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Developing Nations Seek Assurances on Nuclear Arms

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 16, 2009

UNITED NATIONS, May 15 -- U.N. nuclear talks hit a roadblock Friday as Cuba, Iran and other developing nations demanded that the five original nuclear powers accept legally binding commitments to dismantle their nuclear arsenals and provide assurances they will not use such weapons against states that do not possess atomic weapons.

The deadlock underscored the challenges the Obama administration faces in reinvigorating the 1971 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The pact commits the five powers -- the United States, Russia, France, Britain and China -- to dismantle their nuclear arsenals in exchange for pledges from nonnuclear states to forgo atomic weapons.

In this month's talks, the strongest resistance came from France. It said it would not yield to any legally binding commitments to undertake further reductions in its nuclear arsenal or to allow international inspections of its nuclear stockpile.

The breakdown cast a pall over a two-week session that has been generally marked by a rare spirit of cooperation on nuclear talks. Last week, the 189 signatories reached agreement on a procedural agenda for a major review conference on the treaty in New York next May.

Boniface G. Chidyausiku of Zimbabwe, who chaired the talks, said he had abandoned efforts to press for agreement on a more detailed set of recommendations that would provide a road map for the nuclear talks in New York. "It's dead," he said of the document.

But he sought to highlight the improved atmosphere in the nuclear talks that followed President Obama's commitment to place the treaty at the center of U.S. efforts to contain the nuclear arms race.

In an effort to reinvigorate that nuclear bargain, Obama pledged last month in Prague to negotiate with Russia a reduction in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and to press for a ban on the production of weapons-grade nuclear fuel and the ratification of a treaty banning nuclear tests.

But the moves were not sufficient to allay concerns by nonnuclear states that the five original powers are not prepared to accept total nuclear disarmament. They argued that the text under negotiation this week placed too much focus on efforts to contain the flow of nuclear technology.

Some arms control experts said it is unfair to cast all the blame for the breakdown in talks on Iran and Cuba. Rebecca Johnson, an expert on the treaty at the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy, said France has resisted any undertaking requiring a reduction of its own nuclear stockpile.

"The French are feeling anxious because Obama and [British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown have both said they want to see a world free of nuclear weapons," she said. "France wants to keep nuclear weapons."

Johnson said it was a mistake this week to press for agreement on recommendations for the New York conference, particularly at a time when the Obama administration has yet to assemble a full team to negotiate a new nuclear deal. She said the dispute detracted from what was an otherwise important achievement at this week's meeting: the agreement on a procedural agenda for next year's talks.

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