Talks on curbing nuclear proliferation which open today in New York seem doomed to failure, threatened by deadlock over two proposals and overshadowed by new threats from Iran and North Korea, the two countries believed closest to building their own nuclear weapons.
The secretive regime in Pyongyang created new unease by test firing a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan yesterday, on the eve of the opening of the Non-Proliferation Treaty's five-yearly review conference at the UN.
The missile firing, confirmed by the White House, came days after a top US intelligence official warned that North Korea was now able to put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile. That disclosure followed fresh speculation that the country may conduct an underground test next month, banishing any lingering doubts over its nuclear capability.
The North would thus visibly join Israel, India and Pakistan in the club of unofficial nuclear powers, beside the US, Russia, Britain, France and China, the five "authorised" nuclear powers when the treaty was signed in 1970.
Meanwhile, Iran, unlike North Korea a signatory of the treaty, said that talks with the EU over its nuclear programme were going nowhere and threatened to end its voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment. Tehran insists it wants nuclear fuel for purely peaceful purposes, but the US and its allies believe it underpins a secret project to secure nuclear weapons.
The growing tensions with North Korea and Iran underline the disarray of anti-proliferation initiatives and the failure of international efforts to close loopholes in the treaty, which does not specifically outlaw the production of enriched uranium and plutonium, which are essential for nuclear weapons.
In a bid to buy time, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, proposed a five-year global moratorium on uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel rods to obtain plutonium.
But the suggestion has been rejected, not only by Iran, but also by France, Japan and the US - all four saying that a suspension would play havoc with their civil nuclear programmes. Washington has rejected a separate amendment to the treaty, proposed by France and Germany, which would require countries that pull out of the treaty to dismantle their nuclear plants.
The double deadlock leaves the review conference without an agreed agenda, and makes it more likely that proceedings will wrap up on 27 May with the blandest of closing statements - one likely to be even less effectual than the "13 Steps" towards disarmament endorsed by the 2000 treaty review and largely ignored since then.
But the impasse reflects a deeper split, pitting the US-led camp, which sees the treaty as a means of preventing other countries acquiring nuclear weapons, against those who believe that Washington and the other nuclear powers are not fulfilling their part of the treaty's "grand bargain".
This stipulates that in return for others agreeing not to go nuclear, the five official nuclear powers would reduce and eventually eliminate their own arsenals.
Instead, the Bush administration has refused to sign a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and is developing new types of weapons, bringing diplomatic attacks from abroad. These moves, critics contend, would lower - not raise - the nuclear threshold.
The signs are that the White House, no admirer of the UN at the best of times, has decided to circumvent the world body, by trying to secure an informal deal among civil nuclear powers - the so-called Nuclear Suppliers Group - to refuse to sell nuclear technology and equipment to North Korea, Iran and others suspected of seeking nuclear weapons.
Stephen Rademaker, the leader of the US delegation, said America's goal was "to come up with ways of re-inforcing the treaty regime without rewriting it".
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