UNITED NATIONS -- It was touch and go until the last day but 189 nations ended a key global disarmament conference with a commitment to rid the world of nuclear weapons and to open talks on destructive arms across the Middle East -- including Israel's nuclear arsenal.
Applause and relief greeted the conference president, Ambassador Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines, when he announced that the 28-page document was approved by consensus, without a vote, saying "Eyes the world over are watching us."
The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference is held only every five years and this year's session appeared less rancorous than the last two. Diplomats attributed the improved atmosphere to President Obama's vision of a world without atomic bombs and the steps he had taken towards this end. But at the same time nations, especially Iran, noted his promise to spend $80 billion over 10 years to maintain and modernize US nuclear weapons (in part to win Republican support for the new arms control treaty with Russia.)
The 40-year-old treaty, the world's main arms control pact, is a bargain between haves and have-nots: countries without nuclear weapons have committed not to acquire them, while five recognized nuclear states (the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China) pledge to move towards their elimination.
The treaty also promotes the right for NPT signatories to obtain nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
All nations have ratified the treaty except Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, which also have nuclear arms. Very little attention was paid to India and especially Pakistan, which has taken a hard line in the Geneva-based disarmament conference.
The Middle East section was a make-or-break debate, with Egypt's UN ambassador, Maged Abdelaziz, leading the Arab group for a treaty to establish a nuclear free zone among 19 nations in the region -- and no weapons of mass destruction. (Egypt, he told a panel discussion, does not want to be a "second class" state, compared to those with nuclear arms). The 2005 conference fell apart on this issue as well as accusations of US intransigence on disarmament.
The Obama administration, looking out for Israel's interest, signed on in support of such a conference in 2012 for an eventual nuclear-free zone. But US officials failed to get Israel's name out of the Middle East text, which did not mention Iran or any other country in the Middle East. (Syria has not answered all queries by the International Atomic Energy Agency and, along with Egypt, is presumed to have chemical and/or biological arms). The document reaffirms "the importance of Israel's accession to the NPT," presumably as a non-nuclear state.
Not so fast, says US
By late evening, General James Jones, the national security advisor, questioned whether the conference could take place, saying in a White House statement: "Because of the gratuitous way that Israel has been singled out, the prospect for a conference in 2012 that involves all key states in the region is now in doubt and will remain so until all are assured that it can operate in a unbiased and constructive way. "
He also said the United States, along with Britain, Russia and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had decided to co-sponsor the conference and "identify a host for this conference and an individual to facilitate its preparation." None of these provisions were in the NPT declaration, which asked the UN chief to help organize the meeting.
Jones said the meeting had to have a broad agenda "to include regional security issues, verification and compliance, and all categories of weapons of mass destruction and systems for their delivery."
"The United States has long supported such a zone, although our view is that a comprehensive and durable peace in the region and full compliance by all regional states with their arms control and nonproliferation obligations are essential precursors for its establishment. Just as our commitment to seek peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons will not be reached quickly, the U.S. understands that a WMD free zone in the Middle East is a long-term goal."
Iran kept the conference guessing until the last minute whether it would approve the document, prompting diplomats to discuss the possibility of a vote. Tehran has insisted on developing its own uranium enrichment capabilities and is accused of wanting to build nuclear weapons or having that option in the future.
Its delegates have made long interventions against the nuclear powers, all of whom have approved sanctions against Tehran in the UN Security Council, for not meeting their disarmament obligations. But in the end Egypt is presumed to have persuaded Tehran not to block the consensus.
Nevertheless, Iran lashed out at the language in the text, with its chief delegate, Ali Asgha Soltanieh, telling the assembled delegates: "Contrary to our expectations, the text not only failed to directly call upon Israel, the only obstacle to the establishment of NWFZ (nuclear weapons free zone) in the region, to accede to the NPT without condition."
Egypt, which represented over 100 developing nations in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM ), along with Cuba and others, criticized the nuclear powers for deleting from the text specific timelines for negotiations on nuclear disarmament.
But the five did agree to speed up "concrete progress" toward reducing their atomic arsenals and to report on progress before the 2015 NPT conference and to work towards an early entry into force of the test ban treaty, which the US has signed but not ratified. The United States managed to insert language on states that withdrew from the treaty but failed to get binding penalties for such action.
Still, Egypt's Abdelaziz, widely praised for his negotiating skills, said the conclusions provided a basis to realize "a world free from nuclear weapons, where policies of deterrence have no place, and where the horrible threat posed by nuclear weapons to human lives on our planet no longer exists."
So it is hard to give a black and white view of the conference. Anne Penketh, program director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) said that "The Review Conference snatched victory from the jaws of defeat." And Global Security Institute President Jonathan Granoff said that words matter a lot. "The governments of the world have stated clearly that constraints on proliferation are required...and eliminating nuclear weapons is a 'public good of the highest order.'"
But Rebecca Johnson of the London-based Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy said there should have been a process "leading to negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention that will do away with the NPT distinction between nuclear haves and have-nots and comprehensively ban nuclear weapons for all."