The 189 member nations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on Friday adopted a detailed plan of small steps down a long road toward nuclear disarmament, including a sharply debated proposal to move toward banning the doomsday arms from the Middle East.
The 28-page Final Declaration was approved by consensus on the last day of the monthlong conference, convened every five years to review and advance the objectives of the 40-year-old NPT.
Under its action plan, the five recognized nuclear-weapon states — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China — commit to speed up arms reductions, take other steps to diminish the importance of atomic weapons, and report back on progress by 2014.
The final document also calls for convening a conference in 2012 "on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction." This Arab idea of a WMD-free zone is designed to pressure Israel to give up its undeclared nuclear arsenal.
Despite vocal dissent in the final hours from Iran and Syria, no objections were raised in the final session. Iran's chief delegate Ali Asghar Soltanieh joined with the others in hearty applause in the soaring U.N. General Assembly hall.
"All eyes the world over are watching us," the conference president, Libran Cabactulan of the Philippines, said before gaveling the final document into the record.
The decision was "an important step forward towards the realization of the goals and objectives of the treaty," Egypt's Maged Abedelaziz said afterward, speaking for the 118-nation Nonaligned Movement of mainly developing countries.
The conference is convened every five years to review and advance the objectives of the 40-year-old NPT, under which nations without nuclear weapons committed not to acquire them; those with them committed to move toward their elimination; and all endorsed everyone's right to develop peaceful nuclear energy.
Progress report due in 2014
The last NPT conference, in 2005, failed to adopt a consensus declaration, in part because U.S. President George W. Bush had withdrawn U.S. backing for such nonproliferation steps as ratifying the treaty banning all nuclear tests. President Barack Obama's support for an array of arms-control measures improved the cooperative atmosphere at the 2010 conference.
For the first time at an NPT review, the final declaration laid out complex action plans for all three of the treaty's "pillars" — nonproliferation, disarmament and peaceful nuclear energy.
The five recognized weapons states did manage to strip earlier drafts of specific timelines for disarmament negotiations, such as a proposal that they consult among themselves on how to disarm and report back to the 2015 conference, after which a high-level meeting would convene to negotiate a "roadmap" for abolishing nuclear weapons.
But in the final draft as adopted the five weapons states committed to "accelerate concrete progress" toward reducing their atomic weaponry, and to report on progress in 2014 in preparation for the 2015 NPT review session. The document calls on them also to reduce the role of nuclear arms in their military doctrines.
The disarmament action plan inevitably leaves a major gap, since it doesn't obligate four nations that are not members of the treaty — India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, all of which have or are suspected of having nuclear arsenals.
On the Middle East, Arab states and Israel's allies had been at odds over wording in the plan to turn the region into a nuclear weapons-free zone.
Pressure on Israel
In the final declaration, the NPT states call for convening a conference in 2012 "on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction."
This Arab idea of a WMD-free zone, meant to pressure Israel to give up its undeclared nuclear arsenal, was endorsed by the 1995 NPT conference but never acted on.
Israel has long said a full Arab-Israeli peace must precede such weapons bans. But at this conference the U.S., Israel's chief supporter, said it welcomed "practical measures" leading toward the goal of a nuke-free zone, and U.S. diplomats discussed possibilities with Israel.
A sticking point had been a passage naming Israel, reaffirming "the importance of Israel's accession to the NPT," a move that would require it to destroy its estimated 80 or so nuclear warheads.
Iran demanded that this NPT session insist Israel join the treaty before a 2012 conference. Egypt's U.N. Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz told reporters the Arab position was softer — that Israel's accession to the treaty would come as "part of the process" begun in 2012.
Although the Israelis acquiesced to U.S. urging that they take part in such a 2012 discussion, they objected to participating under terms in which they were the only nation mentioned in this way, diplomats said. In the end, however, the "Israel mention remained in the text.
Establishment of a verifiable Mideast nuclear weapons-free zone should help allay international concerns about whether Iran's ambitious nuclear program is aimed at building bombs, something Tehran denies. The Iranians have long expressed support for a nuke-free Mideast.
Whatever the result Friday, all-important details of a 2012 Mideast conference would remain to be worked out, such as whether the talks are meant as the start of formal negotiations on a treaty.