Experts have told Congress the United States must be prepared to take a strong, leading role at the upcoming conference to review the 35-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, warning serious damage to nonproliferation efforts could result if the conference does not end with a consensus.
Lawmakers are asking how the United States intends to use the conference to exert more pressure on Iran, which Washington believes is trying to build nuclear weapons under the guise of peaceful energy development.
Iran as a member of the treaty will be among the 180 countries attending. North Korea, which announced its unilateral withdrawal from the treaty, will not.
The United States will be focusing on the key issues of compliance with the treaty, and withdrawal of members.
U.S. officials will also be re-emphasizing the proposal last year by President Bush for an agreement by 40 nations in the Nuclear Suppliers Group to end sales of enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technologies to countries not already possessing full-scale capabilities.
But Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Stephen Rademaker, says it is unlikely the conference would achieve any consensus on the president's proposal because of Iranian opposition:
"Iran is at this conference and has a veto over any decisions that are going to be made, so the idea that Iran is going to agree to a consensus decision at the review conference to deny them access to enrichment when they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing enrichment capability, as a practical matter we are not going to achieve that outcome at this forum," he said.
Mr. Rademaker was among those testifying before the House Subcommittee on Nonproliferation.
Joseph Cirincione, Associate Director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says there is deep pessimism among experts, adding U.S. leadership at the conference is crucial for there to be hope of a consensus.
"If this conference ends without a consensus document, if it is seen as a failure then that is a serious blow to the confidence that all the other nations have in the nonproliferation regime. [And] if the United States is seen as the reason for that failure, then this greatly sets back our efforts to resolve the crisis with Iran, with North Korea, to change the rules of the road on the nuclear fuel cycle, to convince India, Israel and Pakistan, the three nuclear weapons states not members of the treaty, to conform to international nonproliferation treaties. It makes all our work harder across the board," he noted.
Jean du Preez, with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, agrees that non-compliance with treaty obligations, and withdrawal must be priorities.
But he adds the United States may face resistance from those who want a spotlight shown on the issue of, and U.S. support for, nuclear disarmament.
"Many non-nuclear weapons states, however, including allies of the United States, remain unsatisfied with the emphasis that is currently placed by the United States on only the non-proliferation elements of the treaty, believing that nuclear disarmament should have equal priority," Mr. du Preez added.
Iran has maintained that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty allows it to pursue a peaceful nuclear program.
Henry Sokolski, head of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, mentions what he sees as the biggest challenge facing the United States.
"The U.S. and its friends must focus far greater attention to distinguishing between nuclear activities that are safeguardable, peaceful, and therefore authorized under the NPT and those that are too risky, uneconomical, and close to bomb-making to enjoy this protection. If we fail to do this, international security and U.S. security costs will be immense," he explained.
The hearing came as Iran's foreign minister said Tehran will have no choice but to restart uranium enrichment if talks with the European Union Friday fail.