West rebuffs effort to slam Israel at meeting of atomic energy agency


VIENNA, Austria — The International Atomic Energy Agency’s General Conference is said to be a genteel sort of place, where 141 member-states focus on technical issues like nuclear-safeguard compliance.

So when the Middle East conflict was injected into the tail end of a celebratory 50th anniversary gathering last week, the attempted politicization of the U.N. forum rankled several members.

A mostly Arab-Muslim bloc of states, angered by what they deem Western inaction during Israel’s recent conflict with Hezbollah, pushed for a resolution to brand Israel’s suspected nuclear weapons a “threat” to regional peace and stability.

Canada, supported by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Finland — which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union — prevented the resolution from going to a vote late last Friday by endorsing a rare “no-action” motion.

The Western “blocking maneuver is astonishing when innocent blood has not yet dried in Lebanon,” Syrian delegate Ibrahim Othman declared afterward. His widely quoted comment seemed to betray political motives, some observers suggested.

“I can understand why Arab states wish to call attention to Israel’s possession of an undeclared nuclear arsenal, but this was a symbolic resolution driven by recent events, with a very political agenda,” said Shannon Kile, a senior researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden.

“This is the wrong forum. It’s not what the IAEA does — it’s a technical body.”

Nevertheless, the resolution’s rejection sparked an outcry among its backers that the international community perpetrates a “double standard”: pressuring Iran to shelve its nuclear program while ignoring decades of alleged Israeli nuclear buildup.

“The West threw away a real opportunity to inject fairness and balance into the issue of nuclear weapons,” the Saudi Arabia-based Arab News editorialized Sept. 24.

“The nuclear threat from Israel is all too real. The threat from Iran is still at the most an intention, and may not even be that,” the editorial said. “However if Iran is actually intent on acquiring its own arsenal, it is in large measure because the West has allowed Israel to amass such a destructive nuclear stockpile as to pose a regional threat.”

This view echoed the Arab and Muslim world’s lament of four years ago — that the U.N. Security Council was enforcing its resolutions against Iraq, but not against Israel. But several diplomats and analysts suggest that they’re two different issues.

For starters, they say, Israel is one of three countries in the world — together with archrivals India and Pakistan — that is not a signatory to the landmark Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which went into force in 1970 and has been the cornerstone of global nonproliferation efforts since then.

Israel, which has never confirmed or denied having a nuclear weapons program, has long insisted on “nuclear opacity” as a deterrent against hostile neighbors.

So, Israel stands outside the NPT.

Iran, however, signed the NPT, legally committing the country to adhere to IAEA safeguards and fulfill various obligations, such as not producing nuclear weapons.

Its current noncompliance with certain IAEA safeguards — which the IAEA then reported, as required, to the U.N. Security Council for action — has led to a standoff between Iran and the United States and several of its Western European allies.

IAEA’s director general, Mohamad ElBaradei, addressed the question in a news conference two years ago.

“Our mandate is to verify nuclear programs in countries that are party to the NPT. Iran is a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Some other countries like Israel, India, Pakistan as well as the five weapons states, are not party to, are not subject to our verification.”

A second distinction, say observers, is that Israeli officials have never openly threatened another state with nuclear attack.

The same cannot be said of Iran.

In December 2001, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani openly contemplated that “a single atomic bomb has the power to completely destroy Israel, while an Israeli counterstrike can only cause partial damage to the Islamic world.”

Rafsanjani, no marginal political player, ran again for president in July 2005. But the man he lost to, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has ratcheted up the rhetoric.

In October 2005, he described Israel as a “disgraceful blot” that should be “wiped off the map” — words that many have since viewed as a nuclear threat.

“When people talk about double standards, let’s remember that Israel has never threatened to annihilate Iran or the Iranian people,” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said March 13. “But Iran has done so in the other direction in a wholly unacceptable way.”

Within the IAEA General Conference, with its emphasis on consensus, the Arab-Muslim bloc and Israel had reached an agreement since 1991: Resolutions that arise in committee meetings and single out Israel would ultimately be dropped in exchange for Israel signing on to a more general resolution calling for general adherence to NPT safeguards and creation of a “Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction-Free Zone.”

Such nuclear weapon-free zones already exist in Latin America, Africa and the South Pacific. But this year, the Arab-Muslim bloc forged ahead with its own resolution, spurring the Western riposte.

“The European Union felt it was important to maintain consensus, and not bring this divisive resolution a vote,” Finnish diplomat Anne Kemppainen told JTA.

“The resolution on Israel contained no additional substance to that contained in the more general resolution on safeguards in the Middle East,” added British Foreign Office Spokesman Neil Kernohan, “but merely repeated some elements in a manner which was designed to undermine consensus.”

Another Western diplomat in Vienna was more explicit.

“The IAEA has concrete duties; it’s not just a talk shop to have political debates that go on for hours with no end,” said the official, who wished to remain anonymous.

With that resolution defeated, Israel and the United States were the lone members to vote against the other, more generic resolution regarding a nuclear-free Middle East, a resolution that Israel annually supports. The final vote was 89-2.

“When we found there was no willingness to have dialogue and compromise on the issue, we found ourselves in a position that we couldn’t support the other resolution,” Alon Bar, director of the arms-control department in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told JTA.

That said, analysts do cite some “double standards” in how the international community addresses nonproliferation.

Iran, in its efforts to defuse mounting pressure, will often cite its “inalienable right,” under the NPT, “to develop, research, production and use of nuclear energy.”

Yet Iran often ignores the fact that this right comes with strings attached: submission to IAEA safeguards and prohibition from developing nuclear weapons.

Still, while Washington is trying to deprive Iran of its right to, say, enrich uranium — the key ingredient for both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons — at the same time, it may soon share nuclear technology with India — a non-NPT signatory.

“That’s a clear double standard,” says Shannon Kile, from Stockholm. “But Iran’s problem is a different issue: It’s a product of this troubling pattern of deception and concealment of its nuclear program, in which it’s been engaged since the late 1980s.”