The global spread of nuclear weapons is at stake as delegates from 190 countries convene at the United Nations Monday in an attempt to salvage the 1970 nonproliferation treaty (NPT), but the chances of success look dim. The rift between nuclear and non-nuclear states, and between the United States and Iran in particular, is so serious that a final agenda had still not been agreed to on the eve of the monthlong conference in New York, despite frantic shuttle diplomacy by its Brazilian chairman, Sergio de Queiroz Duarte.
"If we could get out of this conference without a major blowup we would be doing well," said Matt Martin, a deputy director of the British American Security Information Council, a transatlantic think tank.
Both sides agree that the NPT is outdated, but they differ sharply on how it could be strengthened. The United States, with support from Britain and France, wants stricter controls on the transfer of nuclear technology.
The non-nuclear states, which met separately in Mexico City last week to agree on a common position, argue that more emphasis should be put on banning the development of new weapons by the existing nuclear powers.
And there is disagreement on the NPT's third pillar: the clauses guaranteeing non-nuclear states access to "peaceful" nuclear power technology if they forgo nuclear arsenals.
"The politics of the conference make it clear the treaty cannot continue and cannot be strengthened unless all three legs of the bargain can be preserved," said Daryl Kimball, head of the independent Arms Control Association.
Iran believes that the NPT's nuclear power clauses give it the right to enrich its own uranium or produce plutonium as long as it is -- as Tehran insists -- intended for peaceful use.
The United States says Iran is using the NPT as a cover to go to the brink of weapons production with the intention of withdrawing abruptly from the treaty at a time of its choosing and assembling weapons within weeks. Such a strategy has already been pursued by North Korea. The United States also claims Tehran has forfeited any rights it might have as an NPT signatory by misleading the International Atomic Energy Agency over the extent of its uranium enrichment program.
Britain, France and Germany, which have been pursuing talks aimed at providing Iran with incentives to give up its uranium enrichment program, are concerned that the NPT conference will turn into a shouting match between the United States and Iran and destabilize their precarious negotiations. Tehran said on Friday the talks had made so little progress, it might end its temporary uranium enrichment suspension.
In an effort to find a compromise, the head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, has proposed a deal in which states forswearing uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing programs would be supplied fissile material for civilian reactors by the current members of the nuclear club. But the compromise looks dead on arrival. The one thing the United States and Iran agree on is that it would disrupt their nuclear power industries, and they have the support of Japan and France.
At their Mexico City meeting, delegates complained that the IAEA spent its time monitoring compliance by non-nuclear states, while the nuclear powers had failed to live up to the commitments they made in the last two NPT reviews, in 1995 and 2000.
The Bush administration has been trying for two years to persuade Congress to fund research on a new generation of weapons, including small-yield "mini-nukes" and nuclear "bunker busters." Britain, too, has raised the possibility of replacing its Trident missiles. The United States signed a bilateral arms control treaty with Russia in 2002, aimed at sharply reducing the number of operationally deployed warheads by 2012. But the weapons do not have to be destroyed, only mothballed, and there are no verification procedures.
The United States has also signaled that it has no intention of joining the comprehensive test ban treaty, or signing a verifiable accord ending the production of new fissile material for nuclear weapons. Both were pledges the U.S. government made in 2000.
"If one state begins to reject commitments it made at past review conferences, other states may start to reject prior commitments. The non-proliferation treaty will quickly erode," Kimball said. "If the states do not take serious action on a number of key fronts in the next five years, it is likely the treaty will not be able to withstand these challenges and we will see additional states withdraw from the NPT. The crisis is not quite here, but it's fast approaching."