Although last spring's nuclear blasts by India and Pakistan were met with near-universal condemnation, the explosions ironically may have blown away a three-year deadlock in international nuclear disarmament talks.
The 61 member countries of the United Nations Disarmament Conference have signed on to negotiate an end to the production of fissile materials (plutonium and enriched uranium) used to make nuclear bombs. India, eager to regain good standing in the international community, quickly agreed to participate in such talks.
After some American diplomatic persuasion, Pakistan also agreed to sign on. This was good news for the UN body, which had been dead in the water since completing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996.
The conference had agreed in March 1995 to form a committee for negotiations on fissile materials, but nothing ever came of it. In 1996, members failed to agree on talks for a ban on land mines. That ban was later successfully concluded in the Ottawa Convention in Canada, highlighting the diminished UN role in arms control.
In January 1997, President Clinton urged the UN Disarmament Conference to take action "effectively cutting off the spigot for more nuclear weapons." Last February, US Ambassador Robert Grey issued a public warning to his fellow negotiators. "If we continue to stall on these important global-security issues," the veteran diplomat cautioned, "the CD [Conference on Disarmament] may lose the confidence of the international community."
But it wasn't until India shocked the world with its nuclear explosions, and Pakistan followed, that the impasse ended. India agreed to drop its longstanding insistence that any disarmament talks be accompanied by a commitment from the five declared nuclear powers - the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China - to negotiate complete disarmament within a specified time.
The only holdout was Israel, which has never declared itself a nuclear power but is widely believed to have nuclear weapons. Israel reluctantly, and reportedly under vigorous American pressure, agreed not to block talks, but did not agree to sign on to a treaty. (Since the disarmament conference operates by consensus, any member country can prevent talks from starting or concluding.)
Last month the negotiating body took the first step toward drafting a global accord. Applause broke out among the delegates when agreement was reached to negotiate a "fissile material cutoff treaty." That name is being used informally for a proposed treaty, but has not been officially adopted.
No one is predicting that the talks to halt the production of nuclear-bombmaking ingredients will be quick or easy. When the current session of the conference closed Sept. 9, nations were still far apart on exactly what the talks will cover.
Behind the scenes, there is scrambling to agree on a plan so negotiations can get down to business in earnest when the conference reopens in January 1999.
Two areas of disagreement have emerged: how to verify compliance and whether the talks will cover existing stockpiles. Egypt and Iran have been lobbying for existing stockpiles to be included due to concern about Israel's existing bombmaking stocks.
Pakistan wants the talks to establish equality in the amount of fissile materials in each region. "Their concern is that this treaty won't mean anything unless you deal with the stocks. Otherwise, all it would do is freeze the status quo," says Rebecca Johnson of the Acronym Institute, a London-based arms-control research center.
The US insists talks cover only future production. The thousands of tons of nuclear materials that the US and Russia, in particular, have stockpiled should be subject only to bilateral negotiations, American diplomats say.
Australia and Norway have been floating proposals for some accounting of stocks without formally including them in a treaty.
What to do with stockpiles is crucial, basic to even what name the negotiations will take.
Pakistan's negotiator, Munir Akram, notes that his country "did not agree to the treaty being described as a 'fissile-material cutoff treaty,' which implies only a halt to future production.... Pakistan cannot agree to freeze inequality, especially when it directly threatens our security."
Inspection to enforce any treaty has raised worries about spying by international inspectors, especially for a country like Israel, suspected of producing bombs at a top-secret site. In addition, a thorough on-site inspection would be highly costly due to the number of facilities worldwide that need to be checked.
The US ended reprocessing of plutonium for nuclear weapons in March 1992. Russia announced it stopped its production in October 1994, although this claim is disputed. Britain announced it had ceased production of fissile materials for explosive purposes in April 1995, and France in February 1996. China is thought to still be producing such materials.
Countries such as Egypt are urging "universal adherence" to the separate Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pakistan and India have not signed the NPT, which recognizes only the five declared nuclear powers.
The prospect of sorting out the complex technological and political aspects of fissile materials is likely to take years, rather than months.