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World News

Iran, Syria, West clash at meeting to save atom pact

GENEVA (Reuters) - Iran and Syria clashed with the West on Monday over accusations of suspicious nuclear activity in both countries, clouding the start of global talks on how to salvage the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In opening statements at the start of a two-week gathering on the NPT, the European Union and other Western delegates cited Iran as symptomatic of the spread of technology which can be used to produce atomic bombs.

The EU condemned Iran’s defiance of U.N. resolutions demanding it suspend enrichment and pressed it to clarify intelligence reports that it secretly studied ways of building atom bombs in violation of the NPT.

“(This is) critical to an assessment of a possible military dimension to Iran’s program,” Slovenian Ambassador Andrej Logar, speaking for the EU, told the meeting of some 120 states that will run until May 9.

“The EU is resolved not to allow Iran to acquire military nuclear capabilities and to remove any proliferation risks posed by the Iranian nuclear program,” he said.

Iran, which was not slated to speak, took the floor to blast the EU for “lengthy and exaggerated allegations that distort the truth” about Iran’s enrichment campaign, which Tehran bills as solely a quest for electricity so it can export more oil.

Iran remained “faithful” to its NPT obligations but no one could take away “our inalienable right” to benefit from peaceful nuclear energy, Iranian delegate Mohammed Taghi Hosseini said.

In Tehran, Iranian officials discussed with a Russian envoy what they called “serious proposals” to defuse tensions with the West over its nuclear activity, but gave no details.

The United States joined EU criticism and also aired charges from a U.S. intelligence briefing last week that Syria, an Iran ally, built a nuclear reactor with North Korean help before an Israeli air raid destroyed it last September.

Those keen to shore up the NPT “can only be alarmed” by a Syrian reactor “not for peaceful purposes and developed covertly”, chief U.S. delegate Christopher Ford said.

Syria intervened to repeat its flat denial of any nuclear bomb bid violating the NPT. “We remind everyone of the falsifications the U.S. made about mass destruction weapons in Iraq,” Syrian Ambassador Faysal Hamoui told the meeting.

“The U.S. is trying to ruin the meeting here in a pre-emptive manner. We call on the U.S. to be wise enough to stop causing crises in the Middle East with confused policies.”

U.N. WATCHDOG PROBING SYRIA

U.N. nuclear inspectors have begun a Syria inquiry but diplomats close to them said the fact Washington withheld the information until long after Israel bombed the site would make it very difficult to find evidence backing up the intelligence.

The disputes over Iran and Syria made for an inauspicious start to a meeting meant to flesh out ideas for shoring up the NPT ahead of a decision-making treaty review conference in 2010.

The NPT binds members without nuclear arms not to seek them via diversion of enrichment technology, calls on nuclear-armed powers to dismantle their arsenals in stages, and requires the nuclear “haves” to share civilian fruits of nuclear energy with the “have nots”. But the NPT’s original bargain has broken down.

Developing nations complain of no assured access to atomic energy for legitimate economic ends while the “haves” seek to preserve a technical monopoly on a non-proliferation pretext.

They also say big powers have flouted disarmament commitments, in part by modernizing arsenals behind a facade of reducing overall numbers of deployed warheads.

This rich-poor schism has foiled the consensus required to enact NPT reforms since 2005.

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