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Nuclear Proliferation Treaty Up For Review

  • Nikola Krastev

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad looks back before addressing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York today.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad looks back before addressing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York today.

UNITED NATIONS -- The guest list alone promises to make the 2010 review of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) one to remember.

Held every five years, this year's NPT review conference on May 3-28 is no different from its predecessors in its goals of assessing the treaty's effectiveness and looking for ways to strengthen it.

But the attendance of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, discussions on a number of hot-button issues, and recent developments aimed at one day freeing the world of nuclear weapons have heightened expectations about this year's conference.

It appears the 189 signatories of the NPT will have plenty to talk about for the next month.

First and foremost is a treaty loophole exposed by Iran's uranium-enrichment program. Enrichment of uranium is technically allowed under the treaty, but Iran's decision in 2005 to lift its self-imposed suspension of enrichment activities rekindled fears that it could be seeking to develop nuclear weapons and has led to three rounds of UN sanctions against Iran since 2006.

Requiring NPT states to send their uranium to international enrichment facilities for processing their uranium could theoretically close the loophole and go a long way in making it more difficult for NPT members to mask covert weapons programs. But while the issue is expected to be up for serious discussion, no resolution is expected to result.

Iran's Enrichment Program

Under international agreements worked out before President Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, Iran reaffirmed its commitment to full transparency with the NPT and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But the discovery in 2009 of undeclared nuclear facilities heightened concerns, and has led to suggestions that suspicious sites within NPT should be subject to inspection under the terms of the treaty. Again, while such a proposal is likely to be discussed, there is little chance of a resolution being taken.

Outside the NPT review conference looms the prospect of a fourth round of sanctions against Iran owing to its contentious uranium-enrichment program, with Tehran and Washington hiking their respective lobbying efforts among UN Security Council members. Attendees of the 2010 review will hear Ahmadinejad's side of the story; he's the second speaker on the opening day of debates.

Shortly afterward, they will hear from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke to journalists at the State Department on April 29 and highlighted the "three pillars" of the NPT -- disarmament, nonproliferation, and the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy.

"We [will] wait and see what [President Ahmadinejad] has to say, but the mission of those of us going to New York to review, revise, and reinvigorate the NPT regime is very clear. If that's not his mission, then it won't be particularly useful or productive trip on his part," Clinton said.

Some UN diplomats have suggested privately to RFE/RL that Ahmadinejad might attempt to gather support among the nonpermanent members of the UN Security Council, which is expected in the near future to be presented a U.S.-drafted proposal on a fourth round of sanctions against Iran.

UN diplomats have told RFE/RL that while the conference lasts, it is safe to assume that no meaningful steps regarding the imposition of new sanctions on Iran will be taken. Washington could be wary, they say, of pushing for more sanctions during the conference lest they alienate Security Council members that are at this point undecided.

During her comments on April 29, Clinton expressed confidence that the Iranian president would have a hard time winning participants over, should he choose to pursue his own agenda.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sign the new START treaty in April

"So if President Ahmadinejad wants to come and announce that Iran wants to abide by their nonproliferation requirements under the NPT, that would be very good news indeed, and we would welcome that," Clinton said.

"But if he believes that by coming he can somehow divert attention from this very important global effort, or cause confusion that might possibly throw into doubt what Iran has been up to, about which I don't think there is any room for doubt, then I don't believe he will have a particularly receptive audience."

The second and the third week of the conference are mostly filled with meetings of experts in which specific details are negotiated and hammered out. But the fourth and final week could be just as significant as the first. This is when member states make a push toward reaching a joint resolution, which the 2005 review conference failed to do.

While no one can predict whether all member states will be able to reach a mutually acceptable resolution, hopes are tentatively higher going into this year's review.

As Libran Cabactulan, Philippine's permanent representative to the UN and president-elect of the 2010 NPT review conference, notes to RFE/RL, the political environment for the 2010 review conference is quite different from that in 2005.

New START Treaty

The parties to the treaty will assemble as the ratification process for a landmark new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) agreed upon on April 8 in Prague is expected to begin in Moscow and Washington.

On April 12-13, just days after U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the new START treaty aimed at reducing their countries' respective nuclear arsenals by 30 percent, a Nuclear Security Summit focusing on how to safeguard nuclear materials and prevent terrorism was held in Washington.

Cora Weiss, president of The Hague-based Appeal for Peace, says that the last couple of years have seen more talk and action relating to the elimination of nuclear weapons since the 1986 Reykjavik summit held between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, when the idea of banning ballistic missiles was first suggested.

"[President] Obama today has more credibility and the countries that came, the heads of states who came to the nuclear summit [Nuclear Security Summit, April 12-13] brought what the White House is calling 'house gifts.' So, there is some activity about reducing nuclear weaponry," Weiss said.

Appeal for Peace is among the more than 1,500 nongovernmental organizations registered to participate in the NPT review conference. In and around New York City, dozens of events related to issues ranging from nonproliferation to finding alternatives to nuclear energy are expected to be held.

Rebecca Johnson, who heads the London-based Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, says that nobody expects the idea of totally eliminating nuclear weapons to take hold overnight.

However, she says, NGOs have taken on the important mission to bring the idea into the limelight and eventually to the negotiation table.

"Just constantly reminding governments that the process of negotiations to get rid of inhumane weapons needs to be started. Once started, actually, the process tends to go through rather quickly. So, our biggest hurdle is getting the demand taken seriously. Once it's taken seriously, solving the technical and political problems is not going to be the major problem," Johnson said.

In the meantime, there are ample technical and political problems related to the implementation of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Among the topics up for discussion is how to deal with states that possess nuclear weapons but are not signatories to the NPT. Pakistan and India are declared nuclear powers that are not parties to the treaty, while non-NPT signatory Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear weapons, although it has not made an official declaration.

Then there is the issue of the right of states to withdraw from the NPT once they have signed on to the treaty, as is the case with North Korea, which withdrew in 2003.