WASHINGTON — The United States and Russia may have found negotiations for a broad new nuclear disarmament deal tougher than expected, but are still likely to seal one soon in the New Year, analysts said Wednesday.
In particular, they added, negotiators are under pressure to clinch a pact in the run-up to a May review conference for the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which obliges the nuclear powers to show progress on disarmament.
Negotiators missed a December 5 deadline to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which led to deep cuts in both nuclear arsenals after it was signed in 1991 just before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Nor was there a deal by January 1, even though President Barack Obama's White House said on December 17 that it still aimed to "conclude a good and verifiable (START) agreement by the end of the year."
Russia echoed the new aim.
But James Collins, a former US ambassador to Moscow, dismissed any suggestion the talks were in danger and was optimistic that stumbling blocks, like those over verification procedures, could be overcome.
"There are not not insurmountable issues. They, however, are complex technologically," Collins told AFP by telephone.
The analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the negotiations "have gone slower than anyone thought they should and hoped."
But he added: "Both sides expect to reach an agreement. They expect to do it fairly soon in the New Year.... The vast bulk of the treaty is finished and is agreed."
Collins expected the START talks to resume in Geneva sometime after the middle of January following the Russian Orthodox Christmas holiday period, although no date has been set.
He added: "I think the pressure will be there to get it (the deal) done sooner rather than later because of its relationship to the non-proliferation meetings that are coming."
He was referring to preparatory meetings for the NPT review conference in May at the United Nations in New York.
The longer it takes to clinch a deal, "it makes it harder for us to make the case that other people need to work with us to strengthen the treaty," Collins said.
He added: "A failure to get a START agreement would be a very serious blow to any idea that there is a credible commitment to zero nuclear weapons."
In a speech in Prague on April 5, Obama pledged to lead a quest for a world purged of atomic weapons when he unveiled a plan to cut stockpiles, curtail testing, choke fissile production and secure loose nuclear material.
Miles Pomper, an analyst at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, said he would "be astonished" if there is no new treaty by the time of the NPT conference and suggested Russia was playing a game of "brinksmanship."
He told AFP that countries like Egypt, Brazil and South Africa -- though not Iran -- "will find it harder to be sympathetic" to the Obama administration's agenda to check the spread of nuclear weapons.
Under the 1970 NPT provisions, he said, the Russians "also have a reputation" to keep.
And from a strategic point of view, Pomper said, Moscow needs a deal because, "as Russian systems become antiquated, they have to have lower numbers of weapons."
Paul Saunders, the executive director of the Nixon Center think tank, told AFP he was "still optimistic" about chances for a deal amid pressure for one from the NPT review conference and Russia's weaker strategic position.
But he warned that the Republican minority in the Senate could complicate the negotiations or deny the Obama administration and fellow Democrats the two-thirds majority it needs to have any deal ratified in the Senate.
Obama and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev set a goal in July of slashing the number of warheads on either side to between 1,500 and 1,675 and the number of "carriers" capable of delivering them to between 500 and 1,100.
The United States has said it currently has some 2,200 nuclear warheads, while Russia is believed to have about 3,000.
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