U.S., Iran Expected To Spar At U.N. Nuclear Meeting

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a parliamentary session in Tehran on Jan. 24 i i

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to take a defiant stand against the U.S. and its Western allies at the NPT conference, which begins Monday. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses a parliamentary session in Tehran on Jan. 24

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to take a defiant stand against the U.S. and its Western allies at the NPT conference, which begins Monday.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Delegations from 189 nations convene Monday in New York for a month-long U.N. conclave on the spread of nuclear weapons. The states are all signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and they gather periodically to discuss how the treaty is working and whether it needs fixing.

Many officials feel this time around, the NPT, as the treaty is known, needs some substantial work.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leading the U.S. delegation. Iran is sending President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Each is scheduled to address the gathering on Monday — remarks that will be followed closely given the tensions between the two countries over Iran's nuclear program.

The NPT recognizes five nations as nuclear weapons states: the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China. They possessed nuclear weapons at the time the treaty went into force in 1970. The rest of the signatories joined and committed not to acquire nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan and Israel are known to possess nuclear weapons, but remain outside the treaty.

In recent years both North Korea and Iran have posed a serious challenge to this arrangement, said Jim Walsh of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's security studies program.

"The concern is those circumstances when countries withdraw from the treaty because they are trying to avoid facing the consequences of having violated the treaty. And that's where North Korea comes in," Walsh said.

But in 2003, North Korea withdrew and then carried out two underground nuclear tests — the first in 2006 and another last year.

Many fear that Iran, a current signatory, may also walk away from the NPT. The U.S. would like to make that more difficult, says Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, who addressed this issue in a speech in Washington last week.

"We will push to make sure that there are real consequences for those states that choose not to comply with their non-proliferation obligations. We will work to prevent states from cynically violating the treaty and then exercising their withdrawal rights to evade accountability," Tauscher said.

In order to be more effective in bolstering the non-proliferation pillar of the treaty, the Obama administration has taken several steps to reduce the American nuclear arsenal. That's also one of the pillars of the NPT — disarmament, whereby the five nuclear weapons states are committed to eventual total nuclear disarmament.

Recently, the U.S. signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, and issued a new set of policies that greatly diminish the role of nuclear weapons in the defense of the United States.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds a press conference i i

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will address the NPT conference on Monday. She said Thursday she did not see Iran's purpose in attending the conference because its violations since signing the treaty are "absolutely indisputable." Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds a press conference

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will address the NPT conference on Monday. She said Thursday she did not see Iran's purpose in attending the conference because its violations since signing the treaty are "absolutely indisputable."

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Nevertheless, Iran has challenged the Obama administration's commitment to disarmament. The question is whether U.S. actions will persuade most other nations to support pressure on Iran, says Leonard Spector, a former energy department official and now deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

"Iran will pound away at that, but I think most states are going to say the United States has really made some progress. It's committed quite openly to the vision of disarmament which we had not seen in the previous administration. Maybe now it's time for us, the other countries, to stand behind the United States in an effort to reinforce the non-proliferation parts of the treaty," Spector said.

Mitchell Reiss, an expert on nuclear issues at the College of William & Mary, argues that the NPT holds security benefits for the non-nuclear states, regardless of whether the U.S. reduces its nuclear arsenal.

"It's the non-nuclear-weapons states that have the most to gain for making sure that the NPT is robust and that safeguards are effective and that cheaters like North Korea and Iran are punished," Reiss said. "Our reductions aren't a prize or a reward to the non-nuclear-weapons states. It's something that we do out of our self-interest. But the NPT is in their self-interest."

The U.S. and other nations will almost certainly be pressing for a conference declaration, which must be accepted by consensus — meaning all 189 states agree.

Iran's opposition alone would stymie consensus. But that might not be a bad outcome, Spector said.

"If you build consensus and you almost get all the way home, and Iran blocks the consensus, you know, even that is a somewhat important victory. Because it isolates Iran and it shows that the international community and Iran are at odds," he said.

The NPT review conference is expected to end on May 28.

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