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Nuclear Treaty Conference Offers Nothing New

After a month of near-paralysis, a global conference to tighten controls on the spread of nuclear arms adopted a final report Friday offering no new action plan at a time of mounting nuclear tension in the world.

The 188-nation meeting, reviewing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (search), produced weeks of divisive debate over issues ranging from Iran's uranium centrifuges, to Israel's nuclear capabilities, to U.S. weapons plans. But it yielded no consensus recommendations for concrete steps to rein in atomic arms.

The disagreements even kept the conference president, Sergio de Queiroz Duarte (search), from issuing a summary statement endorsing nonproliferation principles.

"It would be very difficult for me in the face of so many divergencies, wide differences," the Brazilian diplomat told reporters.

Dispirited diplomats and disarmament campaigners lamented a lack of political will.

"We have witnessed intransigence from more than one state on pressing issues of the day," Canadian Ambassador Paul Meyer told conference delegates.

"It's a tragic lost opportunity," British arms-control advocate Ian Davis told reporters.

The lead U.S. delegate expressed only mild disappointment. In a final speech, Jackie Sanders pointed to unilateral Bush administration initiatives — "a robust and comprehensive approach" — to halt the spread of nuclear arms. Multilateral discussions can continue elsewhere, she noted.

The members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty convene only once every five years to assess the workings of the 1970 treaty and find ways to make it work better — political commitments that give a boost to nonproliferation initiatives.

Under the nuclear pact, states without atomic arms pledged not to develop them, and five with the weapons — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China — undertook to eventually eliminate their arsenals. The nonweapons states, meanwhile, were guaranteed access to peaceful nuclear technology.

Citing that guarantee, Iran (search) has obtained uranium-enrichment centrifuges, which can produce both fuel for nuclear power plants and material for bombs. Washington contends Tehran plans to build weapons, but the Iranians say they're interested only in peaceful energy.

Delegations here had promoted ideas, for example, for limiting access to such dual-use technology with bombmaking potential, along with proposals to strengthen inspection of nuclear facilities, pressure nuclear-weapons states to shrink arsenals more quickly, and take other steps to reduce the global role of the ultimate weapons.

Some also supported plans to make withdrawing from the treaty more difficult and penalty-laden. That was a response to North Korea's (search) announced withdrawal from the treaty in 2003 and its declaration that it has built nuclear bombs — all done without consequence under the nonproliferation pact.

But the three conference committees were caught in a crossfire of interests, including U.S.-Iranian antagonisms, and all failed to reach consensus on action programs to send to the full conference.

Iran objected to proposed language singling it out as a proliferation concern. Egypt blocked action on toughening treaty withdrawal, wanting the option to pull out as long as ex-enemy Israel, not a treaty member, has a nuclear arsenal. The United States, for its part, objected to any reference in a final document to disarmament commitments it and other weapons states made at the 1995 and 2000 conferences.

Those commitments included, for example, activation of the nuclear test-ban treaty and negotiation of a verifiable treaty banning production of bomb material — both steps now opposed by the Bush administration.

Critics here accused Washington of reneging on those commitments, undermining the balance of nonproliferation and disarmament obligations in the treaty, perhaps making some feel less bound by their pledge to forswear nuclear bombs.

"I wish the United States had been more flexible here, and not tried to question or downgrade the validity with respect to the 1995 and 2000 commitments," said Thomas Graham, a former lead U.S. arms negotiator.

Critics also said Bush administration talk of developing new nuclear weapons violates at least the spirit of the nonproliferation treaty.

A spokesman indicated the U.S. delegation blocked the disarmament language because it felt the conference was paying too little attention to Iran and Washington's other proliferation concerns.

"We're happy to talk about their issues," Richard Grenell said, "but there needs to be a recognition we have to talk about our issues and their issues — not exclusively their issues."