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Will Mideast Tug-Of-War Wreck Anti-Nuke Meet?

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, May 5 2010 (IPS) - When the last review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) ended inconclusively – after four long weeks of protracted negotiations – the meeting was described as having accomplished “very little” with no substantive agreement.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week described the beleaguered 2005 Review Conference as “an acknowledged failure”.

But will the 2010 Review Conference, which opened Monday and runs through May 28, follow the same beaten track?

Perhaps one of the most controversial issues jeopardising the conference is a longstanding proposal for the creation of a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the militarily-volatile Middle East.

Asked whether this is a possibility, Joseph Gerson, disarmament director at the American Friends Service Committee, told IPS: “The struggle for a NWFZ in the Middle East could derail the NPT Review Conference.”

In an article published last week in the International Herald Tribune, Ban reiterated the call for a NWFZ, Gerson noted. “Egypt will be making it a major issue, as will Iran,” he added.

“But in crisis, there is always opportunity, so let’s see what we can do in this regard,” said Gerson, author of the ‘Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World’.

Anne Penketh, programme director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) in Washington DC, told IPS: “There are some fears this issue could wreck the conference, but I think that Egypt is more flexible than might be apparent, and that serious negotiations are now under way between the United States and Egypt.”

A good faith attempt to agree on practical steps could produce a breakthrough, but at this point it’s too early to say which way things will go, she added.

The United States, which has been supportive of Israel, the only Middle Eastern country with nuclear weapons, has continued to link the creation of a NWFZ with progress on Middle East talks.

But as Penketh points out in a paper titled ‘Peeling the Onion: Towards a Middle East NWFZ’, “If this Catch-22 situation is allowed to continue at the Review Conference, it would be tantamount to handing Israel, a non-NPT member, a veto over the future of the entire NPT treaty.”

She said the main obstacle to negotiations stems from the lack of political will.

But there is concern over the officially unacknowledged Israeli nuclear weapons and the deep sense of injustice among Arab states, which accuse the nuclear weapons states of “double standards”, she noted.

“They are accused of shielding Israel while sanctioning states like Iran, which continues to insist on its treaty right to pursue civilian nuclear energy,” Penketh added.

Asked about double standards, Gerson told IPS that “in terms of Iran, double standards have always applied in what is termed ‘realpolitik’.

Ever since the first world war – a war fought for control of the dying Ottoman Empire and what Churchill understood to be “the prize” of Middle East oil – the great powers of the West have done what they have thought necessary to control what Eqbal Ahmad (author and anti-war activist) once termed the “geopolitical centre of the struggle for world power”, he pointed out.

Gerson said Iran is seen as a threat to U.S. domination of the oil-rich Middle East, and thus when it seems to be challenging the order, efforts are made to keep it in its place.

“To be clear, I believe that no nation should have nuclear weapons or even nuclear power plants,” he stressed.

“The use of nuclear weapons is genocidal or omnicidal, and nuclear power plants are inherently dangerous, not only because of the possibility of meltdowns, but because humans have yet to learn how to safely dispose of their radioactive waste, which poisons the earth and threatens live for tens of thousands of years,” he declared.

Regarding the double standard versus India, Pakistan and Israel, Gerson pointed out the U.S. is in a tacit alliance with India as it attempts to encircle China, and Pakistan is a key ally for the U.S. in its Central Asian war.

“So, they won’t be challenged, as we saw” in President Barack Obama’s nuclear security summit last month.

Regarding Israel, it was long seen as the hammer for the U.S. in the Middle East, helping to reinforce U.S. hegemony, and there is the political power of the Zionist lobby in Washington, he said. “This might get a little more interesting in the coming days, given current U.S.-Israeli tensions and the fact that Egypt plans to make Israel’s nuclear weapons a major issue in the NPT Review.”

Gerson also said that little noticed was the recent denial of visas to enter the U.S. to several Israeli nuclear scientists and engineers, who wanted to come to the U.S. for further studies.

Addressing the Review Conference on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed some flexibility when she said: “We support efforts to realise the goal of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East, in accordance with the 1995 Middle East resolution.”

She said the Middle East may present the greatest threat of nuclear proliferation in the world today.

“But in spite of these difficulties, we want to reaffirm our commitment to the objective of a Middle East free of these weapons of mass destruction, and we are prepared to support practical measures that will move us toward achieving that objective.”

Currently, there are several treaties establishing NWFZs in Africa, Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in Mongolia.

These include the Treaty of Tlatelolco for Latin America and the Carribbean; the Treaty of Rarotonga for the South Pacific; the Treaty of Bangkok for South East Asia; the Treaty of Pelindaba for Africa; the Treaty of Semipalatinsk for Central Asia; and the Antarctic treaty which covers the uninhabited area of Antarctica.

But two of the regions not covered so far include the Middle East (Israel being the nuclear power) and South Asia (India and Pakistan being nuclear powers).

Clinton also announced that the Obama administration will submit protocols to the U.S. Senate to ratify participation in the nuclear-weapon-free zones that have been established in Africa and the South Pacific.

Upon ratification, parties to those agreements will have a legally binding assurance that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against them, and will fully respect the nuclear-weapons-free status of the zones, she declared.

“And we are prepared to consult with the parties to the nuclear-weapons-free zones in Central and Southeast Asia, in an effort to reach agreement that would allow us to sign those protocols as well,” Clinton said.

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