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Nations gather to review nuclear treaty

At a time of growing nuclear tensions, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday urged nonweapons states like Iran to step back from the nuclear temptation, and America and Russia to cut their arsenals.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At a time of growing nuclear tensions in the world, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Monday urged nonweapons states like Iran to step back from the nuclear temptation, and America and Russia to cut back more sharply on their arsenals.

All must work toward “a world of reduced nuclear threat and, ultimately, a world free of nuclear weapons,” the U.N. secretary-general said as he opened a monthlong conference reviewing how well the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is keeping the lid on man’s most terrible weapons.

The delegations from almost 190 governments have gathered at a moment of mounting nuclear fears and mistrust.

North Korea, which declared its withdrawal from the treaty in 2003 and claims to have built nuclear bombs, said this weekend it was giving up negotiating over its weapons program with a George W. Bush-led United States. It was another blow to the suspended six-party talks aimed at bringing Pyongyang back into the NPT.

Iran, meanwhile, said it will probably restart operations this week related to its disputed uranium enrichment program, which Washington contends is a cover for nuclear weapons plans.

Nuclear fuel technology at issue
The NPT’s Article IV guarantees nonweapons states the right to peaceful nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment equipment to produce fuel for nuclear power plants. But that same technology, with further enrichment, can produce material for nuclear bombs.

Annan said states such as Iran “must not insist” on possessing such sensitive technology domestically, but should have international access to nuclear fuel.

Meanwhile, “a first step would be to expedite agreement to create incentives for states to voluntarily forgo the development of fuel-cycle facilities,” the U.N. chief said.

In fact, Tehran, which denies it plans to convert uranium for weapons, is in off-and-on talks with European negotiators about shutting down its enrichment operations in return for economic incentives.

Following Annan to the U.N. podium, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the U.N. nuclear agency, renewed his call for a temporary moratorium on new fuel-cycle facilities in the world, while new international controls are negotiated. He offered, meanwhile, to investigate ways to guarantee international supplies of fuel for those who need them.

ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has proposed putting nuclear fuel production under multilateral control, by regional or international bodies.

Calls for U.S., Russia to reduce arsenalsThis “Article IV loophole” was expected to be a major issue before the NPT conference, but many other governments also complain the United States and other big powers are moving too slowly toward scrapping their nuclear arms under the NPT.

Annan addressed that in his keynote, calling on Washington and Moscow “to commit themselves — irreversibly — to further cuts in their arsenals, so that warheads number in the hundreds, not the thousands.”

Under the 2002 Moscow Treaty, the United States and Russia are to cut back their warheads by two-thirds, to between 1,700 and 2,200 each, by 2012. But the agreement has been criticized for not requiring destruction of excess warheads, and for not providing for open verification of ongoing reductions.

“Unless all states, recognize that disarmament, like nonproliferation, requires action from everyone, the goal of general and complete disarmament will remain a distant dream,” Annan told the delegates.

Three nations remain outside treaty
The 35-year-old nonproliferation treaty obliges 183 states to forswear nuclear arms in exchange for a pledge by five nuclear powers — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China — to move toward nuclear disarmament. Three other nuclear-armed states — Israel, India and Pakistan — remain outside the treaty.

Treaty reviews take place every five years, and at the 2000 conference the consensus final document committed the five NPT nuclear states to take 13 “practical steps” toward disarmament. Many non-nuclear states now want the 2005 conference to address what they say is the Bush administration’s failure — by rejecting the nuclear test-ban treaty, for example — to meet that commitment.

For its part, the Bush administration says the conference should focus on what to do about Iran and North Korea, which was able to withdraw from the treaty, and purportedly build atomic weapons, without penalty.

Protests at United Nations
This clash of priorities stalled efforts to set a full agenda for the 2005 meeting. The conference president, Brazilian diplomat Sergio de Queiroz Duarte, said Sunday the agenda may not be completed until several days into the sessions, but “everyone is working constructively in that direction.”

To anti-nuclear protester Akemi Hatano, 66, marching with hundreds of others past the United Nations on Sunday, such disputes are trivial.

“I’m angry at any country that possesses nuclear weapons. They must all be abolished,” said the tiny woman, who as a 7-year-old survived when 160,000 of her neighbors were killed or wounded in the U.S. nuclear bombing of her Japanese hometown, Hiroshima.