Nuclear Nonproliferation Conference Might Collapse on Final Day

(May. 28) -Delegates to the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. The monthlong meeting might end today without achieving consensus on a final document (U.N. photo).
(May. 28) -Delegates to the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. The monthlong meeting might end today without achieving consensus on a final document (U.N. photo).

UNITED NATIONS -- A major international assembly on nonproliferation here could end in failure today, over the appearance or omission of a single word in the text of its proposed final document: “Israel” (see GSN, May 27).

The U.S. delegation signaled that it could not accept an overt reference to the unconfirmed but widely recognized nuclear arsenal of its closest ally in the Middle East, according to conference delegates and observers. However, by Friday morning Washington reportedly had been persuaded to change its stance (see update, below).

At stake is whether the document can be adopted by consensus. Without such unanimity, the five-year gathering could end in stalemate and recriminations.

Ambassador Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines, president of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference, yesterday afternoon released the latest draft of text hammered out over the past four weeks of daily sessions attended by representatives of the accord’s 189 member nations.

The pending 28-page statement incorporates the work of three conference committees that addressed nonproliferation, disarmament and atomic energy issues, and is intended to strengthen the treaty regime. It includes 15 paragraphs on how NPT member nations plan to work toward designating the Middle East a region free of unconventional weapons and materials.

Under the scheme, a regional conference would be held in 2012 under U.N. auspices to discuss “the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction,” an objective first laid out by NPT nations in 1995 but never vigorously pursued.

The U.N. secretary general and leading world powers, in consultation with regional states, would also select a “facilitator” -- an individual who would shepherd the process along and report on progress to the 2015 NPT review conference and the meetings leading up to it.

The current hitch is that the draft document also notes “the importance of Israel’s accession to the [Nonproliferation] Treaty and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards,” referring to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Israel has long refused to confirm or deny the existence of its nuclear arsenal, which is estimated at between 80 and 100 weapons.

In deference to that policy, U.S. officials reportedly told the NPT conference president that they could not agree to a final statement that calls on Israel by name to join the nonproliferation accord as a non-nuclear state and to submit all nuclear facilities to international safeguards and inspection regimes.

“The United States was not prepared to budge on this issue,” said William Potter, director of the Monterey Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who is in New York for this month’s conference.

He told GSN yesterday the appearance of the word "Israel" in the proposed text was, to his knowledge, "the only outstanding issue in the way of an agreed document." Several conference delegates, speaking on condition of not being named, echoed the same understanding.

A State Department spokesman did not offer a response to a request for comment by press time today.

From the perspective of Israel’s neighbors -- and many other nations represented at the conference here -- Jerusalem should be named in the document’s section on a Middle East WMD-free zone because it is believed to be the only country in the region with a nuclear arsenal.

In addition, the draft text describing the 2012 conference notes that the meeting is “to be attended by all states of the Middle East.” Some national delegations are concerned that if Israel is not named, it might provide an opening for Jerusalem to simply back out.

Israel has not signed the 1970 nuclear nonproliferation pact and has taken no official role in this month’s conference. A representative of Israel’s permanent mission to the United Nations last week declined any comment on issues related to the NPT talks.

However, the U.S. delegation is said to have been in close contact with the Israeli U.N. mission throughout the conference. Jerusalem reportedly is open to attending the 2012 summit on the creation of a special Mideast zone, though the terms for its participation have not been spelled out publicly.

Now, at the end of four weeks of painstaking work to negotiate a lengthy consensus statement, nerves are frayed among delegates and observers alike. Even Cabactulan sounded weary as he released the new draft conference text to the state parties at roughly 5:30 p.m. local time yesterday.

“I have listened very carefully to all the views presented by the state parties, and this document before you is the very best can be offered,” the conference head said. “Making changes to the document -- a document that is carefully balanced, whose presentation is a product of [our] work -- may endanger the success of this conference.”

