After 15 years of inaction, this long-dormant Arab idea, intended to pressure Israel to give up its secretive atomic arsenal, has been revived at the monthlong conference reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
But how far the United States, Israel's strongest supporter, is willing to go is not yet clear. Washington's chief arms control official said the lack of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace remains an obstacle.
"The question is, how do you do that in the absence of a peace plan?" Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher said Wednesday of the ``nuke-free'' zone idea.
But in answer to a reporter's question, she said the U.S. has been working "for months" with Egypt on the issue. Washington also has been discussing it with the Israelis, said another Western diplomatic source, who asked for anonymity since he was discussing other countries' contacts.
"The Five," the treaty-recognized nuclear powers United States, Russia, Britain, France and China took their position in a joint statement of nonproliferation and disarmament goals read to the conference Wednesday, in its third day, by Russian arms negotiator Anatoly I. Antonov.
U.S. Wants "Practical Measures"
Of the proposal for a Mideast free of weapons of mass destruction, he said, "We are ready to consider all relevant proposals in the course of the review conference in order to come to an agreed decision aimed at taking concrete steps in this direction."
In 1995, another of these twice-a-decade conferences adopted a resolution calling for a Mideast zone free of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Such a zone would join five other nuclear-free regions globally Africa, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the South Pacific and Latin America.
It was support for that 15-year-old resolution that the five powers reaffirmed on Wednesday.
Although the U.S. has long endorsed the idea, it has never pushed for action. In her speech to the nuclear conference on Monday, however, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington would support "practical measures for moving toward that objective."
Separately, the head of the U.N. atomic watchdog is asking for international input on how to persuade Israel to join the Nonproliferation Treaty, in a move that is sure to add to pressure on the Jewish state to disclose its unacknowledged nuclear arsenal.
In a letter made available Wednesday, Yukiya Amano asked foreign ministers of the International Atomic Energy Agency's 151 member states to share views on how to implement a resolution demanding that Israel "accede to the" Nonproliferation Treaty and throw its nuclear facilities open to IAEA oversight.
The letter was shared with The Associated Press amid renewed Arab criticism of Israel by Islamic nations, who used the second day of the nonproliferation meeting to call for a nuclear-free Middle East, while criticizing Israel for not divulging its nuclear capabilities and refusing to sign the nonproliferation treaty.
Russia's deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, said the U.S. and Russia have developed a joint approach an unspecified compromise plan in place of a new Egyptian proposal to convene negotiations on a Mideast zone in 2011.
Diplomats said one option being discussed is appointment of an official "special coordinator" to study and consult with governments about ways forward.
Arab states have been showing greater interest in nuclear power technology, worrying some observers that Iran's ambitious nuclear program, which the West alleges is aimed at weapons-making, will prompt neighboring nations to launch their own weapons programs.
One Arab spokesman hinted at this potential for weapons proliferation to more Mideast states.
If the nuke-free zone idea falters, governments are studying "alternatives that would be available to the Arab states," Lebanese diplomat Nawaf Salam, speaking for the Arab Group, told the conference Wednesday.
Rapid movement toward a treaty establishing a weapons-free zone is highly unlikely.
Israel, which doesn't officially confirm the existence of the Mideast's only nuclear arsenal, of perhaps 80 warheads, has long maintained that a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace must first be reached before it would consider such a region-wide regime.
Under the 40-year-old NPT, nations without nuclear weapons pledged not to acquire them, while the five powers pledged to eventually eliminate theirs.
Israel is one of four nations that rejected the treaty with nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, and North Korea, which has a weapons-building program.