Thursday, July 29, 2004

GENEVA — In a surprise reversal yesterday, the United States offered to begin negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty [FMCT] that would ban nuclear bomb-making components such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

“An FMCT is ripe for negotiations,” the U.S. ambassador for disarmament, Jackie Sanders, told the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament.

“The U.S. reaffirmed its commitment to negotiation in the conference of a legally binding treaty banning the production of fissile material or other nuclear devices,” she said.

Mrs. Sanders said the United States had not produced any fissile material for more than 15 years and was working to dispose of its stockpiles.

The Bush administration’s decision to move forward on the treaty comes after an exhaustive interagency policy assessment.

Several member nations lauded the U.S. decision, but questions remained as to how effective the treaty would be if, as Mrs. Sanders said, it could not be verified.

“Our own view has always been that an FMCT should be effectively verifiable,” said British envoy David Broucher. He added, however, that Britain would approach the U.S. proposals with an open mind in the hope they would lead to an early agreement among conference members.

“For the first time, there are signs of movement in the chamber,” Mr. Broucher said. “We need to strike while the iron is hot.”

One senior conference diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, cautioned that “if the Americans agree to negotiations with no preconditions it will be accepted, but whether all will accept a ban with no verification is another matter.”

Francois Rivasseau, the French ambassador to the conference, said he welcomed the United States’ “coming back” to the multilateral disarmament forum.

Algerian Ambassador Salah Dembri said the U.S. initiative meant “there was now a glimmer of hope” for the treaty, which he said was the best way of combating attempts to produce nuclear weapons.

In the same session, the U.S. ambassador also called on Iran and North Korea to cease their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Mrs. Sanders stressed that Tehran “should cease its covert nuclear weapons program” and that Pyongyang should “cease all routes it was pursuing to produce a nuclear bomb … [and] dismantle its nuclear program.”

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