BERLIN // A report saying that "Israeli nuclear capabilities" have been listed as the eighth item on the provisional agenda for the June 7 board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency would mean the UN nuclear watchdog would be taking an unprecedented step in its nearly 53-year history. But putting Israel on the agenda alongside Iran could take some of the heat off Tehran just as the West is lobbying hard for tough new UN sanctions against it.
The inclusion was made at the request of Arab states. It could still be removed from the agenda if the US and other allies of Israel voice strong opposition, the Associated Press reported on Friday, quoting an unnamed senior diplomat from a board member nation. Tehran insists its own nuclear activities are purely peaceful and intended solely for electricity generation. The West believes Iran is racing to develop atomic weapons.
The IAEA declined to comment yesterday on the Associated Press report. Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons but has never confirmed or denied this publicly. Its arsenal is estimated by nuclear experts to comprise 200 atomic warheads, a source of grievance among many nations in the region who perceive it as a threat. Pressure on the Jewish state to reveal its nuclear activities is gradually building as the West is seeking support among Arab nations in its quest to halt Iran's nuclear enrichment programme.
At the start of a month-long UN conference in New York to review the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China voiced support last week for making the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone, which would ultimately force Israel to scrap any atomic weapons it has. However, Washington says conditions for such a zone in the Middle East do not yet exist. Backing a nuclear-free Middle East in principle was seen as an attempt by Washington to win Arab backing for sanctions against Iran.
Israel, like Pakistan and India, has not signed the NPT, which is aimed at halting the spread of nuclear weapons, guaranteeing the right of all members to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and committing the original five nuclear powers - the US, Russia, China, Britain and France - to phase out their arsenals. The planned inclusion of Israel's nuclear programme in the IAEA's board meeting in June is one of several indicators that pressure is growing on Israel over nuclear weapons.
Last month, the IAEA chief Yukiya Amano touched on Israel in a letter to foreign ministries of the IAEA's 151 member states. The letter asks for views on how to implement an IAEA resolution passed at last year's IAEA annual conference that voices concern about "Israeli nuclear capabilities" and urges Israel to join the NPT. A spokesman for the Israeli government said last week that the IAEA should focus on making the Non-Proliferation Treaty more effective rather than pressuring Israel to join it. The treaty had not prevented signatories such as Iraq and Iran from seeking to obtain nuclear weapons, said the official, who asked not to be named.
Egypt, which heads a powerful bloc of non-aligned developing nations, has been campaigning to focus attention on Israel during the non-proliferation conference in New York. Israel has set peace with all its neighbours as a precondition for joining the NPT and so far seems unfazed by the growing pressure. "We don't really like this matter, but is there anything to fear, really? I don't think so," Israel Michaeli of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission said in a radio interview last week.
"Our complaint is that people make this comparison between Iran and Israel, when there is absolutely nothing to connect the two," he told Israel's Army Radio. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, stepped up her drive for sanctions against Iran last week, saying Iran's nuclear ambitions were putting the world at risk and calling on nations to back US efforts to hold Tehran to account. "Iran will not succeed in its efforts to divert and divide," Mrs Clinton told the UN conference last week. "Now is the time to build consensus, not to block it." She said Iran had a history of "confusing, contradictory and inaccurate statements" about its nuclear programme and had shown no real wish to address fears about it.
Negotiations are now taking place among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - along with Germany, and the United States wants to see a new sanctions resolution as soon as possible. Russia and especially China are reluctant, however, and several other non-permanent members of the Security Council including Brazil and Turkey are also urging that diplomacy with Tehran be given more time to revive an earlier proposed deal covering Iran's nuclear fuel. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org