May 5, 2010 / 3:57 PM / 9 years ago

U.S., other big powers back Mideast nuclear arms ban

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States, Russia, Britain, France and China voiced support on Wednesday for making the Middle East a nuclear-weapons-free zone, which would ultimately force Israel to scrap any atomic arms it has.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad listens to a question at a news conference in New York, May 4, 2010. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The move, in a joint statement, reflected U.S. concern to win Arab backing for sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program by offering a concession over its ally Israel, but Washington says the zone cannot be actually established yet.

“We are committed to a full implementation of the 1995 NPT resolution on the Middle East and we support all ongoing efforts to this end,” the five permanent U.N. Security Council members said in a statement issued at a conference taking stock of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The 1995 resolution adopted by signatories of the landmark arms control treaty called for making the Middle East a zone without nuclear arms. The Jewish state has never confirmed or denied having nuclear arms.

“We are ready to consider all relevant proposals in the course of the (NPT) Review Conference in order to come to an agreed decision aimed at taking concrete steps in this direction,” said the statement, which was obtained by Reuters.

U.S. support for the idea of creating such a zone in the future could be unwelcome to Israel, which has said it can only consider it once there is Middle East peace.

But diplomats from the Jewish state’s Western allies say Arab states are pushing hard on the issue in exchange for their support in U.S.-led efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Egypt, which chairs the powerful 118-nation bloc of non-aligned developing nations, circulated a proposal to the 189 signatories of the treaty calling for a conference by next year on ridding the Middle East of nuclear arms in which all countries in the region would participate.

The United States and Russia, with the support of the other three countries allowed to keep nuclear weapons under the NPT, are negotiating with Egypt to come up with an acceptable compromise proposal, Western diplomats say.

Despite U.S. support for the principle of the proposed zone and for Egypt’s call for discussion of it, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday the time was not yet ripe for creating the zone.

IRAN AND NORTH KOREA

Without naming specific countries, the statement also urged those outside the NPT to join it. Israel, like nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, never signed the treaty but is presumed to have a sizable atomic arsenal.

“We urge those states that are not parties to the treaty to accede as non-nuclear-weapon states and pending accession to the NPT, to adhere to its terms,” the five powers said.

Israel has tried to fend off Egyptian-led scrutiny of its arsenal by urging Cairo to view Iran’s atomic ambitions as the regional threat, an Israeli official has said. Egypt says both Israel and Iran are nuclear threats to the region and wants action on both countries.

The statement by the five powers touched on the nuclear programs of both Iran and North Korea.

“The proliferation risks presented by the Iranian nuclear program remain of serious concern to us,” the statement said. The five powers and Germany are negotiating on a fourth U.N. sanctions resolution against Iran for defying Security Council demands that it halt uranium enrichment.

Tehran refuses to stop enriching, saying its program is intended solely for the peaceful generation of electricity.

The statement did not mention sanctions. Russia and China, Western diplomats say, are pushing hard in negotiations to dilute the measures in a U.S.-drafted sanctions proposal.

The five powers also called for the renewal of six-nation talks on North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

The five official nuclear powers also reaffirmed previous disarmament commitments they made in 2000 and praised a recent U.S.-Russian strategic arms reduction agreement.

The previous U.S. administration infuriated Arab and other non-aligned nations by refusing to reaffirm those pledges — and the call for a Middle East nuclear-arms-free zone — at the last NPT review conference in 2005. That conference was widely viewed as a failure.

Editing by Patrick Worsnip and Vicki Allen

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