Beyond the war of words between the US and Iran at the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) review conference in New York lies the potential of a catastrophic nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Fears are high that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapons capability, its neighbours will wish to follow.

At the review conference of 15 years ago, states agreed to the indefinite extension of the NPT and to the Middle East resolution, which calls on states in the region to take practical steps towards a verifiable nuclear-weapon-free zone. The concept was not new. Earlier initiatives were advanced by Iran and Egypt at the UN in 1974. Israel later joined the consensus for similar resolutions adopted every year since 1980. All have had little effect, leading a frustrated Egypt – a champion of the cause – to block all other work during the 2005 conference. The issue is a potential stumbling block in the current talks.

Israel – not a member of the NPT – will not give up its alleged nuclear arsenal so long as Iran and other Middle Eastern countries refuse to recognise Israel's existence. It is unrealistic to expect Israel to join the treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state while Iran continues its nuclear development. As the Spanish diplomat Salvador de Madariaga once said: "Nations don't distrust each other because they are armed; they are armed because they distrust each other. And therefore to want disarmament before a minimum of common agreement on fundamentals is as absurd as to want people to go undressed in winter."

So the hope for eliminating nuclear weapons is tied to progress on the Middle East peace process. And given political realities, a nuclear-weapon-free zone is impossible at this stage. What can be done to break the deadlock?

Countries should seize the moment to promote a nuclear-test-free zone in the Middle East. States would agree to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty – a global ban on nuclear tests – within an agreed period of time. As a practical confidence-building measure, this initiative would decouple resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and other regional disputes from reducing the risks of nuclear escalation and proliferation.

But who could lead this effort? In her opening-day speech, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said: "The Middle East may present the greatest threat of nuclear proliferation in the world today." The US will therefore support practical measures to eliminate weapons of mass destruction in the region, but it is presently not in the best position to take the lead in banning nuclear tests.

If Egypt, as the influential chair of the non-aligned movement and of the New Agenda Coalition, were to promote a nuclear-test-free zone, it would bolster its leadership, and Egypt would enjoy international credit for matching its words with deeds. Indeed, Egypt is the only member of the New Agenda Coalition not to have ratified the test ban treaty, as advocated by the coalition's 1998 joint declaration. Unfortunately, for Egypt, anything less than Israel joining the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state seems to be a political non-starter.

Israel, arguably, could take a lead, which would directly pressure Iran and its Arab neighbours to follow suit. Yet Israel will argue that this would be a distraction from the more pressing issue of Tehran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. For Iran itself, promoting a test-free zone could alleviate mounting international pressures over its refusal to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency and UN security council resolutions against its questionable nuclear activities. But the odds that Iran would initiate a deal involving Israel are nil.

The European Union and Turkey, however, are both possible leaders. Each wants to play a moderating role to bring peace to the Middle East, and both could promote a region without nuclear tests as a first step in the right direction.

At the review conference, diplomats must avoid raising unrealistic and counterproductive expectations. Rather, banning nuclear tests in the Middle East is a realistic and practical way to lower regional tensions, and bring us all closer to global peace and security.