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IN FACE OF A TOOTHLESS TREATY, N-ARMS SPREAD AROUND WORLD

FOR 25 YEARS the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has failed to halt the spread of nuclear technology or weapons.

Nevertheless, fierce arguments will be raging in New York for the next three weeks as 177 nations debate whether to renew the treaty indefinitely or extend it for another quarter century.Developing countries complain that the NPT divides the world into nuclear haves and have-nots, and discriminates against the wannabes by denying them the bomb. But it is virtually un-en-force-able. Signing is purely voluntary, as is compliance.

The treaty forbids five nuclear powers - the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China - from transferring atomic weapons "to any recipient whatsoever" and commits them to "pursue negotiations in good faith" toward total disarmament.

It permits all signatories to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes but subject to monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In a perfect world, this would be enough. So how has it worked in an imperfect world?

During the Cold War, the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union mushroomed, despite the NPT. It was only in the past five years that the two superpowers agreed to reduce their missile inventories under the bilateral START-1 and START-2 treaties.

Even so, the United States plans to keep 10,000 active warheads, and Russia - which inherited the old Soviet missile system also deployed in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan - will retain about 15,000 warheads.

France, Britain and China, not parties to START, have another 1,000 between them.

Five nations that were developing nuclear arms - Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea and Taiwan - stopped doing so largely as a result of U.S. pressure. But three other "undeclared" nuclear powers have refused to do so, nor have they signed the NPT.

Israel is the most advanced, with about 100 warheads.

Less is known about the capabilities of Pakistan and India, but they are thought to have enough fissionable material for 15 bombs apiece. Worse yet, they may be helping the so-called "threshold states" - Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea - led by a collection of rogues who all signed the NPT but refuse to abide by it.

Saddam Hussein was only a year away from making the bomb when Iraq was disarmed in the wake of the Persian Gulf War. Iran's weapons program is less advanced, but Tehran appears to be taking shortcuts by acquiring components from other NPT signatories.

Both China and Russia have fishy reactor deals with Iran, strongly opposed by Washington. As this was being written, Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani began a state visit to another potential supplier: India.

North Korea is suspected of having enough plutonium for two or three bombs. Although it signed the NPT in 1985, it refused to submit to inspections and only agreed to freeze its arms program after Washington and South Korea promised $4 billion worth of new reactors.

Supporters of the deal say anything is worth avoiding a nuclear war. But critics point out that it undermines the NPT by rewarding a treaty violator.

The argument will be moot if Pyongyang reneges, as it has on the NPT itself. So why renew a toothless treaty? Wouldn't it be better to make it enforceable first?