NEW YORK // World leaders gather in Manhattan today to discuss how to advance nuclear disarmament, in a meeting likely to be overshadowed by the stand-off between the United States and Iran and the issue of Israel's nuclear arsenal. At the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is expected to face off with Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, over the Islamic republic's nuclear programme and possible UN sanctions.
The UAE's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, who will address the conference tomorrow, is expected to take part in a drive led by Egypt to begin work on a treaty to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, including an international meeting in which Israel would be expected to participate. Egypt's ambassador to the UN, Maged Abdelaziz, said that "success in dealing with Iran will depend to a large extent on how successfully we deal with the establishment of a nuclear-free zone" in the Middle East.
The obstacles, however, are considerable. The conference's president-elect, Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines, has warned of "landmines" that could prevent the treaty's 189 signatories from forging the necessary consensus during the meeting, which is held only once every five years. The objective of the NPT, which took effect in 1970, is to halt the spread of nuclear weapons-making capability and guarantee the right of all members to develop nuclear energy for peaceful ends, and for the original five nuclear powers to phase out their arsenals.
The last conference in 2005 descended into futile bickering, with non-nuclear powers accusing the original five - Britain, the US, France, Russia and China - of failing to disarm and blocking the peaceful spread of nuclear-energy technology. The treaty has suffered in recent years through clandestine nuclear activities by Iran and North Korea, a Pakistani-led network that spread sensitive atomic technology overseas and the failure of nuclear-armed states to make more progress toward reducing their arsenals.
Hopes of a breakthrough this year were bolstered by the Obama administration's disarmament drive, which yielded a new nuclear arms reduction treaty last month between the US and Russia. Diplomats are aiming for a final declaration that calls for bolstering the UN nuclear watchdog and the Security Council. The Non-Aligned Movement, a 118-member bloc of developing nations, wants the five original nuclear powers to recommit to disarmament pledges.
Western nations want a declaration to call for stronger non-proliferation measures - including a tougher inspections regime to address suspected developers of nuclear weapons, such as Iran, and imposing tough curbs on countries that pull out of the treaty, as North Korea did in 2003. Meanwhile, Germany and the original five nuclear powers - who are also the permanent members of the Security Council - will be meeting almost daily on the sidelines to discuss a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran for continuing its uranium enrichment.
The six are far from being in agreement as Russia and China push to dilute a US-drafted sanctions proposal, while Tehran continues to argue that it is developing nuclear technology solely to produce electricity in line with NPT principles. Mr Ahmadinejad is expected to take a defiant stand against the US and its western allies, accusing them of depriving developing states of nuclear technology while turning a blind eye toward the nuclear capability of Israel, which, like to India and Pakistan, is not an NPT signatory and will not participate in the conference.
Before the meeting, Mrs Clinton accused Tehran of "violations of the non-proliferation obligations" and said Mr Ahmadinejad is unlikely to succeed in any attempt to "divert attention from this very important global effort or cause confusion that might possibly throw into doubt what Iran has been up to". The US issued last-minute visas for Iran's delegates on Saturday after Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian foreign minister, warned the US not to take the UN hostage.
"Issuing visas for officials from different countries to participate in UN assemblies is an obligation for US authorities, not a prerogative," Mr Mottaki said. Analysts regard an NPT document that expresses firm commitments as unlikely, but nevertheless expect the five original nuclear powers to make some reaffirmation of commitment to disarmament. The treaty operates via consensus, meaning all signatories effectively have a veto, giving countries such as Iran and Egypt the ability to scupper any declaration - particularly when they carry the support of big voting blocs such as the Non-Aligned Movement.
Failure to agree on Arab demands for the creation of a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone in the future could derail the whole meeting, which ends on May 28, according to the British American Security Information Council, a research group. "Failure to agree on practical steps could wreck the conference," it said in a report. "There is clear frustration with agreement in principle that leads to no action."