Arab countries are stepping up efforts to pry open Israel’s nuclear program, according to letters by diplomats accompanying a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The documents obtained by The Times reveal a behind-the-scenes battle between the West and developing countries over whether to place the Israeli nuclear program under international controls, as demanded by an Arab-sponsored resolution adopted by the IAEA’s 151 member states last year.
Israel said then that it would not comply “in any way” with the resolution. But the pressure may have had some effect. IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano paid a rare visit to Israel last month and asked it to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT, a move one Western diplomat said may have partially appeased Arab states.
The maneuvering precedes meetings this month of the United Nations nuclear watchdog’s 35-member board of governors and its member states.
Israel does not confirm or deny that it has a nuclear weapons program. Like Pakistan and India, Israel is not a signatory to the NPT and is not legally bound to submit to intrusive inspections.
International inspectors have long had access to Israel’s Soreq Nuclear Research Center, which includes a uranium storage facility and a heavy-water reactor, but are barred from the Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, where experts suspect Israel has produced weapons-grade plutonium.
Few think the Arab states and their backers have enough clout in the IAEA to push through a resolution pressuring Israel.
The European Union’s member states say they will vote against the resolution. The U.S. strongly opposes it because it “focuses exclusively on Israel while disregarding noncompliance by Iran with its safeguards obligations, as well as Syria’s continuing refusal to cooperate” with the IAEA, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote, warning that the effort against Israel could scuttle a proposed 2012 conference to make the Middle East free of nuclear of weapons.
Iran, whose nuclear program remains the agency’s top priority, has actively promoted the effort to pressure Israel. “The momentum should be kept and the pressure should be augmented,” Iran’s envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said this summer.
Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, described the initiative as an attempt to divert attention from Iran and Syria’s own troubles with the IAEA. Israel “has over the years demonstrated a responsible policy of restraint in the nuclear domain,” Lieberman wrote in a July 26 letter.
Western and industrialized countries said singling out Israel would be divisive and counterproductive. Canada said it was concerned about the resolution’s “lack of balance.” South Korea, a member of the board of governors, said the resolution would poison the atmosphere ahead of the 2012 disarmament conference. Ukraine, also a board member, said it would oppose the resolution.
“If you ask me whether this report will push Israel to take action,” the Western diplomat said, “no, I don’t think so.”
But the effort has gained some powerful backers. China’s ambassador to the agency said Beijing believed that Israel should join the NPT and “place its nuclear facilities under the comprehensive IAEA safeguards.”
The board’s sole Arab member, Egypt, complained of a “selective approach” to applying international law and blamed Israel’s nuclear program for spurring efforts by others, including Iran and Syria.
Times staff writer Daragahi reported from Beirut. Special correspondent Damianova reported from Vienna.