Israel's stance on nuclear arms complicates efforts against Iran

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It's buried as Point 31 in a working paper being circulated by Egypt and other nonaligned parties at the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York: a pledge by countries signing the treaty that they will not permit the transfer of any nuclear-related equipment, information, materials or "know-how" to Israel as long as that country refuses to sign the NPT or put its nuclear facilities under safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Point 31 also calls for signatory countries, including the United States, "to disclose all information available to them on the nature and scope of Israeli nuclear capabilities, including information pertaining to previous nuclear transfers to Israel." France and the United States have been identified as key suppliers to Israel's secret nuclear weapons development program in the 1950s and 1960s.

How the Obama administration deals with the nettlesome problem of Israel's nuclear arsenal and the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East will determine U.S. success or failure at the NPT conference.

Israel has as many as 200 nuclear weapons. It has land-based missiles, bombs, and submarines capable of firing nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Its policy is not to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal. It is not a signatory to the NPT, so it is not a participant in the conference.

Iran, on the other hand, has no nuclear weapons -- at least not yet. But as a signatory to the NPT, Tehran's steps toward acquiring nuclear weapons capability have made it a target for U.N. Security Council sanctions, initiated by Washington and its allies, that are more stringent than those Egypt proposes be applied to Israel.

The United States is working on getting even tougher sanctions against Iran ready in a new resolution for a Security Council vote next month.

"Success in dealing with Iran will depend to a large extent on how successfully we deal with the establishment of a nuclear-free zone" in the Middle East, Egypt's U.N. ambassador, Maged A. Abdelaziz, said last week.

The Egyptians are not latecomers to this issue. Egypt unsuccessfully sought aid from the Soviet Union and China in the mid-1960s amid rumors that Israel was gaining nuclear arms.

In 1974, when it became clear it could not afford to enter the nuclear field, Egypt launched -- with Iran, then ruled by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi-- the first attempt at a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. It passed the General Assembly, with Israel not voting. Since then, Egypt has repeatedly introduced the resolution, and it has repeatedly passed, with little effect.

At the 1995 NPT Review Conference, the Middle East nuclear-free zone was a major issue. A resolution sponsored by the United States, Russia, Britain and Northern Ireland called for non-signatory states to join the NPT, without mentioning Israel specifically, and it embraced a Middle East zone free of chemical, biological and nuclear arms. It also recognized that progress in peace talks would "contribute" to the process of establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

The United States argued that Israel would not discuss its weapons with countries that did not recognize its existence, nor would it join in conferences on the subject unless its security was assured. Egypt, on the other hand, has seen linking of the peace process and a WMD-free zone as a stumbling block.

But Cairo has done something similar. It has linked its refusal to participate in the Chemical Weapons Convention to Israel's refusal to join the NPT.

The U.S. goal at the NPT review conference is to reaffirm its support for a WMD-free Middle East, but with a link to progress in the peace process. As Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher hinted last week, the Obama administration might go along with a conference "that would work to an opportunity in the future when conditions in the Middle East are more favorable" for a serious discussion of the issue. But she added that "unless all members of the region participate" -- including Israel -- "you couldn't have the conference that would achieve what we are all looking to achieve, which is for the region to make its own decisions."

As for those two elements in Point 31 of the working paper, sanctions against Israel and information about its program, "they will never happen, never," a senior U.S. official said.

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