A tough road in curbing spread of nuclear arms

At meeting in New York, US will take a hard line, but others blame nuclear powers for problems.

First comes the shouting and then, supposedly, the negotiating.

As representatives of 189 nations gather in New York to try to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, the world's nuclear haves and have nots are ratcheting up threats accompanying a month-long review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The conference at the United Nations in New York is supposed to come up with new ways of plugging holes in what officials say is an increasingly leaky pipeline of nuclear materials that threaten to spread weapons to new countries.

But finding common ground won't be easy. The United States is seeking to use the conference to focus global attention on the misdeeds of Iran and North Korea. Other countries, especially developing ones, are asserting a right to nuclear energy and pinning any NPT weakness on the nuclear powers for failures on promised disarmament. "The mood is depressed and pessimistic," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The dour atmospherics can be seen in the way the two antagonists, the US and Iran, will approach the month-long review. Mr. Cirincione says the US, which has sent a midlevel delegation, will focus on cases of the treaty's failure and will demonstrate little confidence that such complex global treaties work.

Iran, on the other hand, is sending its foreign minister to persuade attending countries that the US is out of step with the world, he says. Indeed, at Tuesday's session, Iran is threatening to reinforce the verbal defense it will offer of its nuclear power program by restarting its suspended fuel enrichment program.

"There's a lot of fear out there that the US has changed its nonproliferation strategy, changed its view of the value of this and related treaties, and doesn't really care if the conference is a success or not," Cirincione says.

The US, which was scheduled to deliver what officials said would be a tough presentation at Monday's session, is also feuding with North Korea. On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card accused the North Koreans of being "bullies" in reference to the country's latest provocation: the testing of what experts said was a short-range missile. US officials fear the move could presage a much more consequential testing of a nuclear weapon.

Only hours before the test launch, Pyongyang called President Bush a "hooligan" and said the crisis over its nuclear program could not be resolved while Bush is in office. That's typical talk for the regime of Kim Jong Il, who pulled his country out of the NPT in 2003 and has since kept building up its capability. Some US officials now say the North could now launch a missile capable of reaching US soil.

Yet while North Korea won't be at the conference, Iran will - and, at least in some eyes, will serve as an example of one of the NPT's major flaws. The 35-year-old treaty allows access to nuclear technology for power generation in exchange for pledges the technology will not be used to build weapons. But critics like the US say Iran exemplifies how countries can use NPT loopholes to claim they are interested only in peaceful uses of the technology - until it's too late.

Iran says it will remind delegates at the conference Tuesday of its rights to nuclear power under NPT provisions - while reiterating that its program is purely peaceful in intent. But at the same time some Iranian officials, speaking recently of frustration over a lack of progress in talks with three European countries over its fuel-enrichment program, hinted that a suspension of the program agreed to this year could end soon.

In opening the conference, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urged conferees to "find durable ways to reconcile the right to peaceful uses with the imperative of nonproliferation." Referring to North Korea's withdrawal from the treaty, Mr. Annan said that "unless violations are directly addressed, the most basic collective reassurance on which the treaty rests will be called into serious question." That plea, along with his call for measures to reduce the threat of proliferation to "nonstate actors," was sure to please the US.

Less in accord with American thinking is Annan's call to create "incentives for states to voluntarily forgo the development of fuel cycle facilities." Annan praised the International Atomic Energy Agency for pressing for a moratorium on the enrichment of uranium and the reprocessing of plutonium. But that is something the US and Iran agree on: They oppose such a measure.

That may be where their detente ends, however. "The US is basically seeing this conference as one more attempt by the Lilliputians to tie down Gulliver," says Cirincione. "The Iranians see it as the opportunity to seize on widespread mistrust of US intentions" and to defend its program.

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