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World gathering fails to close gaps in nuclear weapon treaty

WASHINGTON—A month-long conference on bolstering the key global treaty to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons ended in failure Friday, with delegates wrangling on new safeguards and Iran and the United States exchanging bitter charges over their nuclear policies.

The 188-nation Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference collapsed despite unanimous recognition of gaps that have allowed the proliferation of nuclear weapons-related technologies and fueled fears that terrorists could acquire a nuclear device.

Delegates and arms-control experts who monitored the proceedings at the United Nations placed much of the blame for the failure on the United States and Iran.

Washington, they said, spent most of its energy seeking action on Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs. They said the United States blocked discussions of Bush administration plans to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal, its strategy of continued reliance on nuclear weapons and its rejection of a global ban on nuclear test blasts.

Iran, which insists its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, spurned any effort that would hold it accountable for hiding a uranium enrichment program—used to produce fuel for power plants and bombs—for 20 years, they said.

Many countries were also angry with the United States because of what they charged was the Bush administration's refusal to affirm earlier U.S. commitments to the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons, delegates and arms-control experts said.

"If governments simply ignore or discard commitments whenever they prove inconvenient, we will never be able to build an edifice of international cooperation and confidence in the security realm," Paul Meyer, the head of the Canadian delegation, said in remarks clearly aimed at Washington.

He criticized Iran for keeping its uranium enrichment program secret, contrary to the nonproliferation treaty's terms. He also criticized North Korea's withdrawal from the pact and its alleged development of nuclear warheads.

"Our community is weakened by the refusal of the delinquent to be held to account by its peers and by the defection from that community of a state without suffering any sanction," he said.

The 1970 accord constitutes the cornerstone of the international system for averting the spread of history's most destructive weapons. Signatories meet every five years to consider ways to close holes in the pact. They are required to decide issues by consensus.

The Nonproliferation Treaty limits nuclear weapons to the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain in return for commitments to reduce and eventually eliminate their arsenals. Pakistan and India, which also have nuclear weapons, and Israel, which has never declared its nuclear arsenal, have refused to join the treaty.

In exchange for forswearing nuclear weapons, other countries that have signed the treaty are given access to civilian nuclear technologies under monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This year's conference became so mired in national interests and disputes that delegates spent the first three weeks arguing over the agenda and memberships on committees that were supposed to send concrete proposals for consideration by the full conclave.

Some countries objected to steps designed to limit possession of so-called dual-use technologies with civilian and military applications. Egypt derailed a proposal to penalize withdrawals from the Nonproliferation Treaty because Israel has refused to sign it.

The dispute between Iran and the United States consumed enormous time and energy right until the very end.

In her closing remarks, Jackie Sanders, the lead U.S. delegate, insisted that despite the lack of consensus on proposals to strengthen the treaty, the conference "did break new ground" by opening discussions on a number of proposals, such as steps to penalize violators.

She cited Iran's "single-minded pursuit" of uranium enrichment in reiterating a U.S. call for steps to prevent countries from obtaining equipment and know-how to make nuclear weapons under the guise of a peaceful nuclear program.

"Iran's nuclear weapons program, previously shrouded in secrecy and deceit, has been exposed," she said. The United States hasn't offered concrete proof that Tehran is developing nuclear warheads.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's U.N. ambassador, contended that the Bush administration's nuclear policies, such as enshrining reliance on nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy, were encouraging proliferation and betraying the goals of the treaty.

"The extremist attitude reflected in these documents and practices seems to have learned no lesson from the nightmare of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," he said. "If history is any guide, nuclear arms, ladies and gentlemen, are in the most dangerous hands."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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