Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and several Arab countries have said they plan to push discussion of creating a nuclear-free Middle East at the May conference of nations that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
For Arab nations, it is a way of highlighting their complaint that Israel's possession of nuclear weapons has been a major factor behind any proliferation in the region, and that the United States employs a double standard in demanding no nuclear weapons programs from Iran and Arab states.
International Atomic Energy Agency's Mohamed ElBaradei.
In a speech last month, former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said his country had been subjected to "bullying" by the IAEA "despite the fact that Tehran opened all doors to the inspections by the U.N. nuclear watchdog." Allegations that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons were being made, he added, "when Israel has stockpiled banned nuclear weapons without any protest or opposition from the IAEA."
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal, brought up the same issue recently. "Iran is always mentioned but no one mentions Israel, which has [nuclear] weapons already," he said in an interview with Newsweek. "We wish the international community would enforce the movement to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone."
ElBaradei, an Egyptian, has been sensitive to the issue. In 2003, the Arab League unsuccessfully sought a resolution from the previous general conference that called on Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and to open its nuclear program to inspection. Last year, in an article in the Financial Times, ElBaradei wrote that Israel's refusal to discuss its purported nuclear stockpile "served as an incentive for countries to arm themselves with equal or similar weapons capacity."
Israel refuses to confirm its possession of nuclear weapons, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saying last year, "Our policy of ambiguity on nuclear arms has proved its worth and it will continue." However, U.S. intelligence has reported to Congress that Israel has had a stockpile since the 1970s that is estimated to include between 200 and 300 bombs and missiles. Most recently, Israel has tested a nuclear-capable cruise missile launchable from a submarine, according to U.S. intelligence sources.
Last July, ElBaradei visited Israel and got an agreement from Sharon for the holding of a forum with Israel and Arab states on issues involved in creating a nuclear-free zone. The session was originally planned for January this year but has been postponed because of technical problems.
The Egyptians, negotiating for the Arab countries, believe the focus should be on Israel's nuclear capability. For the Israelis, the issue to be addressed first is the need for peace and democracy in the region. As one Western diplomat put it, "For now it [the forum] is dead. They didn't need to commit to anything. . . . But it shows how difficult things really are if they won't even talk about it from a technical point of view."
Meanwhile, ElBaradei has said the May NPT conference would discuss Middle East security as part of the Arab-Israeli peace process as it has in years past. "One goal of this dialogue," he said, "would be to make the Middle East a nuclear-weapons-free zone."
Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon said last week that the idea of a nuclear-free zone is something to be discussed. But he described his country as being small and surrounded by 22 Arab countries, "many of them hostile." Therefore, he added during an appearance on John McLaughlin's "One on One" program, a Middle East nuclear-free zone "will be viewed very favorably by Israel once we have a comprehensive peace in the area and there are no dangers of attacks or delegitimization by any other country."
Israeli officials argue that their nuclear weapons do not represent a threat to other nations, only a deterrent to protect their country from invasion by larger neighbors. But they say that if Iran had such weapons they would be a threat.
While U.S. policy has been to support the concept of a nuclear-free Middle East, administration officials almost never acknowledge publicly that Israel's possession of such weapons may be a factor in the actions of other regional powers, such as Iran, Syria, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. The CIA regularly omits mention of Israel's nuclear weapons in its six-month reports to Congress on weapons of mass destruction.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a report Thursday, called for the United States and other nuclear powers "to intensify efforts to create of a zone free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the Middle East." Citing the conflicts and rivalries that abound in the region, the report says, "This knot of real and exaggerated security threats and status seeking is pulled tighter still by Israel's undeclared possession of nuclear weapons, and by its continuing conflict with the Palestinians and with neighboring Arab states that do not recognize its existence."
George Perkovich, one of the study's authors, said one starting point for the region could be to have Israel halt its production of fissile materials, the same thing that is being asked of Iran. "Our aim should be to create a security environment, and you can't do that if you don't recognize publicly that Israel has nuclear weapons," he said.
Staff writer Dafna Linzer contributed to this report.