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Iran, North Korea to Dominate Nuclear Non-Proliferation Talks

U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman talks to the media in this file photo, at the government building in Skopje, Macedonia, February 2011.
Controversial nuclear programs being pursued by Iran and North Korea are expected to dominate the agenda of global nuclear talks that have begun at the United Nations in Geneva. Over the next two weeks, representatives of 190 nations that are members of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] will meet to prepare for the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

These preparatory talks are taking place in a charged atmosphere. The NPT aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. But the rogue actions of Iran and North Korea are setting many member states on edge.

The head of the U.S. delegation says the increasingly bellicose rhetoric of North Korea and Iran's continued defiance of its obligations under the NPT are major challenges.

Thomas Countryman, who is U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation, said North Korea has exploded a third nuclear device, and Iran has long deceived the International Atomic Energy Agency and international community regarding its nuclear enrichment program.

“The actions of Iran and North Korea should concern every member of this conference. It is clear that if Iran succeeds in the project of constructing nuclear weapons then it is not only the Helsinki meeting that becomes irrelevant, but it is in fact the entire credibility of this treaty. The possession of such weapons by Iran constitutes a threat to the entire region,” said Countryman.

A proposed international conference to establish a nuclear free zone was supposed to take place in Helsinki last December, but failed to materialize. Iran said it would attend such a conference. But Israel, which neither denies nor confirms that it possesses nuclear weapons, indicated it would not attend.

Israel has not joined the NPT. Iran, which is a member, said it is not in breach of the treaty. It says it is enriching uranium as part of a peaceful nuclear energy program, which is allowed under the treaty. It says it is not interested in acquiring nuclear weapons.

The United States, Israel, the European Union and other allies are suspicious of this claim, however, and fear Teheran is intent on building an atomic bomb.

Countryman warns that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, this will open the way for more proliferation of such weapons than has ever been seen.

"If you consider that Iran’s rhetoric prior to its first nuclear explosion is just as warlike as North Korea’s rhetoric after three nuclear explosions, you ought to be concerned about where continued non-adherence by Iran will bring the region and bring the world,” he said.

North Korea became a party to the NPT in 1985 and announced it was withdrawing from the treaty in 2003. Countryman said North Korea began acquiring nuclear weapons technologies while still a member of the treaty. The case of North Korea, he said, clearly shows the treaty can be abused by states that say they have withdrawn.

Countryman said there must be consequences for such action. He said he expects this issue to be discussed during the 2015 Review Conference and hopes this will be one of the areas where the treaty can be strengthened.