VIENNA Non-nuclear states are urging nuclear-armed nations to disarm faster, while nuclear powers say they are making "unprecedented progress" in doing so, a divide on display at this week's meeting to discuss the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Under the pact, which most countries have acceded to, the five recognized atomic bomb "haves" agreed to work towards eliminating their bombs, and the "have-nots" pledged not to pursue them. A treaty review conference is scheduled for 2015.
Critics say there has been more emphasis on meeting the non-proliferation goal than getting the five major powers - the United States, China, Russia, France and Britain - to fulfill their part of the deal.
"There is a quite a large distance between what the nuclear weapons states say and what the rest of us think," said one diplomat from a smaller European Union country.
Speaking on behalf of the seven-nation New Agenda Coalition, including Brazil, Mexico, Ireland and Sweden, South African ambassador Abdul Samad Minty told delegates: "Whereas the non-proliferation measures have been strengthened over the years, the nuclear disarmament side of the NPT bargain has yet to be realized."
The seven states reject "any justification for the continued retention" of nuclear weapons, Minty said.
The head of the Egyptian delegation, Sameh AboulEnein, expressed "deep concern at the continued lack of meaningful progress in the field of nuclear disarmament", and said this could undermine the purpose of the 189-nation NPT.
The United States, France, Russia, Britain and China issued a joint statement reaffirming their "enduring commitment" to meeting their NPT obligations.
"We recall the unprecedented progress and efforts made by the nuclear-weapon states in nuclear arms reduction, disarmament, confidence-building and transparency," they said.
Stocks of nuclear weapons are now at far lower levels than any time in the past half century, the statement said.
IRAN SEES NUCLEAR "HYPOCRISY"
Britain's representative, Jo Adamson, said her country had a "strong record" of fulfilling its disarmament commitments and that it would reduce its nuclear weapons stockpile to no more than 180 by the mid-2020s.
The United States said it has been cutting its inventory of nuclear weapons for more than four decades, from a peak of 31,000 warheads in 1968 to 5,000 in 2009.
When the new START arms treaty with Russia is fully implemented within seven years after it took effect in early 2011, the strategic nuclear forces of the two Cold War-era foes will reach their lowest levels since the 1950s, the U.S. said.
But the non-aligned movement (NAM) of more than 100 developing and other states expressed concern that nuclear weapon modernization "undermines the minimal reductions" agreed in the START treaty.
START will cut long-range, strategic nuclear weapons deployed by the United States and Russia to no more than 1,550 on each side, but they still have by far the most nuclear arms.
The nuclear arsenals of China, Britain and France are in the low hundreds, well below those of the United States and Russia.
Shortly after taking office in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama set the goal of eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons as a central theme of his presidency.
Obama unveiled a revamped policy in 2010 renouncing development of new nuclear weapons and restricting use of those already in the U.S. arsenal. He followed that up by signing the new START landmark arms reduction deal with Russia.
But momentum seems to have slowed on Obama's nuclear agenda and, with the November U.S. presidential election looming, chances for major new advances look doubtful.
Iran, accused by the West of seeking to develop nuclear arms itself, said the existence of nearly 23,000 nuclear warheads in the stockpiles of the five nuclear weapon states and their continued modernization posed a threat to mankind's survival.
"Certain nuclear weapon states are expected to display sincerity and political will rather than hypocrisy with regard to their nuclear disarmament obligations," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mahdi Akhondzadeh said.
Pakistan and India, which both have nuclear weapons, have not signed the NPT. Israel, widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, is also outside the voluntary pact. North Korea, believed to be preparing for a third nuclear test, withdrew from the NPT in 2003.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)