STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now, today in New York, 189 nations are meeting at the U.N. for a month of talks on the spread of nuclear weapons. The countries are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and they gather from time to time to discuss how the treaty is working and whether it needs fixing. Many feel, this time around, it needs some work. NPR's Mike Shuster has our story.
MIKE SHUSTER: The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, known as the NPT, went into force in 1970. And every five years, its signatories meet for a review conference. That's what's beginning today. The NPT recognizes five states as nuclear weapons states: the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China. They possessed nuclear weapons at the time the treaty went into force. The rest of the signatories joined and committed themselves not to acquire nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan and Israel possess nuclear weapons but remain outside the treaty.
In recent years, both North Korea and Iran have posed a serious challenge to this arrangement, says Jim Walsh of MIT's security studies program.
Dr. Jim Walsh (Research Associate, Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): 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.
SHUSTER: North Korea was a signatory to the NPT. But in 2003, it withdrew and then carried out two underground nuclear tests - the first in 2006, the second last year.
Many fear 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.
Undersecretary ELLEN TAUSCHER (Department of State): 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.
SHUSTER: 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.
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 of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
Mr. LEONARD SPECTOR (James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies): Iran will pound away at that, but I think most states are going to say, woo, 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.
SHUSTER: Secretary of State Clinton is leading the U.S. delegation. Iran is sending President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mitchell Reiss, an expert on nuclear issues at the College of William & Mary, argues that in and of itself, the NPT holds security benefits for the non-nuclear states, regardless of whether the U.S. reduces its nuclear arsenal.
Dr. MITCHELL REISS (Nuclear Expert, College of William & Mary): 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. 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.
SHUSTER: The U.S. and other nations will almost certainly be pressing for a conference declaration, which must be accepted by consensus - the agreement of all 189 states. Just Iran's opposition would stymie consensus. But that might not be a bad outcome, says Leonard Spector.
Mr. SPECTOR: 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.
SHUSTER: The NPT review conference will continue throughout this month and is expected to end on May 28.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.