Wednesday 26 Sep 2018 | 19:40 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 26 Sep 2018 | 19:40 | SYDNEY

IAEA: Dark days in Vienna


Martine Letts

23 September 2009 13:48

If the proceedings of the IAEA General Conference here in Vienna are anything to go by, President Obama will have his work cut out for him over the next months leading up to the May 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. A more accommodating US position on many items on the IAEA agenda, in particular on the resolution dealing with safeguards in the Middle East, did not deter the Arab delegations from pushing their agenda to put the spotlight on Israel.

The group of Arab states pushed for a vote on a contentious resolution on Israeli nuclear capability, which succeeded narrowly with 49 votes in favour, 45 against and 16 abstentions (also, a record number of delegations left the room to avoid voting)*. The somewhat undignified gloating by the Arab group about the result and its attempts to insert contentious text into the other resolutions put a bad taste in everyone's mouths — the usually low profile Chinese got mad when the Arabs tried to inject their agenda into the traditional DPRK resolution, which led the group of Arab countries to beat a hasty retreat.

Even Iran decided that discretion was the better part of valour and withdrew its controversial resolution on attacks on nuclear facilities in favour of a presidential statement by the New Zealand Conference President, Ambassador Jennifer Macmillan.

What does all this portend for the 24 September UN nuclear summit and the 2010 NPT Review conference? The message to the US and the West is, 'we don't care how accommodating you are, we want the situation in the Middle East to be front and centre of all multilateral deliberations on nuclear issues for the foreseeable future'. 

Western ambassadors in Vienna speculate that this may be part of a concerted Arab campaign to flood the NPT Review Conference with Middle East issues, ostensibly in revenge for the lack of action taken on Israel's nuclear capability and perceived humiliations suffered at the hands of developed countries on these matters at previous IAEA General Conferences.

A more sinister motive is also being debated. Are Middle Eastern countries setting themselves up for developing their own nuclear capacity in response to the world's failure to act on Israel's nuclear program? What is clear is that none of this public posturing is likely to influence Bibi Netanyahu in Israel or deflect the US from continued protection of Israel. And it will probably provide further diplomatic cover for Iran's nuclear activities as well as deflecting from the previous business like approach of the IAEA. The NPT's image will also be further tarnished.

Time constraints and a complex political process at home makes it unlikely that the more positive attitude of the Obama Administration towards disarmament will yield much in the way of concrete, bankable measures ahead of the NPT Review Conference. Accordingly, the diplomatic effort will need to be cranked up considerably. The US will do well to build a closer relationship with the two non-NATO nuclear weapon states, Russia and China, to encourage them to take more responsibility in international fora in the interests of the integrity of the international nonproliferation architecture. 

It is high time for China to come out of the shadows, and time for developing countries which support a strong nonproliferation system, such as in Africa, to receive the benefits of more focused nuclear technical cooperation. Intense diplomacy in capitals is needed, and there is not much time.

Photo by Flickr user StrudelMonkey, used under a Creative Commons license.

This passage originally referred to 'a record 16 delegations absenting themselves to avoid voting.' This was an editorial error.