Talks on shoring up the global anti-nuclear arms treaty were on the edge of failure on Friday as the United States and its allies clashed with Egypt over a push to pressure Israel to scrap any atom bombs it has.
For a month the 189 signatories of the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have been meeting in New York in hopes of agreeing on a plan to shore up the troubled pact, which analysts say has been hit by Iran's and North Korea's atomic programs and failure by the nuclear powers to disarm.
The latest draft of a final declaration for the NPT review conference calls for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to organize a meeting of all Middle Eastern states in 2012 on how to make the region free of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as demanded by a 1995 NPT resolution.
The creation of a WMD-free zone would eventually force Israel to abandon any atomic bombs it has. The Jewish state, which like nuclear-armed India and Pakistan never signed the NPT, is presumed to have a sizable nuclear arsenal but neither confirms nor denies it. Israel is not participating in the NPT meeting.
In a radical departure from the previous US administration, President Barack Obama's negotiators had agreed to join the NPT's other four official nuclear powers -- Britain, France, Russia and China -- in backing such a conference while encouraging reluctant Israel to participate.
The five permanent UN Security Council members and a group of Arab states led by Egypt are close to a deal that would make the 2012 conference happen, delegates say. But the two sides have reached an impasse on the question of whether Israel should be named in the declaration as a problem state.
The Egyptians insist the declaration must state explicitly that Israel should join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state, but the Americans are refusing, diplomats said.
One Western diplomat familiar with the talks described the situation as "not looking too hopeful." He said there was a "stark choice for the Arabs -- name and shame Israel or have a conference in 2012 to move forward the 1995 promise ... toward a WMD-free zone in the Mideast." "My bet is their (the Arabs') short-term political needs will trump their long-term strategic interest," he said.
Other delegates confirmed the possibility that the NPT review conference would fail to agree on a final declaration because of disagreements on the Middle East question, repeating what happened at the last NPT review conference in 2005.
But diplomats said they hoped the United States and Egypt -- the key players in the Middle East negotiations -- would strike a last-minute compromise that salvaged the conference.
"We've worked so hard for the past month," one diplomat said. "We've got a strong draft that would strengthen all three pillars of the NPT -- disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear energy. It shouldn't be thrown away."
Western diplomats said Israel had reluctantly agreed to attend the 2012 conference but only on condition that it not be "named and shamed" in the final declaration.
Iran's envoy to the UN nuclear watchdog, Tehran's chief delegate, accused the United States of causing the impasse at the NPT talks. Apart from the Middle East WMD-free zone, he said Washington and the other nuclear powers had rejected key demands of Iran and the other non-aligned developing nations.
Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh said those demands were for a precise deadline for nuclear powers to disarm, a call for negotiations on a treaty banning the use of atomic arms, and a pledge from the five nuclear powers not to use atomic bombs on states without them, known as a "negative security assurance."
"The nuclear weapon states, particularly the United States, have not cooperated to find a solution for these four main issues," Soltanieh told reporters, adding that the NPT talks had reached a deadlock. If the nuclear powers refuse to compromise, "they should be blamed for consequences," Soltanieh said, adding that Tehran was prepared to block a declaration that it viewed as too weak. Since NPT meetings make decisions by consensus, Iran has a virtual veto.