By ALEXANDER G. HIGGINS
The Associated Press
Thursday, May 18, 2006; 8:55 PM
GENEVA -- The United States proposed a treaty Thursday it said would curb proliferation of nuclear weapons and improve the world's leverage against "hard cases" like Iran and North Korea by banning production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.
Stephen G. Rademaker, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, told the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament that it should aim to approve a treaty by September.
He said current measures to prevent terrorists and governments from developing weapons of mass destruction may be insufficient "in the case of governments that are absolutely determined to acquire such weapons."
Rademaker said Iran was "an obvious case in point," and that the Islamic republic and North Korea were "the hard cases."
The proposal contains no verification measures and stockpiles of fissile material would not be affected, allowing existing nuclear powers to build weapons with their reserves.
And with Iran and North Korea accused by Washington of flouting current international accords on nuclear weapons development, Rademaker did not specify how the United States thought the new agreement would help.
In Washington, Wade Boese, research director at the private Arms Control Association, said the United States, Russia, France and Britain already have officially declared they have stopped production for nuclear weapons and China is understood to have done so as well.
"The value of the agreement would be getting India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea and potentially Iran to sign on to this agreement, but the likelihood is very small," Boese said.
One reason, he said, is the lack of verification measures, which most countries at the conference want in any treaty. "It is essentially a nonstarter" Boese said. "The prospect of negotiations starting on this is about nil."
Hamid Eslamizad, a senior official at Iran's mission in Geneva, questioned the link between the proposed treaty and Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Tehran's nuclear program is peaceful, Eslamizad said, a position he maintained was supported by findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
Rademaker responded that Iran was merely repeating its usual defense against accusations that its purportedly civilian nuclear program is cover for building a bomb.
The stripped-down U.S. proposal _ only 3 1/2 pages long _ leaves out verification measures to avoid years of protracted negotiations and get the treaty passed faster. Rademaker said U.S. officials thought it better just to sign the treaty and rely on countries to abide by it.
The proposal says governments could use "national means" _ or intelligence _ to detect violations by other countries and report them to all treaty members or to the Security Council.
Rademaker said the proposal has widespread support and should be taken up by the conference, which has not written a treaty for 10 years.
North Korea claimed in 2004 to have harvested plutonium from a pool of 8,000 spent nuclear rods for weapons material _ something that apparently would be illegal under the treaty as proposed.
The U.S. initiative appeared to have less relevance to the nuclear tensions with Iran because it does not propose banning uranium enrichment outright.
Tehran has enriched small amounts of uranium at levels far below the purity used to make the fissile cores of nuclear warheads. Tehran has said it does not intend to enrich uranium above the low levels needed to create fuel for a civilian power plant. But once a nation masters enrichment technology, it can potentially create material for a weapons program _ which the United States and other nations claim is Iran's ultimate goal.
The U.S. proposal would go into force with the approval of the five permanent members of the Security Council _ Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
Other nations said they welcomed the U.S. initiative but indicated differences with the approach.
Both China and Russia said progress on fissile materials should not come at the expense of other treaty proposals. The two countries have proposed a treaty to ban weapons in outer space, which is clearly aimed at the United States' anti-missile program.
Britain and France said they were ready to start negotiating a new fissile material treaty, while India and nuclear rival Pakistan said they saw the proposal as a positive step.
Johann Kellerman of the South Africa delegation said that "to be truly credible" the treaty should curb existing stockpiles of fissile material rather than just banning the production of new plutonium and highly enriched uranium.
Otherwise, he said, "a complete halt of the production of fissile material would nevertheless leave enough of the material available to further increase, and not decrease, the number of nuclear weapons."
Associated Press Diplomatic Writer Barry Schweid in Washington and George Jahn in Vienna, Austria contributed to this report.