UNITED NATIONS — With President Barack Obama in the chair at an unprecedented meeting of the U.N. Security Council, major world powers on Thursday endorsed his goal of a nuclear weapons-free world and pledged to strengthen the shaky international system for preventing the spread of nuclear arms.
The Security Council unanimously passed a U.S.-drafted resolution that endorses the eventual goal of "a world without nuclear weapons." It lays out steps for nuclear powers to trim their arsenals, while making it harder for other nations to convert civilian nuclear programs to military ones.
While it isn't clear how fast this will come about, diplomats and private security experts called it the most significant U.N. action on nuclear weapons proliferation in years.
U.S. officials said the council's endorsement significantly boosted the disarmament agenda that Obama laid out last April in Prague. Among his goals are new cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads and missile launchers; U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which bans nuclear weapons tests; and a major effort to secure "loose" nuclear materials.
The six-page resolution mentions neither Iran nor North Korea, both the focus of major proliferation concern, because other nations rejected U.S. attempts to include the two.
However, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who joined other world leaders at the Security Council summit, called for tougher sanctions on the two if they don't abandon their nuclear weapons programs.
"We live in the real world, not in a world of postures and communiques. And the real world expects us to take decisions," Sarkozy said. "What these two nations are doing undermines the very rules on which our collective security is based."
Diplomats from the U.S. and five other nations are to meet Iranian officials next Thursday, and Sarkozy said Iran had a last chance to halt uranium enrichment before an end-of-the-year deadline. If the talks fail, Iran must be penalized with "massive sanctions in the financial and energy sectors," he said.
Iran asserts that it's developing nuclear technology only for civilian purposes, and Tehran's U.N. mission fired back with a statement calling Sarkozy's remarks "totally untrue and without any foundation."
Thursday's two-hour meeting was the first time that a U.S. president had chaired a U.N. Security Council session, and only the fifth time in 64 years that heads of government, rather than foreign ministers or ambassadors, have sat around the table.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi didn't attend, although Libya is currently a member of the council.
Obama has pivoted sharply from the policies of former President George W. Bush, whose administration disdained arms control treaties and emphasized building an anti-missile shield that Obama downsized and reoriented last week.
Thursday's Security Council action strengthens the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
The treaty, which is up for review next year, calls on nations with nuclear weapons to reduce their arsenals. Nations without nuclear arms pledge not to acquire them and are guaranteed access to nuclear technology for civilian power, medical and research purposes.
One aim of the new resolution is to make it harder for Iran and other nations to withdraw from the NPT after they've used it to gain access to nuclear technology, and then proceed to develop nuclear arms. In that case, the countries that supplied nuclear technology could, at least in theory, repossess it.
Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that focuses on nuclear weapons policy, called the U.N. meeting a significant advance for disarmament, and for Obama's agenda.
"It obviously depends on countries implementing the steps they now agree to," Cirincione said. "(But) you can't take a trip without a map. The major countries have just agreed on a map."
Obama plans to host a summit next April in the United States on securing nuclear materials. He's pledged to seek ratification of the nuclear test ban treaty, which the Senate rejected in 1999, though U.S. officials say it won't be resubmitted to the Senate until next year at the earliest.
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