Q+A: Debates surrounding U.N. anti-nuclear arms pact

By Sylvia Westall

VIENNA (BestGrowthStock) – A month-long meeting of 189 countries to assess a 40-year-old global treaty against nuclear arms starts in New York on Monday.

Here are some of the main issues surrounding the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls on nuclear weapon states to reduce their arsenals and for countries without atomic arms to eschew developing them.

WHAT IS THE AIM OF THE CONFERENCE?

Members of the NPT, forged during the Cold War, review the pact every five years to assess progress toward its goals and look at ways to improve it. Ideally a final declaration, agreed by consensus, should lay out steps for the next five years.

For the West, the atomic programs of Iran and North Korea have shaken the foundations of the treaty, while some countries argue that the failure of big powers to disarm has dented its credibility.

Analysts do not expect a major overhaul of the treaty at the meeting but hope for better results than in 2005 when procedural wrangling by the United States, Egypt and Iran led to failure.

WHAT IS THE MOOD GOING INTO THE TALKS?

U.S. President Barack Obama’s declaration a year ago that he was committed to a “world without nuclear weapons” and a major arms reduction treaty between Russia and the United States — the countries with the biggest nuclear arms stockpiles — have helped create a positive momentum, analysts said.

A new U.S. strategy reducing the role of atomic arms in U.S. defense policy and this month’s nuclear security summit in Washington have also helped build a good basis for the talks which will test the momentum of Obama’s diplomatic drive.

“This time the United States will be playing a leadership role quite in contrast to 2005 when its heart was really not in the process,” said Mark Fitzpatrick of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Although some developing countries may criticize big powers for not doing enough to disarm, the recent steps mean this argument will probably hold less weight than last time.

WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES?

Egypt and other developing countries are pushing for the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, a move which will pressure Israel, which like India and Pakistan has never signed the treaty.

The Jewish state, which is not officially attending the conference, is widely believed to have nuclear weapons although it maintains public ambiguity about this.

Egypt and other Arab countries have said they will block consensus on a final declaration if there is no deal on the question of Israel. NPT meetings make decisions unanimously.

But diplomats and analysts say that if Egypt can be offered something on the Middle East, it may be less likely to side with Iran on other issues, leaving Tehran isolated.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE ONGOING ISSUES?

In the past Iran, which has signed the treaty, has been able to rally developing countries by accusing Western powers of using the NPT to hoard nuclear technology and curb the right of nations to develop civilian atomic program.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who will be speaking on Monday, is expected to make this point in person. He is the highest-ranking official attending the conference.

Western countries reject this and say they are concerned that the pact has serious loopholes that allow countries like Iran to acquire sensitive nuclear technology without enough checks in place to ensure that they are not seeking atomic bombs.

They are likely to criticize Iran for not complying with the treaty, but the Islamic Republic has made clear it will oppose a final text which singles it out, diplomats said.

This debate is linked to the issue of the “additional protocol,” a strengthened transparency agreement that allows the International Atomic Energy Agency more intrusive inspections. Some want this to become obligatory, others say it must remain voluntary. Debate, but no conclusion is expected.

The countries are also not expected to decide on ways to prevent NPT withdrawal and how to act against those who do — like North Korea, which quit the treaty in 2003, has kicked out IAEA inspectors several times, and has demanded recognition as a “nuclear weapons state.”

HOW TO JUDGE SUCCESS OR FAILURE?

Nearly all sides agree that unless there is a final text, the conference will be a failure. But it does not have to be ambitious to be termed a success, especially in light of the 2005 conference which produced no final declaration.

“Something that continues the momentum, points the way forward and suggests ways the NPT can be strengthened, that would be a success,” IISS’s Fitzpatrick said.

Some say a consensus statement is essential, others say that if one country opposes it then it will still be good enough. But the Obama administration’s evident wish to call the conference a success may give extra bargaining power to some.

Investing Tools

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

Q+A: Debates surrounding U.N. anti-nuclear arms pact