By Mary Beth Sheridan and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; A01
President Obama used an unprecedented summit on nuclear terrorism Monday to press global leaders to support further isolating Iran for its nuclear activities, and the White House said that China's leader had agreed to cooperate with tightening U.N. sanctions on the Islamic republic.
The Nuclear Security Summit is the first large meeting of world leaders focused on how to keep nuclear materials away from terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. The event drew 36 heads of state and delegations from 10 other countries to the city, which became a blur of flashing police lights and speeding black convoys.
U.S. officials structured the summit to avoid controversial topics and achieve broad agreement on improving security at places where nuclear material is stored: military installations, civilian research reactors and other facilities. But, in bilateral meetings leading up to the event, Obama sought to send a message to Iran -- which denies it is developing a nuclear weapon -- that it must heed international efforts to restrain its nuclear program.
White House officials said Obama told Chinese President Hu Jintao in a 90-minute meeting Monday that passing new U.N. sanctions against Iran is urgent.
"The two presidents agreed that the two delegations should work on a sanctions resolution in New York, and that's what we're doing," said Jeffrey A. Bader, the National Security Council's senior director for Asian affairs. The Chinese, he said, "made clear that they are prepared to work with us."
Bader called the meeting "another sign of international unity on this issue."
China has backed three previous sanctions resolutions on Iran, and its support is crucial because it is one of five veto-wielding members of the Security Council. Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman for the Chinese delegation, was more cautious about Monday's meeting, indicating that the two sides still differ on the elements of a sanctions resolution. Ma repeated the standard Chinese diplomatic formulation, saying that Hu told Obama he hoped that countries would "actively seek effective ways to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations."
Iran was not invited to the summit. Nor was North Korea, which quit the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and has twice tested a weapon. But with a flurry of meetings on the sidelines of the summit, "those countries not here are not out of the agenda. People will discuss how to manage them," Finnish President Tarja Halonen said in an interview.
The summit comes at a key moment on the diplomatic calendar. In addition to the looming sanctions effort at the United Nations, nearly 200 countries are scheduled next month to consider strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the pact that long checked the spread of weapons but is now in danger of collapse. Fortifying the treaty is at the heart of Obama's nuclear agenda.
Joshua Pollack, a nuclear expert, said Obama's meetings Sunday and Monday with some of the less prominent world leaders, such as those from Kazakhstan, Malaysia and Ukraine, reflected preparations for next month's treaty conference in New York.
At that meeting, "every member state has an equal vote, even the ones that don't often dominate the headlines . . . so there's a courtship aspect," he wrote on the blog ArmsControlWonk.
The summit, which will continue all day Tuesday, will focus on the dangers posed by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups obtaining lightly guarded nuclear material.
Obama pledged during his campaign to lock down all "loose" nuclear material in four years -- a goal he says he is determined to pursue, despite a lack of progress in his first year.
The objective is to secure nuclear material in military installations, civilian research reactors and universities worldwide and to prevent smuggling. Experts say there is enough nuclear material in the world to make more than 120,000 nuclear weapons.
According to the State Department, the summit is the largest gathering of heads of state and government called by a U.S. leader since the United Nations was founded in 1945.
"I think it's an indication of how deeply concerned everybody should be with the possibilities of nuclear traffic," Obama told reporters, referring to the turnout. "And I think at the end of this we're going to see some very specific, concrete actions that each nation is taking that will make the world a little bit safer."
Obama opened the event with new pledges from countries to secure their material and discourage smuggling. Ukraine announced Monday that it will dispose of its stock of highly enriched uranium, a critical material used in nuclear weapons. The statement came after Obama met with President Viktor Yanukovych, their first encounter since the Ukrainian leader's February inauguration.
The former Soviet state has about 200 pounds of highly enriched uranium at its civilian research reactors, enough "to make several nuclear weapons," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Ukraine's government has agreed to covert the reactors to low-enriched uranium, which is more difficult to weaponize.
Canada also said it will return its spent nuclear fuel to the United States. Those announcements came after Chile said it had given up its last 40 pounds of highly enriched uranium.
Obama also met Monday with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia. As a condition for Najib attending the summit, the Obama administration demanded that the Malaysian government adopt stricter import and export controls to prevent the country from being used as a transshipment point for smuggled nuclear materials and technology, officials said.
The White House said in a statement that Obama congratulated Najib on the legislation, and that the leaders will work together to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty next month.
The two "agreed on the need for the international community to send a clear signal to Iran that while it has the right to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy, Iran should not use this right to develop nuclear weapons capability," the statement said.
Iran announced Sunday that it will hold its own summit on April 17 and 18, titled "Nuclear Energy for Everyone, Nuclear Arms for No One," according to the Arab-language broadcaster al-Jazeera.
A majority of Americans are not confident that the summit will make it more difficult for terrorists to get a hold of nuclear materials, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News pool.
The survey, conducted on the eve of the meeting, found that 40 percent of respondents thought the talks would result in tighter controls on nuclear materials, while 56 percent said they were not confident they would succeed in doing so.
Staff writer John Pomfret and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.