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U.N. kicks off nuclear nonproliferation conference as global fears fester

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The fate of a nuclear armed world was the subject at the United Nations today. North Korea is poised for another nuclear test. Iran has not agreed to rejoin the deal that curbed its nuclear program. And Russia's invasion of Ukraine has raised that risk of nuclear confrontation. It's against this backdrop that the U.N. opened a month-long meeting about the status of the 50-year-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the conference with a dire warning

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ANTONIO GUTERRES: Today, humanity's just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.

KELEMEN: He pointed to crises that are, as he put it, festering in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula, as well as Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

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GUTERRES: The clouds that parted following the end of the Cold War are gathering once more. We have been extraordinarily lucky so far. But luck is not a strategy, nor is it the shield from geopolitical tensions boiling over into nuclear conflicts.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to New York to show that the U.S. is ready to work with countries to strengthen the NPT, a treaty meant to promote disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: There is no question that the NPT has made the world safer. But there's also no doubt that it's under increasing strain. And so we come together at a critical moment.

KELEMEN: Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a written message to the conference, said there would be no winners in a nuclear war, and he said no such war should be started. Secretary Blinken says Russia is setting a bad example. When the Soviet Union fell apart, Russia gave Ukraine security assurances to encourage it to give up the Soviet nuclear weapons that were based in Ukraine. Blinken says Russia broke that deal by invading Ukraine.

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BLINKEN: What message does this send to any country around the world that may think that it needs to have nuclear weapons to protect, to defend, to deter aggression against its sovereignty and independence? The worst possible message.

KELEMEN: Another major topic is Iran's nuclear program. Germany's foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, is urging Iran to get back into a 2015 agreement that capped Iran's nuclear program in exchange for financial relief.

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ANNALENA BAERBOCK: A fair deal is on the table. We should seize this opportunity as long as this still is possible.

KELEMEN: But Iran needs to cooperate with inspectors, says Rafael Mariano Grossi, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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RAFAEL MARIANO GROSSI: We need to have the access that is commensurate with the breadth and depth of that nuclear program. It can be done. Let's do it.

KELEMEN: Iran is a member of the treaty. Other suspected or known nuclear powers are not, including Israel, India, and Pakistan. North Korea pulled out, and Grossi says he wants inspectors to get back there soon. Experts will spend August in New York looking at ways to revitalize the treaty. Blinken says the U.S. has a 60-person team dedicated to that. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.