As negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal resumed this week, a related, broader set of talks got underway in New York.

The 10th Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference includes the 191 signatory countries to the NPT, the international treaty to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, and to promote nuclear disarmament and peaceful usage of nuclear energy.

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins briefed reporters on American efforts at the nearly month-long NPT conference, telling JNS that Washington is defining a successful conference as one in which a consensus final document emerges.

“I really see that these four weeks are a way to really celebrate, reaffirm the NPT’s 50th anniversary, look at the challenges, be honest about the challenges, be upfront about the challenges, and then find a way that we can work together to see how we go to the next 50 years,” she said.

But developments in the Middle East loom large, as it has during the last two review conferences.

In 2010, Iran nearly blocked the passage of a final document after it claimed Washington was leading a skewed international system that sought to deny peaceful nuclear power to developing nations while allowing allies such as Israel to stockpile atomic arms. The document eventually passed on the final afternoon of the conference and included additional paragraphs devoted to the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East, as well as called for the start of a process that would lead to the establishment of a nuclear weapons free zone. The conference concluded with a call for a Middle East conference in 2012, which never materialized, while the Middle East-focused goals outlined in the final document were never met.

That led to the failure of the subsequent 2015 NPT conference, as attendees could not come to a consensus on a final document with any substance.

A draft for the 2015 final document called for a March 2016 deadline for convening a Middle East conference, but the United States decried the “arbitrary deadline,” while Canada demanded that any negotiations on this issue include Israel, which is not a party to the NPT. At the contentious final plenary, the United States criticized the inflexibility of the Arab League on the subject, singling out Egypt.

While Jenkins declined to get in-depth on the contents of the final document, she acknowledged the “interests and the concern and desire for a Middle East weapons-free zone.”

“Our position is, we want countries in the region to be able to talk to each other and find a way that everyone could be involved in those conversations,” she said. “And so, we have asked that that process move forward in that direction. We certainly hope that it is not an issue that will be a divisive one that will create a situation where we will not have a consensus document.”

Putting Iran ‘back in the box’

There has been notable progress made over the last few years in setting a foundation for a Middle East nuclear-free zone, including regional sessions held in 2019 and 2021, both of which set procedural rules. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Rafael Grossi told reporters earlier in the week that discussions have taken place with Israel about joining the endeavor, which it has rebuffed. Israel remains strategically ambiguous about its nuclear capabilities.

For that matter, so does Iran, which is an NPT signatory.

The IAEA Board of Governors passed a June resolution calling on Iran to fully cooperate with the U.N. inspectors’ investigation into three undeclared nuclear sites, a violation of NPT guidelines and one that has led to questions about the vastness of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Jenkins was deferential when asked by JNS how Washington currently defines putting Iran “back in the box” of the parameters outlined by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“As for what ‘back in the box’ means, I would defer to others like [U.S. Special Envoy for Iran] Rob[ert] Malley and others who are working on the issue exactly what that means. I understand the question and watching and seeing what’s happening in terms of the enrichment, but how we specifically define that, I would prefer to defer to others on that,” she said.

Jenkins did note concerns about Iran’s NPT violations and its denial to the IAEA of access to its sites and monitoring of its nuclear program.

“[The IAEA] had a very important role in the JCPOA in terms of being able to be on the ground, to be able to do inspections— actually, more intrusive inspections than they’ve had in any other country. Hopefully, if we have another JCPOA, things will be discussed,” she said.

Syria also remains in violation of the NPT for the building of its undeclared nuclear reactor at Deir al-Zour, which was destroyed by an Israeli strike in 2007, and its failure to account for its nuclear program.

The United States has not engaged diplomatically with Syria since 2012, though several other Middle East states have re-established relations following the end of the Syrian civil war. JNS asked Jenkins how the United States intends to handle its relations with Syria in the nuclear realm and whether those talks may go through allies in the region.

“I am not sure what the thinking is on that particular issue. What I will say is it’s an issue that is on our minds. That is one of the things we have to talk about and think about the next four weeks in terms of the language and what shows up on the NPT final document,” said Jenkins. “But we are engaging, of course, many countries in the region, and whether we take that approach, I will have to wait and see.”

JNS

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