Nuclear War Risk Grows as States Race to Acquire Bomb ; GENEVA Fears Grow of Further Defections from Non-Proliferation Treaty as US Points Finger at Iran's 'Alarming, Clandestine Programme'

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A CONFERENCE on nuclear non-proliferation began in Geneva yesterday, in the shadow of North Korea's departure from the global treaty and with the bleakest prospects for progress in the pact's 33- year history.

John Wolf, US Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Non- proliferation told a news conference on the first day of the meeting that Iran has "an alarming, clandestine programme" to get hold of nuclear technology. "Iran is going down the same path of denial and deception that handicapped international inspections in North Korea and Iraq," he said.

But disarmament experts said that American lack of commitment to non- proliferation was as damaging as the behaviour of the proliferators.

Representatives of 187 countries are attending the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This is the second of three sessions that will be held before the Review Conference in 2005.

North Korea became the first state ever to defect from the process - Israel, India and Pakistan, all known nuclear states, have never been members - when it announced its departure in January. More defections are feared.

This was the Treaty that was supposed to lead to a non-nuclear world, but experts say the risks of proliferation are worse now than for 50 years. In the past two years the multilateral effort to contain and reduce the nuclear risk has unravelled. At the last NPT review conference in 2000 all member states signed a 13-point programme that included an undertaking by the five declared nuclear- weapon states to nuclear disarmament.

"That agreement is now gathering dust on some filing cabinet somewhere," said Dan Plesch, senior researcher at the Royal United Services Institute. "For the first time since the 1950s there isn't a global framework ... to get rid of nuclear weapons."

Pyongyang's off-the-record announcement last week that it already had the bomb was a further blow. "Everyone is at a loss as to how to move forward on North Korea," said Kathryn Crandall of the British American Security Information Council, a research organisation. It is expected that the meeting will try to agree on a statement - but given the low morale it is more likely to be an invitation to return to the fold than a blast of brimstone.

At least as damaging as North Korea's departure have been successive moves by Washington to distance itself from nuclear disarmament.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, the US President, George Bush, signed National Security Presidential Directive 17, which said: "The United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force - including potentially nuclear weapons - to the use of [weapons of mass destruction] against the United States ..."

This assertion, analysts say, undermined an important prop of the NPT process: the so-called "negative security assurances", initially made in 1978 and strengthened by the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 984 in 1995, not to use nuclear weapons against the non- nuclear weapon states.

The assurances were considered vital in discouraging states from developing their own nuclear weapons. Now people wonder if they are worth the paper it they are written on.

The popularising of the term Weapons of Mass Destruction has blurred the formerly stark distinction between nuclear and other weapons, and has paved the way for this change, claims Ms Crandall. She said: "Such terminology reduces the understanding of the unparalleled destructive capacity of nuclear weapons compared to the less destructive effects of chemical and biological weapons."

More and more states are likely to buy the argument that the only way to be secure in a unipolar world is to go down the nuclear road - "to pre-empt pre-emption", one analyst said. …