Progress on one of the most long-sought treaties of the atomic age - a pact that would ban all nuclear testing - has suddenly stalled, only yards from the negotiation finish line.
It's not yet clear whether the problems in the test ban talks are resolvable. At the very least, American diplomats now have some tough international arm-twisting to do if the treaty is to be ready for signatures this fall, as planned.
Completion of a historic Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is one of the Clinton administration's top diplomatic priorities, after all. A test ban could greatly aid in the fight against nuclear proliferation, say proponents - as well as perhaps slow the development of new warheads by existing nuclear powers.
"The treaty is very much alive," insists John Holum, director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA).
The 61-nation Conference on Disarmament, under the auspices of the UN, has been working on a test-ban treaty in Geneva now for some 18 months. Negotiators had planned to have a final text by June 28. But late last week the talk's chairman, Dutch Ambassador Jaap Ramaker, abruptly announced that an agreement was not at hand. The session adjourned - and diplomats fanned out to their capitals carrying only a draft of a pact, instead of the expected finished version.
Two main obstacles made the talks miss their June deadline, according to US officials.
The first concerns the nations that would have to sign the treaty before it enters into force. More specifically, it involves the test-ban reluctance of one country: India.
India is what diplomats call a nuclear threshold state - that is, it is thought to have the wherewithal to quickly assemble nuclear weapons, but its leaders say publicly that they have not yet done so. In recent months, Indian officials have been increasingly critical of the test-ban effort, saying that its main purpose is to lock in the advantage of the five declared weapons states: the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and China. Unless a CTBT text contains specific language requiring the destruction of existing nuclear arsenals, says India, it just won't sign.
The declared nuclear states "have legitimized nuclear weapons and the CTBT is only a ruse to freeze their monopoly," says Prakash Shah, India's UN ambassador.
India's arch-rival Pakistan, another nuclear threshold state, says that if New Delhi won't sign, it won't either. And Britain and Russia, keys to a CTBT conclusion, say that unless India and Pakistan sign, the treaty shouldn't enter into force at all.
"Everything depends on the British-Russian alliance against India," says Daniel Plesch of the British-American Security Council. "The British have never wanted this treaty. [It's] been forced upon them by the Americans."
The second obstacle involves that traditional treaty bugbear, verification. The US wants individual states with evidence of a violation to be able to call up an on-site inspection by the treaty's international secretariat. China thinks that only the secretariat itself should have that power. This sounds arcane, but it's important because it might force the US to share sensitive intelligence data from its network of satellite spies in the sky.
The next CTBT session is now due to start by July 29. Negotiators will have to redouble their efforts if they are to finish in time to produce a treaty for signing in New York in September, as requested by the UN General Assembly.
They could still make the deadline. US officials insist that the draft treaty produced by chairman Ramaker contains some creative compromises on the main disagreements.
The draft finesses the entry-into-force question, for example, by proposing that all nations with nuclear research reactors - a category that includes India - must sign the pact before it becomes international law. Failing that, an international conference could be called after three years to decide whether to proceed without the laggards, under the draft.
The verification issue would be solved by simply allowing a majority of the treaty's executive council to call for an on-site inspection.
While the US hasn't officially OKed these changes, ACDA director Holum indicates that they are positive developments.
"The key point will be sticking to the plan of coming back to Geneva on July 29 with decisions, rather than additional proposals," he says.
Successful conclusion of a nuclear test ban would be a milestone event in the history of humanity and the atom. It's been more than 40 years since President Eisenhower raised the issue - though many subsequent presidents did not share his zeal for a test ban.
Only the advent of computer techniques that precisely simulate weapon characteristics, allowing much development testing without actual explosions, has persuaded the US and other nuclear power leaders to finally sign on to the CTBT - though some, such as the French and the British, appear to have done so only reluctantly.
"In many ways what's most remarkable about these negotiations is that we've gotten this far," says Michael Krepon of the Henry L. Stimon Center.
*Staff writer Suman Bandrapalli contributed to this article.