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SNAP ANALYSIS - Can Middle East WMD-free zone talks happen?

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A proposal for a 2012 conference to discuss a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East received the support of nearly all of the world’s nations, but making it happen will not be easy.

The proposal was included in a 28-page declaration approved unanimously by signatories of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on Friday -- the final day of a month-long review conference on the treaty.

The creation of such a zone could ultimately force Israel to sign the NPT and abandon any atomic weapons it has. But U.S. officials said it could not be a reality until there was broad Arab-Israeli peace and Iran curbed its nuclear program.

Despite the adoption of the NPT declaration, the level of U.S. commitment to a WMD-free zone conference is unclear, Western diplomats said. Washington’s commitment will be decisive for the success or failure of the plan, they say, because it is the only country that can persuade Israel to attend.

The idea came from Egypt, which wanted a conference with all states in the Middle East -- including mutual arch-enemies Israel and Iran -- to negotiate on a treaty that would establish a nuclear arms-free zone.

In a reversal from the previous U.S. administration, President Barack Obama’s agreed to join with the four other nuclear powers -- Britain, France, Russia and China -- in supporting Egypt’s and other Arab states’ demand to organize an anti-WMD conference and to encourage Israel to participate.

NPT signatories first called for the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East in 1995. But until now there has been no progress on implementing it.

After an attempt to revive the issue at the 2005 NPT review conference failed, the Egyptians were determined to return to it this year. Western diplomats said Washington, eager to secure Arab support for new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, was now willing to negotiate with Egypt.


Although the original Egyptian proposal was diluted during negotiations with the U.S. and the four other permanent Security Council members, analysts and diplomats welcomed it.

“The decision to convene a conference in two years time to move towards a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction is a major achievement, after 15 years of inaction,” said Anne Penketh of the British American Security Information Council.

“It is a creative way of bringing Israel and Iran to the same table to address pressing security concerns,” she said.

Although the United States was among the 189 nations supporting the declaration, it fought to remove a paragraph calling on Israel to join the NPT and open all its atomic facilities to the U.N. nuclear watchdog for inspections.

After the declaration was adopted, the U.S. delegation said the decision to “single out” Israel in a declaration that fails to name Iran, which the West suspects is developing weapons under cover of a civilian nuclear energy program, might prevent any WMD-free zone conference from ever happening.

Gary Samore, who oversees policy on weapons of mass destruction at the White House, said “the political symbolism of mentioning Israel in this way is very destructive.”

As a result, he said: “I don’t know whether this conference will even happen.”

The head of Britain’s delegation to the conference, John Duncan, told Reuters that getting an agreement on such a sensitive issue was a major achievement, though he declined to predict whether the 2012 conference could be organized.

“The engagement of the United States at a very senior level ... was a significant factor in allowing us to get this result,” he said.

Duncan said many questions would need to be answered about the WMD-free zone conference, such as how it would be organized and who would attend. One of the most important questions is whether Israel and Iran will participate.

Israel’s U.N. mission declined to comment on the NPT declaration and the call for a WMD-free zone conference.

Editing by Mohammad Zargham