UNITED NATIONS — The Middle East, that timeless tinderbox at the core of so much in world affairs, looms as a battleground in the U.N.'s meeting halls this month, as 189 nations debate nuclear proliferation.
The idea of establishing the region as a zone free of nuclear weapons, a notion on the back burner for 15 years, has emerged as a central issue at the twice-a-decade conference reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
It is rising higher on the agenda because Iran's ambitious nuclear program, which the West alleges is aimed at weapons-making, threatens to prompt other Mideast nations to develop their own programs. And an expected future shift toward nuclear power worldwide will put possibly sensitive technology in more hands.
But Israel, with its long-established but unannounced nuclear arsenal, remains a highly uncertain partner in any move toward a "nuke-free" Mideast.
Egypt has formally proposed that this 2010 NPT conference back a plan to start talks next year on such a Mideast nuclear ban. Algeria has also submitted a plan.
"This conference represents a pivotal turning point in the history of the treaty, and an opportunity that may be the last and that must be seized," Egyptian U.N. Ambassador Maged A. Abdelaziz told delegates Wednesday.
The Middle East would join five other nuclear-free regions – Africa, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the South Pacific and Latin America – covering some 116 countries that have outlawed the presence of atomic arms in their areas.
The United States, Israel's prime international backer, has long endorsed the idea of a Mideast zone, but has never pushed for action. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton caught the General Assembly Hall's attention on Monday, however, by saying Washington is now "prepared to support practical measures for moving toward that objective."
The U.S. and Israel are discussing what such "practical measures" might be, said a Western diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity about other countries' contacts.
Russia's deputy foreign minister, meanwhile, said Moscow is partnering with Washington on a draft plan. "In recent weeks, we have managed to develop a joint approach with the United States," Sergei A. Ryabkov told reporters.
He didn't elaborate, beyond saying they have focused on a compromise, "common denominator" plan in place of the Egyptian and Algerian proposals.
Fifteen years ago, the 1995 NPT Review Conference adopted a resolution calling for a Mideast zone free of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical and biological. It was a concession by the U.S. and others to the Arabs, who want Israel to join the nonproliferation treaty, giving up its officially unacknowledged arsenal of perhaps 80 nuclear weapons, the Mideast's only such arms.
In exchange, the Arabs in 1995 backed the West's successful effort to extend the NPT's life indefinitely.
With India, Pakistan and North Korea, Israel is one of four nations not party to the NPT.
After 15 years of inaction on a Mideast zone, two ideas are now under discussion: appointing an official "special coordinator" to study and consult with governments about ways forward; or planning a Mideast regional conference in 2011 on the subject.
Important details would have to be worked out for a conference: its precise mandate; its proposed length and venue; the participating countries.
Although Western diplomats privately express optimism about "something new" emerging here on a Mideast WMD-free zone, no one expects quick movement after the session toward a treaty. Embattled Israel has long maintained that a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace must first be reached before it would consider such a region-wide regime.
Still, any movement here would be seen again as a concession by Washington and its allies, perhaps enabling them to win support on other elements they favor for a 2010 conference final document – making withdrawal from the treaty more difficult, for example.
Iran is viewed as a candidate for withdrawal, since the U.S. and others believe Tehran's uranium enrichment program is aimed at building bombs, something Iran denies. If it decides to produce nuclear weapons, this thinking goes, Tehran will give the required three months' notice and pull out of the NPT.
One more complication faces those pushing for a WMD-free zone: the other WMD.
The Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention outlaw possession of those mass-casualty devices. The small handful of nations that haven't ratified those pacts include three crucial to the Middle East effort: Egypt, Syria and Israel.
The three countries would have to accede to those treaties, and work would have to begin on identifying and neutralizing the chemical or biological weapons they might have.