UNITED NATIONS - Is the ongoing controversy over Iran's nuclear programme helping to advance the United Nations' agenda on nuclear disarmament? To a number of diplomats and experts who have participated in past U.N. discussions on the spread of nuclear weapons, the answer is, yes - although not necessarily for the expected reasons.
"Iran is challenging the double standards," David Kreiger, executive director of the U.S.-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF), told IPS. "How can you set one standard that challenges Iran's uranium processing and another standard that is completely silent about Israel's nuclear arsenal?"
Israel is believed to have more than 300 nuclear warheads, although its arsenal remains clandestine.
The Barack Obama administration in the U.S. is currently involved in multilateral efforts to address the issue of Iranian pursuit of uranium enrichment, but remains silent about calls to set up a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, Kreiger noted.
He believes this issue is not going to be resolved so long as the nuclear powers, particularly those from the Western hemisphere, remain non-committal toward nuclear disarmament.
Iran's leadership has repeatedly denied that it is pursuing a weapons programme, and argues that pursuing a peaceful nuclear programme for energy production is its inalienable right and that in doing so it is not violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The NPT has been endorsed by all the nations that hold U.N. membership, except for India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. The 1968 treaty allows its signatories to produce and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and requires nuclear-armed nations to take action towards dismantling their arsenals.
For its part, Iran has vigorously countered the Western powers' accusation that it is trying to use its nuclear programme for military purposes, and demands that that the United States and other nuclear-armed nations take steps to dismantle their own nuclear arsenals, which they are obligated to do in accordance with the NPT.
At the U.N. General Assembly's First Committee - which is tasked to discuss the issue of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament - a vast majority of delegates have raised questions about the lack of will on the part of the major powers to move ahead with plans to abolish nuclear weapons.
"We do not accept any justification for the acquisition or the indefinite possession of nuclear weapons," stated Luiz Filipe de Macedo Soares, chairman of the New Agenda Coalition (NAC) from Brazil, at a General Assembly meeting early this month.
Established in 1998, the NAC consists of seven countries that have abandoned their nuclear programmes in order to comply with the NPT, namely Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden, South Africa and Brazil.
"Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are intrinsically linked and mutually reinforcing processes," said Soares. "Both therefore require continuous and irreversible progress."
To NAC, it is axiomatic that the only absolute guarantee against the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons is the complete and verifiable elimination of those weapons.
"For as long as a number of states deem that the possession of nuclear weapons is essential for their security, there may be others who will aspire to acquire them, and the risk will remain that they may fall into the hands of non-state actors," Soares said.
NAC does not accept "any justification for the acquisition or the indefinite possession of nuclear weapons by any country", said Soares, who strongly believes that the possession of nuclear weapons "cannot contribute to international peace and security".
The U.N. is due to hold a major conference next summer to assess the NPT. In a recent statement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he wants nuclear-armed nations to take concrete steps towards disarmament.
Ban has asked the 15-member U.N. Security Council to convene a summit on nuclear disarmament, and has called for all the non-NPT members to freeze their weapon capabilities. "Disarmament must enhance security," he stated recently.
His call for the summit comes after Pres. Obama, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his support of nuclear disarmament, indicated his willingness to take concrete steps towards eliminating the U.S. arsenal by signing on to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and backing fissile material cut-off.
Republican opposition in the United States, however, remains as intransigent as ever. On Thursday, John Bolton, the hawkish former U.N. ambassador and a close confidant of former president George W. Bush, launched his book "ConUNdrum," in which he suggested that the U.N. "should abolish the Conference on Disarmament".
Though cautious about expressing optimism, some independent policy analysts in the United States think that the prospects for reaching the targets of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament are increasingly promising.
"I definitely think that the administration is going to take concrete steps," the NAPF's Kreiger told IPS. One such step, according to him, would be the U.S. explicitly rejecting the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons.
"That would tell the world that he [Obama] is de-emphasising the role of nuclear weapons in the U.S. security strategy," he said.
As reported this month in The Atlantic, Obama has said he would take a hands-on role in the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, due out next year, in which Pentagon officials have been calling for new warhead designs.
Although Obama espouses a world without nuclear weapons, he has also said that the U.S. must retain an arsenal for deterrent purposes as long as other nations are nuclear-armed.