Sunday, May 22, 2005

Diplomats at Odds Over Nuclear Strategy

ABC News - After 21 days at a near-standstill, a global conference to toughen controls on nuclear arms enters its final week with prospects dimming for agreement on new ways to keep the ultimate weapons out of more hands.

Concerns over nuclear "breakouts" are growing. In Europe, diplomats this week resume difficult talks with Tehran to rein in an Iranian nuclear project that could help make bombs. In Asia, North Korea is pondering its next move in the tense maneuvering over its weapons plans.

In U.N. lounges and Manhattan hotel suites, meanwhile, diplomats bickered for weeks over simply defining the job at hand at their 188-nation conference, a twice-a-decade effort to strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

That backroom squabble over the conference agenda left them little time for substantive negotiation before Friday's closing session.

"It's an opportunity we cannot afford to squander," said disarmament advocate Daryl Kimball, of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

But at a consensus gathering where agreement must be unanimous, the gaps between nations looked too wide to produce any major concrete steps on arms control.

Under the 1970 treaty, 183 nations renounce nuclear arms forever, in exchange for a pledge by five nuclear-weapon states the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China to move toward disarmament. The nonweapon states, meanwhile, are guaranteed access to peaceful nuclear technology.

North Korea announced its withdrawal from the treaty in 2003 and claims to have built nuclear bombs all without penalty under the nonproliferation pact. Many here want the conference to endorse measures making it more difficult to exit the treaty, and threatening sanctions against any who do.

Many delegations also favor action to prevent future Irans. The Tehran government, saying it's pursuing civilian nuclear energy, obtained uranium-enrichment equipment that can produce both fuel for power plants and material for atom bombs. Washington contends the Iranians have weapons plans.

Experts now propose limiting access to such fuel technology, despite the treaty guarantee, and possibly bringing all such production under international control.

Consensus on these proposals is unlikely, however, without concessions by the nuclear-weapons states particularly the United States and France on the other treaty "pillar," disarmament.

Those without the doomsday arms contend that those with them are moving too slowly toward eliminating the weapons, and point to Bush administration proposals for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal. A congressional committee last week approved $29 million to study new nuclear warheads.

Even allies, such as South Korea, question the American moves.

"We expect deeper cuts and further engagements by nuclear-weapon states," Seoul's delegate In-kook Park told a conference committee on Thursday.

But the Americans showed no sign of bending, insisting that Iran and North Korea must be the priority here.

Linking action on such cases with greater progress toward disarmament is "dangerous in the extreme," because it tends to excuse nuclear proliferation, U.S. Ambassador Jackie Sanders told the same committee the following day.

A French diplomat signaled that the conference, at best, might produce a final document of generalizations, without specific action programs.

Speaking privately because of the talks' sensitivity, this delegate maintained that agreement on an agenda was itself "not such a bad result," since it means the international community agrees on the nuclear challenges it faces.

The agenda is vague, however, and excludes any reference to commitments made at the 2000 conference by the nuclear powers to take specific disarmament steps, such as activating the 1996 treaty banning nuclear tests. The Bush administration has since rejected that treaty.

Arms-control advocates here saw opportunities slipping away.

"The big fear is that if this review ends in a shambles with no clear signal on one hand to North Korea and Iran, and on the other to nuclear-weapon states to honor treaty obligations you will have confidence in the treaty eroding across the board," said Rebecca Johnson, editor of the journal Disarmament Diplomacy. More governments might then decide to pursue nuclear arms for their own security, the advocates say.