Nuclear non-proliferation treaty conference set for showdown between U.S., Iran

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010

UNITED NATIONS -- A global nuclear conference that opens Monday is shaping up as a showdown between Iran and the United States, with each side jockeying for allies in the escalating dispute over the Islamic republic's nuclear program.

The New York conference is held every five years to review the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the 40-year-old pact aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Technically, Iran is not on the agenda.

But the Obama administration sees the conference as a crucial opportunity to advance ideas to strengthen the fraying treaty, such as punishing nuclear cheaters and further regulating the supply of nuclear fuel.

Iran is expected to block such steps. Any decision by the conference must be reached by consensus.

"This meeting is all about Iran," said a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivity. "Because Iran poses the biggest threat to the survival of the treaty."

The fireworks will begin with a morning speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and an afternoon address by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton said Sunday that Ahmadinejad would try to divert attention from his nuclear program at a moment when an American-led drive to impose new economic sanctions is picking up steam.

Iran denies that it is building a bomb. But the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog, censured the Islamic republic last year for secretly constructing a nuclear facility and defying U.N. resolutions on uranium enrichment.

"We're not going to permit Iran to try to change the story from their failure to comply," Clinton said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Many analysts see the month-long New York meeting as a major test of Obama's nuclear strategy, which seeks to establish U.S. leadership on arms control to press others to live up to their obligations. Obama recently signed a new arms-reduction treaty with Russia and held a summit on nuclear terrorism.

Lew Dunn, an arms-control official during the Reagan administration, said that "if the non-nuclear-weapons states don't step up to the plate" at the conference, it would be a blow to the Obama strategy. Momentum for further disarmament, he said, "will drop precipitously." He spoke last week at the Henry L. Stimson Center think tank.

The 189-member NPT is the most important international nuclear-weapons pact. It is essentially a bargain: The original five nuclear powers agree to take steps to disarm, and other countries forswear building a bomb but retain the right to develop nuclear energy.

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