WASHINGTON — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's plan to attend an international conference on curbing the spread of nuclear weapons next week in New York threatens to turn the meeting into a diplomatic confrontation between the United States and Iran over Iran's nuclear program.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, held every five years to assess adherence to the pact and consider ways to bolster the global non-proliferation system, usually commands little attention beyond policymakers and arms control wonks.
But Ahmadinejad's quest to speak at Monday's opening of the nearly month-long meeting at the United Nations, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will also address, is injecting unusual drama into the 2010 session.
"I'm sure Ahmadinejad is going to New York with an intention of scuttling the sanctions resolution, but it could well backfire," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He has an uncanny ability to unite people against him."
The State Department said Ahmadinejad's visa application was still being processed on Thursday, but U.S. officials have indicated it will be approved. They said there were no plans for side meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials.
The conference comes as U.S., Chinese, Russian, British, French and German diplomats meet almost daily at the United Nations to negotiate a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran for defying repeated demands to halt a uranium enrichment program that Western officials charge is for nuclear weapons.
International concerns have grown following Iran's unveiling this month of a more efficient enrichment device, its rejection of a U.N.-backed compromise plan for using its stock of low-enriched uranium and a revelation last September that it secretly built a second enrichment facility under a mountain near the holy city of Qom.
Because Ahmadinejad outranks Clinton as a government head, protocol may dictate that he speak first. This would give him the platform to state that the Iranian program is for peaceful purposes and accuse the United States of hypocrisy for retaining thousands of nuclear weapons while ignoring Israel's nuclear arsenal.
"The Zionist regime which has over 200 nuclear warheads and has waged several wars in the region is fully supported by Washington and its allies," Ahmadinejad said at a conference in Tehran earlier this month. "This is while other states are prevented from making peaceful use of nuclear energy."
Other nations are expected to raise contentious issues during the conference, among them charges that the United States and other nuclear weapons powers are failing to live up to their NPT obligation to eliminate their arsenals.
A Non-Aligned Movement bloc of 118 nations that is led by Egypt and includes Iran is pushing for the establishment of a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone, a proposal aimed directly at Israel, which is not a party to the NPT.
Those disputes are raising fears that the 189 treaty members will fail — as they did in 2005 — to reach the consensus needed for a final declaration and a work plan to strengthen the NPT.
"It is not, I think, a foregone conclusion that the 2010 conference is going to be a success," retired Sri Lankan Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, who chaired the 1995 NPT review conference, warned an Arms Control Association forum on Monday.
Obama aides in recent days have downplayed the importance of reaching a final declaration.
"We are going to New York with our eyes wide open," Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher said Thursday at the Center for American Progress. "The review conference is not a silver bullet or an end in and of itself. It is one of several tools at our disposal to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons."
"In our view, whether there is a consensus final document should not be the measuring stick to judge the success of the review conference," she said.
Instead, U.S. officials portray the conference as a platform from which the United States can help re-energize the non-proliferation treaty by promoting President Barack Obama's pledge to seek total nuclear disarmament, his policy of reducing U.S. military reliance on nuclear weapons and a new arms reduction treaty with Russia.
"What we can do is inject some kind of positive energy into the whole non-proliferation regime," Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller told the Arms Control Association forum.
Such an approach, U.S. officials said, would give the United States "leverage" to promote new watchdog powers for the U.N. International Atomic Energy, which is charged with enforcing the NPT, and stiffer penalties against countries like Iran for violating IAEA rules and North Korea for withdrawing from the treaty in 2003.
"For those who wish to block consensus or evade accountability for their NPT violations, we can demonstrate that they stand in stark isolation from the rest of the international community," Tauscher said. "That will be a positive outcome itself."
The 1968 treaty is considered the bedrock of the global system designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
It requires the nuclear weapons states at the time the treaty was signed — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — to reduce and eventually eliminate their arsenals. And it guaranteed non-nuclear weapons states access to peace nuclear technology so long as they refrained from developing nuclear weapons.
Since then, however, the system has been badly battered.
Israel, India and Pakistan, all non-NPT nations, developed nuclear arsenals. and North Korea withdrew from the treaty and tested weapons. Iran hid for 18 years a uranium enrichment program built on knowhow sold by a Pakistani-led smuggling ring and has refused to answer IAEA questions about arms-related activities.
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