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At nuclear conference, U.S. expects little, gains little

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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, May 31, 2010

It didn't end in failure.

That was perhaps the best the U.S. government could boast about a month-long conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which ended Friday in New York.

President Obama has made a priority of strengthening the treaty, which is in danger of unraveling after decades of curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons. Much of his ambitious nuclear agenda has been undertaken with an eye toward demonstrating U.S. compliance with the pact.

The United States got few of the specific goals it sought at the conference, such as penalties for nations that secretly develop nuclear weapons, then quit the pact (think North Korea). Language calling on countries to allow tougher nuclear inspections was greatly watered down.

And the conference's final document singled out Israel's suspected nuclear program -- but not Iran's secret facilities, which many think are part of an effort to build an atomic bomb. Gen. James Jones, the U.S. national security adviser, blasted that absence as "deplorable."

U.S. officials said the conference's final "action plan" at least represented a commitment by 189 nations to stand by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The last review conference, in 2005, collapsed in failure, with many countries blaming the Bush administration.

"We've got the NPT back on track. There was so much criticism about 2005 . . . and a lot of doom and gloom about the treaty failing," said one U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "We have to hold this treaty together."

The 40-year-old pact is built on a grand bargain: The original five nuclear powers promised to disarm gradually and all others foreswore the bomb. All treaty members were guaranteed access to nuclear energy, subject to the oversight of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

But the conference revealed the strains in the treaty. Non-nuclear countries complained bitterly that nuclear powers are not upholding their end of the bargain.

It was clear from the start that getting agreement would be difficult. The conference's final documents are reached by consensus, meaning that Iran, a treaty member, could block any initiatives. That explains why it wasn't named.

Israel, on the other hand, has not signed the treaty and did not attend the meetings.

"We did the most we could, considering the rules of the road," said Ellen O. Tauscher, the U.S. undersecretary for arms control.


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