Delegates from around the world are at the United Nations in New York, taking part in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference - a gathering that takes place every five years. The conference will discuss two issues: Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program and the idea of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT, is the legal cornerstone of nonproliferation efforts.
Nearly 190 signatories have ratified the NPT that entered into force in 1970. In 1995, member states agreed to extend the treaty indefinitely. Every five years, the signatory states gather to review compliance with the treaty. That is what is happening this month at the United Nations.
Experts say the NPT involves a "grand bargain" - non-nuclear states are bound not to acquire nuclear weapons, while states that possess nuclear weapons move toward disarmament, getting rid of their atomic arsenals. All states are free to develop nuclear power, but only for peaceful purposes.
Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association here in Washington, says nine states possess nuclear weapons.
"The five original nuclear weapon states - the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China," Kimball said. "And then India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons. Israel has a nuclear program outside of international safeguards and it is widely known, though Israel does not acknowledge that it has a relatively small number of nuclear weapons. And North Korea has enough plutonium to build about 10 nuclear bombs. No one knows precisely how many bombs North Korea may have assembled."
Nonetheless, experts such as John Isaacs, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, say the NPT has been successful in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons.
"Yes, there are more nuclear powers than there were when the treaty was signed," Isaacs said. "But on the other hand, when [U.S.] President [John F.] Kennedy was in office in the 1960s, he was predicting there would be 20 to 25 nuclear powers. So the treaty hasn't been perfect; it hasn't prevented all countries that didn't have nuclear weapons from developing them. But I think it has been one of the impediments to countries that could have developed nuclear weapons and decided not to. And that list of countries that thought about building nuclear weapons would include Argentina and Brazil, Japan, South Korea."
The month-long NPT Review Conference is expected to discuss, among other issues, Iran - a country that is suspected by many nations of having a covert program to build atomic weapons. But Tehran says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told conference delegates this week [on Monday] that his country does not need nuclear bombs for its development.
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, says that although specific leaders might be criticized, countries at the conference will not be singled out by name.
"There is generally a diplomatic courtesy extended to avoid using proper nouns - that is, references to other countries," Sokolski said. "But everyone will be aware that if they talk about enforcement, if they talk about the need for countries not to acquire the very materials necessary to make bombs - highly-enriched uranium or separated plutonium - that the case in point will be Iran. And it's just going to loom over the proceedings to some degree, no matter what people try to do to avoid using the proper name, Iran. Iran will be a neuralgic [painful] topic for the body. Many states that are like us [the United States] will want to say something about it. But I think there will be just as many that would prefer to defend its argument that it hasn't acquired a bomb and shouldn't be leaned upon and shouldn't be sanctioned, etc."
Analysts say delegates must be careful about how far they go in criticizing Iran, because as a member of the NPT, Tehran has the potential to block any agreement on a final conference statement.
Experts such as Daryl Kimball say the conference will also discuss an idea that has been proposed for many years for the Middle East - a nuclear weapons free zone.
"Egypt has been a main proponent. And in 1995, when the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was indefinitely extended, it was extended on the promise to pursue the goal of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East," Kimball said. "Egypt at this conference is looking for some commitment from the other NPT members to move forward in this direction. And they are seeking, among other things, agreement by the states to hold a conference in 2011 on how a zone free of weapons of mass destruction can be established in the region. Now all states in the region theoretically support this as a goal, but they disagree on how to proceed and what the conditions for such a zone should be."
Kimball says that this time, the proposal might get more attention because Egypt is the current chair of the 118-member non-aligned movement.