Delegates at the NPT review conference, which concludes on 27 May, spent much of the first three weeks without an agenda, mired in procedural disputes.
Experts at UN headquarters say it doesn't bode well for a session many had hoped would restore confidence in multilateral solutions to today's worrisome nuclear questions.
Algeria's UN ambassador, Abdallah Baali, speaking to RFE/RL, summed up the frustrations of many diplomats: "It's not good. It's not good for the NPT regime; it's not good for the nuclear powers; it's not good for the non-nuclear powers. It's not in the interest of anybody that a conference like this one, especially after achieving what it achieved in 2000, gets stuck in the mud."
The NPT has been described as a "grand bargain" in which the five nuclear powers who are signatories to the treaty pledge to undertake steps to eventually eliminate their arsenals. In exchange, non-nuclear states promise not to develop nuclear weapons and to open their facilities to inspection. Non-nuclear states are guaranteed the right to the use of peaceful nuclear technology.
The review conference in 2000 ended with disarmament commitments from nuclear states, such as support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. All parties agreed that Article 4 of the NPT, which asserts the right of states to develop nuclear energy, should conform with other articles preventing the spread or development of nuclear weapons technology (Articles 1, 2, 3).
The head of verification and security policy coordination at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Tariq Rauf, told a panel at the UN last week that pledge now appears in jeopardy.
"If, as seems likely at this review conference, people are going to sweep aside the outcome particularly of 2000, then that particular formulation about Article 3 and Article 4 is also going to go out the window," Rauf said. "And that's part of the problem with reinterpreting the treaty because there is no mechanism whereby this can be made legally binding. The best mechanism is the review process and it's sort of a little bit sad that at this review conference we are towards the end of the third week and we are not making progress on any of the substantive issues."
On the opening day of the NPT conference, IAEA Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei proposed putting nuclear fuel production under multilateral control by regional or international bodies. This appears to meet the concerns of Washington and other states, who say Iran has used its membership in the NPT to disguise a secret program for gaining technology used to produce nuclear weapons. Uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation programs can also produce weapons-grade fuel.
As the substantive debate finally got under way recently, an expert in the U.S. State Department's bureau of nonproliferation, Andrew Semmel, reaffirmed U.S. concerns.
"In most cases, investment in enrichment and reprocessing is at best a waste of valuable natural resources and at worst a threat to international security," Semmel said. "It is therefore essential to halt the further spread of these capabilities and such a halt will not harm the legitimate peaceful nuclear activities of any country."
U.S. and Iranian officials clashed at the opening of the conference over this point. Iran stresses it has only peaceful intentions to develop nuclear power but for years hid aspects of its nuclear program, including efforts at uranium enrichment.
The United States backs EU negotiators seeking to persuade Iran to drop uranium enrichment and similar "dual-use" activities that could lead to weapons development in exchange for economic incentives. There are concerns that Iran, like North Korea in 2003, will withdraw from the treaty and start assembling nuclear weapons.
But Tehran has taken a tough posture in the talks with Europe, saying it insists on its right under the NPT to develop all aspects of peaceful nuclear technology, including pursuing "dual-use activities."
"When I say that the Europeans will be the loser, and the Islamic Republic of Iran will not lose, it means that an issue which could have been resolved through negotiations will become a crisis over which the Europeans have no control," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said yesterday. "It is clear, then, that the Islamic Republic of Iran will feel no obligation and no commitment. It will act upon unilateral decisions. We became a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in order to receive its benefits. But it appears that the other side, [the Europeans,] say Iran should accept [only] the restrictions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is not possible for them to refuse Iran the benefits of the Non-Proliferation Treaty but say that Iran should accept the restrictions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty."
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rohani, is scheduled to meet foreign ministers of France, Britain, and Germany in Geneva on 25 May.