Negotiations over the presumed nuclear arsenal of a single country will determine the success or failure of the Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That country is not Iran. It is Israel, which is not even a member of the 189-state NPT.
Every five years, the nuclear "haves" and "have-nots" within the NPT meet at the UN for a game of nuclear brinkmanship. Often, it results in a dialogue of the deaf, with the non-nuclear states accusing the officially acknowledged nuclear powers – Britain, the US, Russia, France and China – of not doing enough to meet their treaty commitments to move towards "general and complete" disarmament. The nuclear weapons states try to turn the tables by focusing on the treaty's non-proliferation pillar and on suspicions about Iran's true intentions.
The Obama administration feels it is going into this year's conference in a strong position. They have a President who stands for a world free of nuclear weapons, who has signed the first nuclear arms control agreement with Russia in a decade, and who has brought world leaders to Washington to agree on measures to curb nuclear terrorism.
President Barack Obama has also signalled that in addition to an early ratification of New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) by the US Senate, he intends to push for the long-overdue ratification of a global treaty banning all nuclear tests, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
In the interests of transparency, America may reveal the size of its own nuclear arsenal this week. But there is unfinished business that has haunted the halls of NPT Review Conferences for years.
The issue of Israel's never- officially-acknowledged nuclear weapons is at the heart of a 1995 NPT resolution calling for the creation of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.
Egypt, which has long championed the cause of a nuclear-free region with the backing of the Non-Aligned Movement, extracted a promise from the US, UK and Russia to work towards this goal when they co-sponsored the resolution as the price for the indefinite extension of the NPT, the nuclear "grand bargain" of the last century. So this year's game of chicken pits the US against Egypt.
Egyptian officials have raised the pressure on the co-sponsors with veiled threats to wreck the Review Conference unless Cairo's demands are met. The Obama administration is listening, aware that the Non-Aligned Movement holds the majority at the month-long Review Conference and could block proposals from the nuclear weapons states. But it only recently launched intensive discussions on Egypt's proposal for an international conference at which practical steps would address both Israel, the Arab states' key concern, and Iran, that of the US.
Agreement on a Middle East conference that would include Israel and Iran would be a major breakthrough and a big step towards improving the security not only of the region, but of the world.
Anne Penketh is Washington Program Director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC)Reuse content