THE review conference of the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, which opens in Geneva today, presents a mixed picture. Significant progress in arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, plus growing interest in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) among both nuclear and nonnuclear countries, give the meeting a bright hue.
On the other hand, the Gulf crisis and edginess over ``problem states,'' both within and outside the Middle East, provide considerably darker tones.
``There are numerous points to cite that say the NPT is going from strength to strength,'' says John Simpson, professor of international relations at Southampton University in Britain and an NPT specialist. ``But at the same time there are significant areas of concern,'' he adds, principally in the third world.
Several countries that have have not signed the NPT, such as Israel, India, and Pakistan, are considered either to possess or to be developing nuclear weapons. Other nations within the treaty, including Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, are also believed to be pursuing nuclear weapons programs.
Still, the meeting takes place at a time of growing international acceptance of the principle of nuclear weapons nonproliferation.
Nuclear powers China and France, which have never signed the treaty, will participate for the first time as observers. The number of treaty adherents has doubled, from less than 70 nations when the treaty took effect in 1970, to 140 today. South Africa, once considered a ``problem state'' developing nuclear weapons, could actually become a treaty member during the review conference.
The treaty review, which occurs every five years, was expected to take place in relative obscurity. But the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has thrown an international spotlight on the month-long conference. And the anticipated upbeat tenor has been muted in large part by worries over the position Iraq, one of the treaty's original adherents, will take on two issues: the participation of Kuwait, another NPT member; and Israel.
``Iraq, and no doubt a good number of other Arab countries, are going to point at Israel and what it's been allowed to do outside the NPT in the nuclear weapons field, and they'll do it with quite a lot of justification,'' says Lee Feinstein, a senior analyst for the Arms Control Association in Washington.
If Iraq senses it can draw broad Arab support by condemning Israel (and the US for its support of Israel), some analysts believe it may simply choose to ignore Kuwait's participation as an independent country.
The conference will attempt to hammer out a strong final document to support the treaty's extension beyond 1995, and agreement on ways to provide nonnuclear countries with security against nuclear attack.
Along these lines, the conference is expected to take up a Nigerian proposal that countries possessing nuclear weapons formally agree not to use or threaten to use them against nonnuclear countries.
That proposal, analysts say, reflects growing third-world concern that the collapse of the superpower order, coupled with the number of countries expected to possess nuclear weapons within a decade, leaves nonnuclear countries at a dangerous disadvantage.
The US and other nuclear states say, however, that such a general agreement would gut the value of nuclear weapons as a deterrence to aggression.
The Nigerian proposal reflects the rise of third-world security issues as the East-West standoff winds down.
``What this conference comes down to,'' Dr. Simpson says, ``is what the security system outside of Europe is going to look like over the next 20 years.''