By Mary Beth Sheridan and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010; A09
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.
The last NPT review ended in failure, in part over the U.S. refusal to reaffirm its commitment to a 1995 resolution backing the idea of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. That issue threatens to dominate this conference as well.
Tehran has mustered sympathy among attendees by portraying itself as the victim of a nuclear double standard. It argues that countries friendly with the nuclear powers, such as Israel, are allowed to possess nuclear weapons but that others aren't. Israel, which has not joined the NPT, neither confirms nor denies that it has nuclear weapons.
"We don't think that there should be first-class countries that are acquiring nuclear weapons and second-class countries that are not in possession of nuclear weapons in the Middle East," Egypt's U.N. ambassador, Maged A. Abdelaziz, told reporters last week. "We say that in order to be able to deal with the Iranian issue, you have to address the nuclear capabilities of Israel."
Egypt, which chairs the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement, is calling for negotiations starting next year on establishing the nuclear-free zone. U.S. officials say that is unrealistic because many countries in the region don't recognize Israel.
But the Obama administration is seeking a compromise, such as a preliminary meeting to discuss the conditions necessary to eventually create the nuclear-free zone.
The administration needs support from Egypt and non-aligned countries to advance its proposals, which include a more intensive nuclear-inspection regime and punishment for countries such as North Korea that quit the treaty after working on a bomb.
The U.S. government has virtually given up on getting such ideas into a final consensus document. But officials are seeking a "supermajority" for a plan that could be taken up in other bodies in which Iran has less influence, such as the IAEA.
A plan "that draws the support of all but a few outliers would meet the definition of success," Ellen O. Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control, said in a speech last week at the Center for American Progress.