Skip to main content

Middle East wrangles set to dominate NYC nuclear meeting

Nuclear non-proliferation summit comes against backdrop of Iranian nuclear talks, pressure on Israel to relinquish its weapons
Then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the last nuclear non-proliferation gathering in 2010 (AFP)

NEW YORK – Global talks on ridding the world of nuclear weapons will get off to a bad start on Monday thanks to unfinished business from the last time UN envoys met in 2010 and timetabled a meeting specifically on Middle East arms that never happened.

Envoys are due in Manhattan for a five-yearly review of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The last gathering in 2010 ended with a pledge from 189 nations to hold a conference to discuss creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.

There have been provisional talks between Israelis, Iranians and Arabs, but the meeting – a foreign policy goal of Egypt dating back to the 1970s – did not take place. Arms negotiations in the region have instead been dominated by Iran’s nuclear programme.

“There have been a number of regional consultations involving Arab states and Israel, but we’ve yet to have the regional states reach agreement on the terms for the conference,” Adam Scheinman, the US envoy on non-proliferation, told Middle East Eye. “There is hope to hold this conference soon.”

The 27 April to 22 May NPT talks will address Middle East issues and seek to tackle nuclear disarmament and proliferation against a backdrop of tensions between the world’s two biggest nuclear-armed states – the US and Russia – over the Ukraine crisis. 

Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s arms control department, said Moscow wants to tackle the long-standing problem. “We will be aiming to break the deadlock in setting up a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East,” he told TASS news agency.

WMD-free challenges

Israel, which is assumed to have the Middle East’s sole nuclear arsenal, never joined the NPT, but will send an envoy to talks in New York in hope of fostering dialogue with Arab states, a senior Israeli official told Reuters on Sunday.

Citing the example of weapons-free zones elsewhere, Israel says it would consider submitting to international nuclear inspections and controls only once at peace with the Arabs and Iran. Egypt and others say that Israel should relinquish its nuclear weapons to kick-start the process.

“We have this perennial problem between Israel and primarily Egypt, but many other Arab countries, about the question of establishing a WMD-free zone,” Peter Jones, a former Canadian government security advisor, told MEE.

“I don’t think it’s going to play out well at this review conference and will be a major sticking point.”

Creating a WMD-free zone is complicated because it involves nuclear as well as chemical weapons – which feature in Syria’s civil war and were deployed by Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein against Kurds and during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Jones said.

“The wider Arab argument that the proliferation problem of the Middle East is due to Israel is disingenuous because lots of countries have developed WMDs,” added Jones. “The resistance of the opaque Israeli deterrent is as much a convenient excuse as it is a real security concern. 

“The debate needs to move beyond this dynamic.”

This NPT review parley is not likely to yield any breakthroughs, said Jonathan Cristol, a Middle East scholar at Bard College.

“I don’t see how anyone convinces Israel to get rid of its nuclear weapons. The level of trust involved that nobody will violate an agreement, when people are worried about actual attacks, I don’t see how you get that down to zero,” Cristol told MEE.

Meanwhile, a row has broken out between Morocco and African states led by Algeria over whether Western Sahara’s Polisario Front independence group should be allowed to speak at the ninth review conference since the NPT came into force in 1970.

Some non-nuclear states may also step up calls for a nuclear weapons ban treaty. On the side-lines, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are expected to work towards a comprehensive deal on Tehran’s nuclear programme before the 30 June deadline.

The US and five other powers are working to finalise a framework deal with Iran over nuclear efforts that Tehran says are for harnessing nuclear power – which is allowed under the NPT – and not doomsday weapons, as the West alleges. 

Israel and Arab states fear the deal will not sufficiently limit Tehran’s atomic work. A provisional agreement indicates that Iran will keep some 6,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium and face inspections for 10 years – after which time it could “breakout” with a bomb.

“A number of countries in the region have expressed considerable concern about that framework,” said Jones. “If we can be assured – and it’s a big if – that Iran is not going to be able to breakout for a decade, which does give a breathing space for wider consideration of regional security.”

Cristol agreed that deal-making with Iran is boosting Arab-Israeli cooperation.

“There’s no way to reach an agreement with Iran without making Washington’s Gulf state allies and Israel nervous,” he said. “The talks with Iran make a broader Arab-Israeli détente more likely and I would anticipate more unspoken agreements on regional security between Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

Deep discord

Under the NPT treaty, nuclear powers pledge to work toward disarmament in exchange for the promise that non-nuclear nations would not acquire them, while all countries have access to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

It recognises five countries – Britain, China, France, Russia and the US – as “nuclear-weapons states”. India, Pakistan and Israel, considered as de facto nuclear-weapons states, have not joined the NPT. North Korea withdrew in 2003 before carrying out nuclear tests.

Discord on nuclear disarmament runs deep. Nuclear-armed states often point to the fact that the number of nuclear arsenals has fallen sharply from Cold War highs of more than 70,000, while nuclear have-nots feel that not enough efforts have been made.

Around 16,000 nuclear weapons are currently estimated to exist in the world, mostly owned by the US and Russia. Hopes for more disarmament have dimmed as the former enemies row over crises in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.

Hoping to re-energise the stagnant disarmament process, some countries and pressure groups have highlighted a humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons over recent years and are calling for a global treaty banning nuclear weapons.

The 2005 NPT review meeting failed to adopt a final document amid rows between nuclear and non-nuclear states. But the following meeting in 2010 managed to agree on a 64-point action plan covering the three pillars of the NPT – disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.