GENEVA Pakistan has quietly informed world powers that it cannot accept the start of global negotiations to halt production of nuclear bomb-making fissile material in the near future, diplomats told Reuters on Friday.
The move represents a potential setback for efforts by both the Obama administration and United Nations to forge ahead with what is widely seen as the next step in multilateral nuclear disarmament.
Zamir Akram, Pakistan's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, disclosed Islamabad's position during a diplomatic lunch hosted by Chinese ambassador Wang Qun earlier this week, they said.
"We are not in a position to accept the beginning of negotiations on a cut-off treaty in the foreseeable future," Akram was quoted as saying.
The U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament (CD) is trying to launch negotiations to halt production of fissile material (highly-enriched uranium and plutonium) and clinch what is known in the jargon as a fissile material "cut-off" treaty or FMCT.
"The question was posed to him quite directly," said another envoy at the lunch, attended by more than a dozen senior diplomats from the 65-member Geneva multilateral disarmament negotiating forum, whose members include Israel, North Korea and Iran.
"There continues to be no indication they are ready to move forward with the negotiation," the diplomat told Reuters. "They feel that the strategic imbalance can only be addressed by further (fissile) production. They've made that pretty clear."
Akram told Reuters on Friday: "We have a position. I will articulate that position when the right time arrives."
"What I said was qualified by certain conditions," Akram added. "There are basic conditions about the nature of the discussions, whether it will be simply a cut-off treaty or take account of the issue of stocks."
Stockpiles of fissile material already held by the five official nuclear powers (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) and others will be "germaine to the nature of the treaty that emerges", according to Pakistan's envoy.
"Will it be a simple ban, will it be a simple non-proliferation measure, or can it be a reduction of stockpiles which would mean a disarmament issue?" Akram said.
"Our view is that all critical issues should be on the table first and we should have an understanding of what we will talk about," he said. "If it is not in our national security interest then of course we can't be part of this process."
Pakistan only tested a nuclear weapon in 1998, and believes that efforts to ban the further production of fissile material would put it at a disadvantage to longer established nuclear powers -- including its nuclear-armed neighbor India, with which it has fought three wars since their independence in 1947.
Pakistan is resisting U.S. pressure to dismantle militant groups, including Afghan Taliban based on its soil, because it sees them as potential allies in its rivalry with India.
"Clearly they have very strong concerns," a diplomat said, referring to the fissile issue. "This is a very fundamental and sensitive issue back in Pakistan."
Pakistan blocked adoption of the conference's agenda for 2010 on Tuesday, calling for the inclusion of additional items, after holding up negotiations last year because of national security concerns about the focus of the talks.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sought to build bridges with the next generation of military leaders in Islamabad on Friday and end a "trust deficit" he said has hampered cooperation against Islamist militancy.
Pakistan is also suspicious of closer ties between the United States and India, particularly a civil nuclear deal that Washington signed with Delhi in 2008, ending the nuclear isolation imposed on India after it tested an atom bomb in 1974. It wants to exclude India from plans to stabilize Afghanistan.
(Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Elizabeth Fullerton)