At 1am on the morning of Saturday 25 September 2010, the 54th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was brought to a close, after the notable adoption of resolutions addressing IAEA safeguards generally and in the Middle East more specifically – and the rejection of a resolution sponsored by the group of Arab states in the Agency calling for Israel to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and place all its nuclear facilities under Agency monitoring.
Around the conference hall at the Vienna International Center, where the ‘GenCon’ was held, the Israeli Nuclear Capabilities (INC) resolution emerged as one of the most hotly-debated items of the week-long event. Israel, an undeclared nuclear-armed state, and the only country in the region to possess such weapons, is one of the few states left in the world to remain outside the NPT regime. To join, of course, would mean giving up its nuclear arsenal (unless the text of the treaty is changed, a move that India, a similarly nuclear-armed NPT hold-out, speaks in favour of), and with concerns over the Iranian nuclear programme remaining unresolved there is no sign of that happening any time soon.
Ultimately, though, and only after a chaotic debate in the plenary hall over whether to hold a vote on the draft without interpretation (the translators were going for lunch), the resolution failed to get the votes it commanded last year with 51 voting against, 46 in favour and 23 abstentions. In introducing the resolution to the plenary, Sudan, speaking on behalf of the Arab group this year, said that the nuclear imbalance in the region and the absence of international pressure on Israel to accede to the main non-proliferation instruments including the NPT are unacceptable. Egypt, speaking on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) argued that selective approaches to non-proliferation undermine the non-proliferation regime and called on the conference to take measure to address Israeli ‘non-cooperation’.
In their pre-vote statement to the plenary hall, Israel attacked the ‘political nature’ of the resolution as contradictory to the basic aims and goals of the technically-oriented IAEA. The ‘sole purpose’ of this resolution was to condemn one member state, said Israel, with other member states seemingly overlooking the ‘unique situation’ in which Israel sits. The Agency should focus on safeguards violations, they suggested, in a thinly-veiled attack on Iran (whose representatives, somewhat awkwardly, sat no more than a few meters away), and not waste time with ‘cynically politically motivated’ agenda items such as they viewed this one.
And they had the US fighting their corner also. Gary Samore , White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism, visited Vienna to lobby Arab states to withhold the resolution and other states to vote against it if tabled. In its statement, the US said that it was unfortunate that this resolution had been tabled at a time when peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians had recently been restarted. The US further worried that it could damage already shaky prospects for the holding of a conference in 2012 on the ways to promote the establishment of nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) in the Middle East. Proponents of the resolution, on the other hand, argue that the nuclear free Middle East should go hand-in-hand with peace talks rather than proceeding in a sequential manner. Results of the vote show a divided house on how to address Israeli nuclear capabilities. While all Western Group states except Turkey voted against the draft, all regional states except Israel voted for. The NAM was divided, while Russia and China voted in favour.
After the vote, Iran lambasted Israel’s ‘aggressive nature’ and disregard for international rules and bodies. The matter of Israel’s nuclear capabilities is a matter of urgent concern, said Iran, and the credibility of the IAEA will be ‘seriously jeopardised’ if the issue is not adequately addressed. The supporters of the ‘Zionist regime’, as the Iranians characteristically refer to the Jewish state, showed today that they are following policies of ‘double standards’ toward NPT membership – that those calling for universality of the treaty are not, in fact, ‘honest in action’.
Sudan also spoke of the so-called double standards on display. And despite the defeat of this resolution made it known that the Arab group would ‘use all legal means to express its rejection of Israel’s non-accession to the NPT’ and continue to press for all Israel’s nuclear facilities to be placed under IAEA safeguards. Syria, whose own nuclear intentions are the subject of some concern, and much debate, called for the INC item to remain on the agenda of both the IAEA Board of Governors and the General Conference.
Later in the day, a resolution addressing ways and means to bolster the robustness and efficacy of the Agency’s safeguards system was passed in the plenary hall by a vote of 80 in favour, none against and 20 abstentions. The draft resolution, submitted by a host of European states, was debated for many hours in a locked-down working group before it reached the conference floor. One of the most tellingly contentious items, with respect to efforts to reduce global nuclear weapons stockpiles, was an abortive proposal by the NAM, announced by Egypt, to suggest that the IAEA director-general report on safeguards to next year’s conference ‘under an agenda item entitled “strengthening the effectiveness and improving the efficiency of nuclear verification.”’ As it is, the resolution merely requests the IAEA head to report. But as the Egyptian representative argued, to the ‘Committee of the Whole’ after talks in the working group had finished but before the vote in the plenary hall, the idea behind including language on nuclear ‘verification’ was designed to emphasise that the Agency has a role to play in both verifying disarmament as well as non-proliferation. Records of the IAEA Board of Governors show, Egypt said, that past discussions under similarly-titled agenda items demonstrate that there is room at the Agency to address the matter of disarmament verification; that the Agency does not, or perhaps should not, be confined to the implementation of non-proliferation oriented, NPT-mandated, safeguards.
As it is, the resolution urges all states that have not yet done so to bring into force a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the Agency and reiterates language from the Final Document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference that the implementation of an Additional Protocol, which augments IAEA inspection rights in country’s with them, remains a state’ s ‘sovereign decision’. Many states in the Western world feel that the additional assurance of the absence of non-peaceful nuclear activities in a state with an Additional Protocol in force is such that the agreement is too important to exist only as a voluntary measure. By contrast, many non-Western states, including Iran, where an Additional Protocol might be most welcome of all, resist any attempt to move in such a direction. On which note, the lengthy preamble to the resolution emphasises ‘that there is a distinction between the legal obligations of states and voluntary measures aimed at facilitating and strengthening the implementation of safeguards and aimed at confidence-building.’
On the resolution addressing the implementation of IAEA safeguards in the Middle East, which calls for the establishment of a ‘mutually and effectively verifiable’ NWFZ in the region, the document was passed with none against but with five countries – Israel, Canada, Chad, Haiti and the US. This resolution, aimed at the comprehensive application of IAEA safeguards in the Middle East, was put forward as many states strongly believe – this according to Egypt, on behalf of the NAM – that regional stability cannot be achieved in the region while the current imbalance of forces, especially the fact that one country holds a nuclear arsenal while the rest do not, continues to exist. Iran, in its remarks to the plenary hall, said that it strongly supports such a zone and lamented that three decades after a NWFZ in Middle East was first propsed, no progress has been achieved. As to why, it is the ‘intransigent policy’ of the ‘Zionist regime’ that represents the ‘only obstacle’ to a NWFZ in the Middle East becoming a reality, said Iran.
For its part, Israel countered that a Middle Eastern NWFZ requires a ‘fundamental change’ in the regional security situation but that the establishment of such a zone remained a ‘long-term goal’. Israel does not subscribe to the notion, said its representative, that universal adherence to the NPT represents a solution to Israel’s security situation.
Now it remains to be seen what effect, if any, these resolutions will have on the state of global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament efforts. On the whole, the support for verification in evidence at the conference was encouraging – but as the persistent hesitance of many states to warm to the Agency’s Additional Protocol and the reluctance of some to address its potential role as a verifier of disarmament show, the room for optimisation of verification activities remains significant. To borrow from the end line of so many resolutions, VERTIC decides to remain seized of the matter.