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UN conference on nuclear proliferation a big test for Obama

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference opens at the United Nations on Monday. Reducing nuclear weapons is a key issue for President Obama, but there are many challenges.

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Others paint an even more dire picture. John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN under President Bush, says the conference will do nothing to bolster "a treaty on the verge of breaking down" because nothing will be done to "name and shame" the NPT's violators.

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"The most important question for a treaty review should be who's in compliance and who's not, and is [the treaty] influencing behavior in the way intended?" says Mr. Bolton, who also served as undersecretary for arms control and international security.

Iran and North Korea key issues

"It undercuts your purpose to ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room," he adds, "but I'm confident it will happen at the NPT review because it just happened at Obama's nuclear security summit, where Iran and North Korea were kept off the table."

Despite such pessimism, a number of nuclear experts still hold out the possibility that the added attention from the world's sole superpower could pave the way to some strengthening of the nonproliferation regime.

"Obama has so many balls in the air right now in terms of nuclear policy, and all these balls interact and are going to have an impact on the review conference," says Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists. "The capital Obama has built up should at least guarantee some pretty serious consideration of ways we might strengthen" global nonproliferation rules, he adds.

The NPT, which took effect in 1970, is based on a set of international "grand bargains" aimed at reducing the threat of nuclear conflagration hanging over the world. The large majority of NPT member states without nuclear weapons agreed to stay that way, even as the world's nuclear powers (five at the time of the treaty signing) committed to steady and serious disarmament. In addition, NPT countries keeping their no-nukes commitment were guaranteed the right to peaceful nuclear power generation.

By most accounts, the NPT has been a success. Despite dire predictions over the decades of a cascade of countries going nuclear, only a pariah state like North Korea has been willing to leave the NPT and proclaim possession of a nuclear weapon. (Nuclear powers India and Pakistan are nonsignatories of the NPT, as is Israel, which refuses to affirm its nuclear status.)

A new wave of nuclear states?

Still, predictions are once again mushrooming of a new wave of nuclear states. One reason is Iran: As evidence suggests Tehran is pursuing the means of building a nuclear weapon, Middle East experts warn that other countries in the region are likely to reconsider their NPT commitments in the face of an Iranian bomb.

"If Iran or North Korea can violate the treaty and get away with it, it tells everyone else – 'you can do the same,' " says Bolton.