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UN agrees on a nuclear weapons-free Middle East

Arab leaders celebrate advancing plans for a nuclear-free Middle East and highlighting Israel's suspected atomic arsenal.

NEW YORK // Arab leaders celebrated a diplomatic victory this weekend after advancing plans for a nuclear-free Middle East and highlighting Israel's suspected atomic arsenal. At the five-yearly review of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on Friday, the 189 signatories agreed to a final document calling for steps towards freeing the Middle East of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The creation of such a zone was agreed on in 1995 but has not been enacted. This weekend's declaration calls for the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to organise a meeting of Middle East states in 2012 to agree on the creation of a nuclear and WMD-free region.

Agreement came after weeks of fractious debate that threatened to derail the conference, with particular focus on whether the 28-page document mentioned Israel by name - a move that was resisted by Israel's ally, the United States, until the final hours. The final document calls upon Israel - which is believed to possess a large nuclear stockpile but was not present at the talks as it is not a signatory to the NPT - to join the treaty and open its nuclear sites to the UN's watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Maged Abdelaziz, Egypt's UN ambassador, speaking for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of 118 developing countries, said "we have moved forward and achieved progress in adopting an action plan to push towards" ridding the region of its most destructive arms. Lebanon's ambassador to the UN, Nawaf Salam, speaking for Arab states, described the "need for Israel to join the NPT as a non-nuclear state". An Algerian diplomat, Mohammed Belaoura, lauded the "major achievement". "Since its adoption 15 years ago as part of a package on the indefinite extension of the NPT, no progress was made. Today, states parties successfully managed to adopt concrete measures with the necessary political will of all stakeholders, which will lead to the creation of the conditions for a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East."

Arab states and Israel's allies had disagreed over wording in the final document, especially the section highlighting "the importance of Israel's accession to the NPT" - a move that would require it to scrap its arsenal. Iran demanded that the NPT document insist that Israel join the treaty before the 2012 conference. Egypt's envoy, Mr Abdelaziz, said the Arab position was softer - that Israel's accession to the treaty would come as "part of the process" that begins in two years.

Although Israel apparently acquiesced to Washington urging that it take part in the 2012 conference, it objected to participating under terms in which it was the only nation mentioned in this way, diplomats said. Ellen Tauscher, the US undersecretary for arms control and international security, voiced support for the 2012 conference but echoed Israel's position that disarmament will only begin after a peace deal with its Arab neighbours.

"The US has long supported such a zone, although our view is that a comprehensive and durable peace in the region and full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and non-proliferation obligations are essential precursors for its establishment," said the US president, Barack Obama. "We strongly oppose efforts to single out Israel, and will oppose actions that jeopardise Israel's national security."

As US officials appeared to backtrack on supporting the 2012 conference, Israelis reacted angrily to the final document, denouncing the "hypocrisy" of calling for a nuclear-free Middle East without making mention of Iran, which is suspected of seeking nuclear weapons. "Only Israel is mentioned, while the text is silent about other countries like India, Pakistan and North Korea, which have nuclear arms, or even more seriously, Iran, which is seeking to obtain them," a senior government official told the AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.

"The fact that no reference is made to Iran is even more shocking, given that the International Atomic Energy Agency has disclosed more and more information in recent months on the military character of Iranian nuclear projects." Besides Israel's attendance, other important details of a 2012 Middle East conference remain to be worked out, such as where it will take place and whether the talks will lead to formal negotiations on a treaty.

Anne Penketh, an analyst from the British American Security Information Council, said the last-minute deal between Arabs and the US had "snatched victory from the jaws of defeat". The NPT final document is accepted by consensus, meaning all signatories have an effective veto. "The decision to convene a conference in two years' time to move towards a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other WMDs is a major achievement, after 15 years of inaction," said Ms Penketh. "It is a creative way of bringing Israel and Iran to the same table to address pressing security concerns."

Under the document's action plan, the five recognised nuclear-weapon states - the US, Russia, Britain, France and China - commit to speed up arms reductions, take other steps to diminish the importance of atomic weapons, and report back on progress by 2014. Some analysts complained that the final document watered-down the NAM's demands that official nuclear weapons states - also the permanent members of the UN Security Council - set a timeline for disarmament.

"Many of the disarmament actions in the final document are phrased more as aspirational goals than firm commitments to disarm," said Tim Wright, from the Australian-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. "The nuclear weapon states still see nuclear abolition as a far-off vision, not a near-term objective, and have resisted attempts to include benchmarks or time frames for achieving elimination." @Email:jreinl@thenational.ae

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