Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein said that “an armed society is a polite society.” But when nuclear weapons arm the society, this maxim does not hold true. Thus, this is why influential leaders William Perry, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and Henry Kissinger seek to eliminate nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which limits the spread of nuclear weapons, is showing signs of fraying at its edges.
This treaty was instrumental in preventing an explosion in the number of nuclear weapons states during the Cold War. It led to Kazakhstan, Belarus, the Ukraine giving up their nuclear weapons and South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil giving up their developing programs. In contrast to these successes, North Korea announced earlier this month that it had produced another batch of weapons-grade plutonium, and Iran continues to enrich uranium and has declared that it will not allow its uranium to be enriched anywhere outside of Iran.
These two countries pose a very serious threat to non-proliferation’s future, and we may have reached a tipping-point in the number of nuclear weapons states. Either one of these countries has the potential to ignite a spurt of other governmental nuclear programs in their respective neighborhoods should it develop deliverable nuclear weapons. Mohamed Al Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has said that in the near future, there could be as many as 25 nuclear weapons states, compared with only 9 presently. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a recent interview with Newsweek that the emergence of Iran as a nuclear power would be a “pivot of history,” signifying the seriousness of the threat should these fears of a flurry of nuclear proliferation materialize.
During a talk on November 5, Stanford Professors Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner discussed the future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime in an event titled “Nuclear Power without Nuclear Proliferation?” The talk was structured around Professor Sagan’s contribution to a two-part series of articles entitled “The Global Nuclear Future” in the scholarly journal Daedalus.
According to Professor Sagan, there are several current threats with dangerous implications for non-proliferation. North Korea and Iran, but also the deal between the U.S. and India (which never signed the NPT) through which India is receiving assistance with its civilian nuclear program, have recently challenged the NPT. Data also demonstrates that only non-democratic governments, namely Iraq, Iran, Yugoslavia, and Syria have started covert nuclear programs after signing the NPT. Several aspiring nuclear powers such as Algeria, Thailand, the Philippines, and Turkey, also face a high volume of terrorist attacks within their respective borders, which does nothing to assuage fears of nuclear material falling into the terrorists’ hands.
Professor Weiner provided an international lawyer’s insight into what he believes are the major weaknesses of the NPT. First, the NPT “codifies the imbalance” between nuclear weapons states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS). The Acheson-Lilienthal Report of 1946, which first proposed an international order to control nuclear power and weapons, stated, “Atomic energy plays so vital a part in contributing to the military power, to the possible economic welfare, and no doubt to the security of a nation, that the incentive to other nations to press their own developments is overwhelming” [Emphasis added]. Weiner asserts that the only way to solve this codification issue is to create a “global architecture that eases the security concerns” of these weaker states.
The NPT’s second weakness is Article IV’s language, which refers to the “inalienable right” of the signers of the treaty to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Iran takes advantage of this weakness as it insists that it has a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Both professors, however, note that although the language could have been less absolute, the “inalienable right” is in fact a conditional right—conditional on the state’s compliance with its obligations under the treaty to not pursue a nuclear weapons program. On several occasions, the IAEA has found Iran to be in violation of its NPT obligations, which widens the gap between Iran’s arguments and the facts.
The ambiguous muddle that occupies the space between using nuclear technology for peaceful and weapon purposes makes preventing nuclear weaponization difficult. All it takes to create weapons-grade uranium is to continue enriching uranium after it reaches a sufficient grade for nuclear power. In fact, much of the technology needed to produce nuclear power can be used for both peaceful and weaponized development, further complicating the task.
Professor Sagan promotes a program of fostering more cooperation between NWS and NNWS to stop proliferation. Enforcing the NPT is the program’s major driver. All states should work together to realize that it is in their interest to reduce the number of NWS, and when this cooperation translates into trust, true progress can be made. Professor William Perry, former Secretary of Defense and major proponent of nuclear disarmament, has stated that acquiring this level of cooperation is an important first stage of a nuclear disarmament initiative. All states need to invest political and financial capital in enforcing the tenets of the treaty, ensuring that the IAEA has the resources it needs to send inspectors to all suspect countries to ensure that they are not on the road to “the bomb.”
Students of the Cold War and of nuclear proliferation understand the significance of the renewed interest in and support for nuclear non-proliferation and even disarmament. This is the first step on the road to the lofty goal of complete nuclear disarmament. However, this initiative to reform the NPT will do little to rein in two of the most dangerous states to the non-proliferation regime: Iran and North Korea. North Korea has not only tested a small nuclear device in 2006, but also withdrew from the NPT and was no longer subject to the treaty in 2003. A nation’s ability to declare its national security threatened and legally withdraw from the treaty remains a weakness of the NPT, for it is an excuse for nuclear weapons development we have heard many times before. Regarding Iran, the rest of the international community has not demonstrated the same political will as the United States to impose harsh sanctions on Iran for failing to comply with certain aspects of the NPT. Indeed, there are reports that Iran could have the bomb within the next couple years.
If there is this lack of interest in enforcing the present NPT, we cannot expect that the international community will be more willing to enforce a more robust NPT. However, a breakthrough can be achieved by re-working the NPT should the ultimate fruits be international cooperation and unanimous commitment to the causes of non-proliferation and disarmament. This could be the catalyst for a system of trust that will enable nations to overcome their concerns about their security, which nuclear weapons are supposed to protect.