The proposed statement includes 64 “action” items on a wide range of issues related to the nonproliferation pact’s “three pillars” on stemming nuclear proliferation, working toward the global elimination of existing arsenals, and making civil nuclear energy available to nations in good standing under the agreement.

Among many initiatives described in Cabactulan’s text is, for example, a commitment by member states not to explosively test weapons nor take “any action that would defeat the object and purpose” of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, pending its entry into force. Another action item encourages all nuclear-armed nations to offer assurances that they would never target member states without such arsenals.

The proposed final statement also includes a second mention of Israel, but in a section marked as Cabactulan’s own personal review. As such, it does not necessarily reflect the conferees’ unanimous perspectives.

That passage “calls upon all states not parties to the [Nonproliferation] Treaty, India, Israel and Pakistan, to accede to it without further delay and without any conditions.”

“Adopting this document will constitute a small but significant step towards strengthening global security and laying the groundwork for a transformative, comprehensive approach to build a world free of nuclear weapons,” Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy concluded on her blog early this morning after reading through the latest text.

Cabactulan arrived at the near-final language in the proposed statement with assistance of a “Group of 16” nations, which included representatives of the 116-nation Nonaligned Movement -- led by Egypt, a key proponent of the Middle East resolution -- and the five nuclear powers recognized by the treaty: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Filipino diplomat said the full conference would convene again at 11 a.m. today and implored member nations to put aside their differences and adopt the compromise text.

“This document … may not satisfy many,” Cabactulan said yesterday afternoon, “and yet, it could be an answer to our prayers.” With that, he closed the formal session, roughly 10 minutes after it began.

Though the mood was noticeably dour as delegates gathered their belongings and conferred in small throngs throughout the cavernous meeting room, several clung to the possibility -- however slim -- that the wording issue might be resolved somehow through further negotiations and consultations overnight.

In the eyes of many delegates -- including what appeared to be a significant number of Washington’s allies -- the burden would fall on the United States to rescue the conference from possible defeat. The emerging alternative, many said, was that the Obama administration would be widely blamed for blocking consensus at the gathering.

Some are already pointing to the White House, in particular, as a source of the problem. Global Security Newswire yesterday reported that Vice President Joseph Biden had on Tuesday intervened from Washington in a stalled effort to reach a compromise with Arab nations on the Middle East portion of the final statement.

Though he and national security adviser James Jones apparently succeeded in resolving some outstanding issues at a meeting with Arab diplomats, the high-level White House involvement ironically might now be adding some constraints on the U.S. negotiating team on the ground in New York, according to some conference participants.

In one sense, the political and diplomatic muscle of Biden and Jones could offer the top cover necessary achieve negotiating breakthroughs at the United Nations, envoys said. However, to break the final deadlock over how to couch references to Israel in the final text, U.S. diplomats could require additional flexibility that new Cabinet-level marching orders no longer afford, these sources said.

At the same time, there is some concern at the conference that Israel’s neighbors are simply intent on embarrassing Jerusalem and Washington. Iran and several key Arab states might not have much interest in seeing a “successful” review conference in which only limited progress is perceived to have been made in advancing nuclear disarmament, according to U.N. officials and delegates.

Washington is leading an effort at the U.N. Security Council to isolate Iran for its suspected program to develop nuclear arms, though Tehran insists that its atomic energy program is entirely peaceful.

Obama administration leaders were “comfortable going into the conference isolating Iran, even if they didn’t get a final document,” Potter told GSN yesterday (see GSN, April 30). “But, in fact, even if we don’t get a final document, Iran is not isolated but the United States is, because it refuses to budge with respect to one word.”

Washington “will be blamed for failure of the conference, rightly or wrongly,” he said.

The last NPT review conference, held in 2005, was contentious early on and failed to produce a final document. That lapse was widely attributed to the policies and politics of then-President George W. Bush, a fate that the Obama administration has worked hard to avoid on its own watch.

