Representatives from the 189 signatories of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) began a month-long Review Conference on Monday at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Efforts continue to reduce the number of nuclear weapons
The objective of the conference is to halt what many of the signatories believe has been a decade-long slide toward the disintegration of the NPT, as well as pursuing the abolition of the world's nuclear weapons and to introduce new regulations and measures to prevent the spread of nuclear material.
The 2005 review of the NPT - the most universal of all disarmament and arms control agreements - ended bitterly without any substantive agreements, meaning that the 2010 meeting has taken on greater significance with international assessments placing nuclear terrorism on the top of many countries' threat lists.
Despite the rancorous nature of the last review, there is a certain amount of cautious optimism surrounding the 2010 conference, generated mainly by the efforts of US President Barack Obama who has been pursuing a utopian vision of a world free of all nuclear weapons since taking office in 2008.
Obama has taken the lead in promoting multilateral disarmament and arms control in international security debates, and earlier in April signed an arms reduction treaty with Russia and hosted a pre-NPT international summit on proliferation in Washington.
In a further move, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton disclosed at the summit on Monday the exact number of atomic warheads the US has in its arsenal, the first time it has disclosed the exact size of its stockpile.
While Obama's commitment to disarmament has dispersed the clouds of pessimism to a certain degree, his vision is unlikely to become a reality any time soon due to the continued reluctance of the world's declared and undeclared nuclear powers to give up their weapons without preconditions.
Delegates facing complex web of challenges
"Given the divide between the nuclear weapon 'haves' and the 'have-nots,' between those countries that have civil nuclear technology and those that don't, and between those that really want to reduce arms and the many that don't, the challenge is a large one as always at the Review Conference," Anthony Seaboyer, associate fellow of the Europe and Transatlantic Relations Program Group at the German Council for Foreign Relations (DGAP), told Deutsche Welle.
Obama and Medvedev's START deal has paved the way
"But with Obama totally changing the US course on non-proliferation and arms reduction, his prioritization of these issues, the START Treaty and the work already done at the Nuclear Security Summit, the chances are better than they have been at the last two Review Conferences."
One of the aims of the conference is to draw up and agree to a new action plan for nuclear disarmament and the affirmation of key past commitments. Experts forecast few problems with finding an agreement on updated versions of past commitments made at NPT conferences in 1995 and 2000, including bringing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty into force.
But things are expected to run less smoothly when President Obama, as expected, pushes for concrete steps for multilateral reduction and the elimination of nuclear arsenals.
Individual agendas clouding disarmament issue
Bringing nuclear powers beyond the United States and Russia into the process of reducing nuclear arsenals and beginning negotiations concerning a commitment to multilateralism will be among the major challenges of the conference.
Anthony Seaboyer believes that the differing stances within Europe will add to the diffculties.
"Europe is divided," he said. "On the one hand, you have Germany which has a strong record of supporting non-prolifertaion and disarmament, and Foreign Minister Guido Westewelle will be backing up Obama's plan at the conference, while also pressuring the US to move faster on removing its weapons from European soil."
"On the other, you have Britain and France who support non-proliferation and the reduction of arms as long as its not their weapons which are being reduced. On the whole, the EU countries will support the NPT but this split could prove problematic."
As well as facing opposition from those signatories unwilling to give up their weapons, Obama's plan faces obstacles in the form of those states which remain on the outside of the NPT but who are armed with nuclear weapons or widely believed to have stockpiled them: India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.
Non-NPT states on agenda's problem list
India has nuclear weapons but is not signed up to the NPT
Particularly troublesome will be issues concerning North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT in 2003, and Iran, whose alleged intent to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian energy program has divided the international community.
"Iran will be an underlying topic in most of the discussions as the majority of what the US wants to achieve in terms of non-proliferation and disarmament impacts on Iran," Dr. Henning Riecke, a proliferation and arms control expert at the DGAP, told Deutsche Welle.
"There will certainly be a lot of noise made about Iran but without Russia and China agreeing to sanctions, and then abiding to those sanctions without watering them down, there won't be any great progress made."
Iran and wider Middle East nukes a hot topic
As well as being taken as a single issue, Iran will also feature in another debate where discussions are likely to become heated, that of pursuing a zone free of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in the Middle East, as promised by a resolution adopted by the 1995 NPT conference.
While this debate could give some momentum to the resolution of the Iran situation, it is also likely to create tensions over Israel's unacknowledged possession of nuclear weapons. Arab governments participating in the conference will likely urge the world to act against Israel, putting Obama and the United States, Israel's closest ally, in a difficult position.
Iran has the missiles and is suspected of pursuing the technology to make atomic warheads
"There are many obstacles to achieving multilateral arms reduction, such as how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program and the question of new sanctions," said Seaboyer.
"The differences over how to deal with Israel's nuclear program is another issue as is the question of how to deal with states that do not comply to NPT Treaty obligations. The delegates must also decide on how to deal with nuclear weapons states that remain outside the treaty system like India."
New non-proliferation measures face opposition
As well addressing the issue of existing weapons, the conference delegates will tackle the strengthening of controls on non-proliferation and press for support on measures such as the Additional Protocol, where each non-weapons state would agree to provide more access and transparency of its nuclear activities.
The conference will address the issue of nuclear material
"There will definitely be some consensus on the expansion of the International Atomic Energy Agency's powers because this is a necessary step but what should also be addressed is what can be done after inspections to enforce action and how to get countries who refuse to allow inspectors in to do so," Henning Riecke said.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge