UNITED NATIONS - Iran's president faces off with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday at the start of a meeting on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a pact Washington and Tehran accuse each other of violating.
Iran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at developing the capability to produce atomic weapons, will be one of the most hotly debated topics on the sidelines of the month long NPT review conference, a meeting held every five years to assess compliance and problems with the treaty.
Western diplomats in New York expect Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to mark the opening of the conference by accusing the United States and its allies of using fears about proliferation as a pretext to deny developing nations access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes in breach of the NPT.
It is an argument that has resonated well in the past with developing nations, which account for the majority of the 189 signatories of the landmark 1970 arms control treaty. The NPT is intended to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and calls on those with atomic warheads to abandon them.
Western envoys say their fears about Iran are now shared by many Arab states and other developing nations. The United States, Britain, Germany and France are negotiating with Russia and China on a possible fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes.
Iran's U.N. mission said little about its plans for Ahmadinejad, the highest-ranking government official scheduled to speak at the opening of the May 3-28 conference.
An Iranian diplomat said that "this participation at the highest level is a demonstration of Iran's firm commitment to the NPT and to the success of the review conference."
U.S. REVERSES NUCLEAR POLICY
Clinton is scheduled to speak several hours after Ahmadinejad. Last week she predicted that the Iranian president might not receive a very warm welcome in New York City and said that Iran's record of violating the NPT was "indisputable."
Clinton is expected to highlight the sharp reversal in U.S. nuclear policy since President Barack Obama came to power last year. Obama has made both non-proliferation and disarmament priorities in his foreign policy, unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, who repudiated arms reduction pledges Washington and the four other official nuclear powers made in 2000.
The United States, Britain, France, China and Russia -- the permanent Security Council members -- were allowed to keep their nuclear weapons under the NPT but pledged to launch negotiations on scrapping their arsenals. Non-nuclear weapon states complain that the five have not done enough to disarm.
A new U.S. strategy that reduces the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense policy and a recent nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia are among the examples U.S. officials hope will persuade developing countries that the United States is serious about disarmament.
Israel, like nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, never signed the NPT and will not participate in the review conference. It neither confirms nor denies having atomic weapons, though analysts say it has a sizable nuclear arsenal.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said over the weekend that more progress needs to be made in ridding the world of the more than 25,000 atomic weapons still on the planet. He also said Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs were "of serious concern to global efforts to curb nuclear proliferation."
The last NPT review conference in 2005 was widely considered a failure. After weeks of procedural bickering led by the Bush administration, Egypt and Iran, the meeting ended with no agreement on a final declaration. NPT review conferences make decisions on the basis of consensus.
The Obama administration is eager to avoid another failure and is working hard with Egypt, the chair of the powerful 118-nation bloc of non-aligned developing nations, to ensure this year's conference is successful and ends with a declaration that reinvigorates the NPT, Western envoys said.
That is one of the reasons Washington is negotiating with both Russia and Egypt to find a way to back Cairo's call for making the Middle East an atomic-weapon-free zone, despite Israeli reluctance, Western diplomats say.
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.