Iran sanctions 'holding up nuclear treaty negotiations'

Efforts to achieve agreement among 189 nations on reinforcing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) face collapse because of the fall-out from a new UN sanctions resolution against Iran and an impasse on creating a nuclear weapons-free zone for the Middle East, participants warned.

Egypt, backed by most of its Arab neighbours, is threatening to hold the so-called review conference in New York hostage to its demand that firm steps be taken towards establishing a nuclear-free zone for the Middle East, as promised in a special resolution at the end of the 1995 review. Unless some deal can be reached on moving forward on the plan, there is a "strong likelihood" the whole review conference will unravel, a senior Western diplomat said last night.

The zone, which would seek to outlaw all weapons of mass destruction including chemical and biological arms, has won US support. The stumbling blocks are many and high, however. Israel, which is not a signatory to the NPT and which by most reckonings has between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads, would be expected to participate. So would Iran, which, following the tabling of the new sanctions resolution, is more isolated than ever.

The unveiling of the Iran sanctions resolution "has changed the atmosphere here", noted Anne Penketh, programme director with BASIC, the British American Security Information Council, who is monitoring the view. The conference, she noted, "has been on a knife-edge from the get-go and I think it still is".

The Iranian leadership blasted the new text, negotiated over the last several weeks by the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany. Its provisions are stronger than some had expected, envisioning a range of steps to punish Iran for refusing to heed calls to end uranium enrichment and open its nuclear industry to full inspection. They include freezing assets of Iranian officials and entities, imposing a partial weapons embargo and instituting measures for the inspection of ships or cargo planes that may be carrying materials linked to its nuclear industry.

"The draft being discussed at the UN Security Council has no legitimacy at all," Iran's semi-official Fars news agency quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's senior adviser Mojtaba Samareh-Hashemi as saying.

Because it has the support of all five veto-wielding nations on the Council, the resolution seems bound for passage though perhaps not before next month with many details still to be worked out. The last NPT review conference five years ago ended in deadlock and should this review fail the impact will be far-reaching.

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