VIENNA — Research on a new generation of precision atomic weapons by the Bush administration threatens to undermine international efforts to stop the spread of nuclear arms and to tarnish recent successes, according to diplomats and nonproliferation experts.
The criticism focuses on the administration's decision to lay the groundwork for developing low-yield weapons -- known as mini-nukes -- while pursuing President Bush's doctrine of preemptive strikes against rogue states.
The diplomats and independent experts said Washington's strategy weakens support for more stringent controls at a time when the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty faces serious challenges from North Korea and Iran and amid widespread fears of terrorists acquiring atomic weapons. The U.S. strategy, critics say, may cause other countries to pursue nuclear arms.
"The U.S. follows a double standard that allows it to develop and threaten to use nuclear weapons while denying them to smaller countries," said Hussein Haniff, Malaysia's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. "We do not know whether the nuclear nonproliferation treaty can survive with these U.S. policies."
Haniff heads a group of 13 countries that constitute a nonaligned bloc on the IAEA's 35-nation Board of Governors. The bloc is often at odds with the United States and last month opposed U.S. efforts to declare Iran in violation of the nonproliferation treaty.
The Bush administration argues that mini-nukes would provide flexibility to respond to changing threats and small-scale conflicts that do not require full-size nuclear armaments.
Nonetheless, some U.S. allies are alarmed. A senior Western diplomat called the prospect of mini-nukes "politically stupid" and said it would complicate U.S. security by weakening support for tougher nuclear controls.
Anger over the U.S. policy has risen steadily since the spring when the administration requested funding for research on mini-nukes, in effect seeking a reversal of a 1993 ban on research and development of low-yield atomic weapons. After much wrangling, Congress approved the bill last month, granting $7.5 million, half of what the administration had sought.
The weapons would be designed to penetrate underground bunkers presumed to conceal weapons of mass destruction or command centers. Pentagon planners say the low yield would limit nuclear fallout, a claim some scientists dispute.
Administration officials have said the research into mini-nukes was insignificant compared with its larger arms control effort, which would cut the U.S. nuclear stockpile by two-thirds by 2012.
"If you look at reality, and not just a sound bite, we are not ramping up our nuclear arsenal, we are ramping down," a senior administration official in Washington said.
Officials said the administration's multi-pronged strategy helped persuade Libya to give up its nuclear, chemical and biological programs.
"The administration's tough stance on Iraq, its national security strategy and President Bush's firm speeches against terror all got Tripoli's attention," a U.S. official said Monday.
Libya's surprise decision, which followed months of talks with the U.S. and Britain, may have been motivated by outside factors, and did not necessarily reflect a bow to American threats, foreign officials said.
"It's hard to tell what the reasons were just yet, but the Libyans told me that the programs had become too expensive and that world conditions had changed," said a Western diplomat in Vienna.
The Libyan decision did not put to rest questions about the U.S. strategy. Some experts said the research on mini-nukes violated U.S. legal obligations to disarm and blurred the line between conventional warfare and nuclear conflict.
"Preemptive strikes linked to the development of new nuclear weapons sends a threatening message to nonnuclear states," said Jean du Preez, a former South African diplomat who is an analyst at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. "Even some nuclear states, including India and Pakistan, may decide, well, why not do the same."
The debate over the U.S. posture comes as anxiety over the spread of atomic weapons is rising after the nuclear standoff with North Korea and the disclosure of Iran's uranium-enrichment program and Libya's progress.
Iran has maintained that its nuclear program exists solely to generate electricity.
"I would not be surprised if we see more countries acquire nuclear weapons," Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the IAEA, said recently at the agency's headquarters in Vienna.
ElBaradei did not suggest which countries might try to do so, but diplomats said Algeria, Sudan and Syria were on the list and the number would grow sharply if North Korea or Iran obtained weapons.
Technology that was once the preserve of the five original nuclear weapons states -- the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France -- is now available worldwide. Export controls have eroded and technical barriers have fallen.