the establishment of durable peace and stable security conditions in the region. The Arab states disagree, arguing that the former will contribute to the latter.
Ambassador Adam Scheinman, President Obama’s special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, describes the Mideast NWFZ as one of the “big issues that will stand in the way” of a successful conference.
“This is a big issue within the NPT process, certainly to our Arab colleagues, who have pushed for progress on this for many years,” he told a teleconference briefing on April 16.
First proposed by Egypt in 1974, a regional NWFZ has been endorsed by multiple U.N. General Assembly resolutions since then, and a 1995 NPT review conference unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the zone’s establishment.
Ten years later, however, the 2005 NPT review conference ended in disarray, with developing nations resisting the Bush administration’s attempts to focus mostly on Iran and North Korea proliferation concerns. No final document was issued.
At the next review conference, in 2010, the NWFZ campaign received a boost when the Obama administration went along with a final document adopted by consensus by 189 nations, calling for the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and “all other weapons of mass destruction.”
The White House at the time characterized the development as a triumph of its engagement, contrasting it with the failure of 2005.
“Everyone recognizes that the new approach the United States has brought to the table on nonproliferation energized this conference and the effort to reach a consensus final document,” the White House said. “The contrast between the atmospherics of this conference and the one held five years ago is dramatic.”
In going with the consensus, however, the U.S. endorsed a text calling for an international conference in 2012 to discuss the Mideast NWFZ.
U.S. officials afterwards stressed that they opposed the singling out of Israel, but the administration did not block the wording, favoring consensus rather than being labeled a spoiler.
“[S]tanding by Israel – consistently with past administrations, Democratic and Republican – would have roiled the review conference’s smooth waters, which explains the ease with which Obama threw our ally to the sharks,” former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton charged at the time.
In the end the 2012 conference never went ahead. The Obama administration called it off that November, citing “present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.”
(The State Department did not elaborate on the “present conditions,” but recent months had brought a worsening in the Syrian civil war, anti-American protests across the Muslim world, concerns about the direction of the “Arab spring,” little progress in resolving the Iran nuclear standoff, and the deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.)
‘Very difficult to reach agreement’
Scheinman told the briefing that 2012 gathering did not take place “in part because it has been very difficult to reach agreement between Israel and the Arab states on the appropriate agenda for that conference.”
He said the administration wants to see it take place soon, but for that to happen the review conference in New York needed to be one where Israel is not “called out for criticism” and where the U.S. also is not criticized over “the inability to hold the conference.”
Meanwhile the U.S. hopes to use the review conference to strengthen the NPT’s three “pillars” – nonproliferation, disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
The treaty allows the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France – the only five countries with nuclear weapons at the time it opened for signature in 1968 – to possess them, but not to transfer nuclear materials to other states.
The five nuclear weapons states and all other treaty parties also undertake to pursue negotiations on effective measures leading to nuclear disarmament.
The third pillar enables all states to pursue peaceful nuclear energy programs, under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision.
It is this latter pillar that Iran says gives it the “right” to its nuclear program. The U.S. has contested this, pointing to Iran’s violations of its international obligations.
The disarmament pillar has also been contentious. The NPT set no deadline or time frame for weapons states to disarm, and countries have long differed in their interpretations of the obligation.
Scheinman has pointed out progress in that area, however. “Today, the U.S. stockpile stands at about 15 percent of what it was at the height of the Cold War,” he wrote in a recent blog post. “When scheduled reductions under the New START Treaty are completed by 2018, U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons will be at levels not seen since the 1950s.”
The vast majority of U.N. member states are parties to the NPT, with only India, Pakistan and Israel having refused to ratify it.
North Korea in 2003 became the first and – so far – only country to withdraw from the treaty. It subsequently declared itself to be nuclear weapons state, a status not recognized by the international community.