Still, beginning early this week, the U.S. delegation raised a number of objections to earlier drafts of the final document, pushing to soften language that could be seen as constraining its ability to improve the United States’ nuclear arsenal or even retain it indefinitely (see GSN, May 25).

The new U.S. moves surprised many observers because they seemed at odds with the ambitious nuclear disarmament vision laid out by Obama last year during a major address in Prague.

“The [Nonaligned Movement] appeared to be willing to accept considerably watered-down language on disarmament and, according to the scuttlebutt, Iran was also prepared to accept this,” said Potter, who called the latest turn of events “remarkable.”

If the differences over how to treat Israel in the final document text are resolved, it is unclear whether member states might yet raise objections to other wording in Cabactulan’s penultimate draft, thereby scotching consensus. However, conventional wisdom in the conference hall yesterday was that all other earlier-pending issues had been resolved.

The president’s personal review section of the draft text -- the part that could be adopted without full unanimity on each point -- nonetheless includes passages that received a fair amount of scrutiny and modification by member nations over the past three weeks. Key issues in the new draft include these:

-- Slightly modified wording on nonproliferation regimes calls both comprehensive nuclear safeguards agreements and Additional Protocols “the enhanced verification standard,” and “encourages” all member nations to adopt the protocols that allow for more intrusive U.N. monitoring of nuclear activities;

-- A passage in earlier drafts alluded to unnamed states suspected of being in noncompliance with the treaty -- widely interpreted as referring to Iran. A similar passage continues to appear in yesterday’s text but in somewhat softened terms that no longer purport to be speaking for all member countries. “The conference notes the concerns expressed by numerous states parties with respect to matters of noncompliance with the treaty by states parties, and their calls on those states noncompliant to move promptly to full compliance with their obligations,” the new document reads;

-- A similar tack appears to have been taken regarding the issue of endorsing legal commitments and timing targets for global nuclear disarmament, constraints that the United States, France and Russia opposed. “The conference affirms that the final phase of the nuclear disarmament process and other related measures should be pursued within an agreed legal framework, which a majority of the states parties believe should include specified time lines,” the revised text states.

UPDATE, 1:15 p.m. New York time: The U.S. delegation reportedly accepted overnight the draft conference document's reference to Israel in the proposed section on steps toward implementing a WMD ban in the Middle East. However, it remained unclear whether Iran would agree to adopt the proposed final statement.

"The decision by the U.S. government to allow Israel to be named in this regard was done with a little help from its friends," said Mark Hibbs, a senior associate at the Bonn office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in New York for the conference. "Several European and Western delegations pleaded with the United States to name Israel in the interest of assuring a final document that would be approved by consensus, and the U.S. overnight agreed to it."

A U.S. official would not address the wording issue but said Washington's delegation is working to be constructive.

"The negotiations are ongoing, the U.S. remains committed to strengthening the three pillars and we have worked in close collaboration with our colleagues on the Middle East WMD issue," said the official, who declined to be named. No further official U.S. comment would be made "until the negotiations are over," the representative said.

As of early afternoon, it appeared that Iran was holding up the proceedings and threatening to block consensus on the conference statement, according to sources here. Iranian delegates were said to be conferring with members of the Nonaligned Movement in behind-closed-door meetings in the lead-up to a final, three-hour conference session in the General Assembly chamber beginning at 3 p.m. today.

"It's up to Iran to decide whether the conference will succeed or fail," Hibbs told GSN.

"I'm optimistic," said Deepti Choubey, deputy director of Carnegie's Nuclear Policy Program. "It's changing now by the hour, but the current mood amongst key nonaligned countries, Western states and some members of the P-5 [nuclear-weapon states] is cautiously optimistic."

May 28, 2010

UNITED NATIONS -- A major international assembly on nonproliferation here could end in failure today, over the appearance or omission of a single word in the text of its proposed final document: “Israel” (see GSN, May 27).