UNITED NATIONS — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday demanded strong U.N. sanctions against Iran for defying demands to halt its enrichment of uranium after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted there was no "credible proof" that his regime is seeking nuclear weapons.
The public clash over the aims of Iran's nuclear program dominated the opening day of a major U.N. review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 40-year-old pact underpinning the global system to curb the spread of nuclear arms.
U.S., French and British diplomats walked out of the U.N. General Assembly during Ahmadinejad's morning address, in which he charged all the major nuclear powers were seeking to deny access to nuclear power in the name of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
"It is crystal clear that the hegemonic policy has failed, and the dreams for establishing new empires are vain hopes," he said.
Clinton accused Ahmadinejad of offering "the same tired, false, and sometimes wild accusations against the U.S. and other parties at this conference" in an effort "to divert attention away from its own record and to attempt to evade accountability."
"Iran will not succeed in its efforts to divert and divide," Clinton said. "The treaty is weakened when a state flouts the rules and develops illicit nuclear weapons capabilities."
Speaking later to reporters, Clinton said that only through tough international action would Iran be compelled to accept "our standing offer to engage in good-faith negotiations." The conference, held every five years, must approve a final document by consensus, allowing Iran to block any declaration calling for measures aimed at constraining what it insists is a peaceful nuclear program allowed under the treaty.
Clinton said after her speech that she thought the U.S. would win the support of a "supermajority" of the 189 nations in attendance for measures to strengthen the treaty, and "if Iran wants to be further isolated, it will stand outside that consensus."
The nearly month-long conference is being held as U.S., Russian, Chinese, French, British and German diplomats negotiate a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Iran for defying repeated U.N. Security Council calls to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
Enrichment is used to produce low-enriched uranium fuel for power plants and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
The program, started with technology purchased from a Pakistani-led smuggling ring, was hidden for 18 years from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, violating a monitoring agreement between Tehran and the agency charged with policing the treaty.
Ahmadinejad criticized the Obama administration for retaining the option of launching a nuclear strike against Iran under its new U.S. nuclear arms policy, and invited Obama to join "a humane movement" that would set a timetable for total nuclear disarmament.
"Regrettably, the government of the United States has not only used nuclear weapons, but also continues to threaten to use such weapons against other countries, including Iran."
Ahmadinejad was referring to the April 8 U.S. nuclear posture review, under which the U.S. retains the option of using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons countries that are out of compliance with the treaty, an exception U.S. officials say is aimed at Iran and North Korea.
"The nuclear bomb is a fire against humanity rather than a weapon for defense," Ahmadinejad said. Clinton didn't directly respond to the point.
He accused the U.S. and other nuclear powers of seeking to dominate the world by retaining their weapons while ignoring Israel's nuclear arsenal and working to deny developing nations such as Iran access to peaceful nuclear technology.
"One of the greatest injustices committed by the nuclear weapons states is equating nuclear arms with nuclear energy," Ahmadinejad said. "In fact, these states seek to exclusively monopolize both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy because by doing so they can impose their will on the international community."
His speech appeared aimed at U.N. Security Council members that are not nuclear weapons powers, whose support the U.S. needs to impose new U.N. sanctions.
Clinton sought to neutralize Ahmadinejad's attacks by recommitting the U.S. to its obligation in the non-proliferation treaty to reduce and eventually eliminate its nuclear weapons.
She cited the Obama administration's vow to seek a world without nuclear weapons, the new nuclear strategy's aim of reducing U.S. reliance on nuclear arms, the arms reduction pact signed with Russia in April and a new $50 million U.S. initiative aimed at helping poorer nations obtain nuclear energy technology. In a gesture to convince other nations of U.S. sincerity, Clinton announced that the Obama administration would for the first time reveal the actual number of warheads in the U.S. arsenal. Later in the day, the Pentagon said there were 5,113 deployed and reserve warheads and "several thousand" others awaiting destruction.
She called on the conference to put aside differences that had led to the failure of the 2005 review of the non-proliferation treaty to reach a consensus on ways of bolstering it.
Delegates, she said, should consider imposing "automatic penalties" on countries that violate monitoring agreements with the IAEA, a clear reference to Iran.
The conference should also consider penalizing countries that withdraw from the treaty after using the peaceful nuclear technology they obtain under the treaty to secretly develop nuclear weapons, Clinton said. That was a clear reference to North Korea, which twice tested warheads after pulling out of the accord in 2003.
"Potential violators must know that they will pay a high price if they break the rules. That is certainly not the case today. The international community's record of enforcing compliance in recent years is unacceptable," Clinton said.
Opening the conference, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called on Tehran to comply with U.N. calls to suspend uranium enrichment and account fully for its past nuclear activities, including alleged weapons-related research efforts.
"The onus is on Iran to clarify the doubts and concerns about its program," Ban said.
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