How to honor the entire bargain

By Adel M. Ali, May 2, 2012

Though the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was never designed to be discriminatory, it has now, more or less permanently, divided countries into different classes — the five recognized nuclear weapon states, the 184 states without nuclear weapons, and the four nations that stand outside the treaty. The basic bargain of the NPT is that the non-nuclear weapon states pledge not to acquire nuclear weapons, while the nuclear weapon states agree to share their peaceful nuclear technology and also, crucially, to pursue disarmament. But progress toward disarmament has been very slow.

The nuclear weapon states care a great deal about potential proliferation but not enough about the steps that are necessary to achieve disarmament. If these states wish to enhance the nonproliferation regime, they should achieve additional reductions of nuclear weapons and also reduce the importance of nuclear weapons in their foreign policy. Additionally, the two nuclear weapon states that have not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty — the United States and China — should quickly do so.

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) safeguards regime, which began as a simple collection of statutes in 1970, has evolved into a rather sophisticated verification system under the NPT. Advanced inspection and monitoring techniques have been introduced over the years through safeguards agreements and the Additional Protocol. These include on-site inspections, area-wide environmental monitoring, and special inspections.

Further, the United States under President George W. Bush proposed that the Nuclear Suppliers Group exclude from peaceful nuclear trade those nations that lack the technology to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel, unless they promise never to acquire such technology. This would represent a revision of the treaty's central bargain: nonproliferation in exchange for progress toward disarmament and the sharing of peaceful nuclear technology. That is, it would change the rules of the game. But non-nuclear weapon states increasingly regard the treaty as allowing them to develop capabilities in uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing for peaceful purposes (even though under certain conditions those capabilities could be applied toward developing nuclear weapons). Indeed, non-nuclear weapons states generally believe that under the treaty they have an "inalienable right" to carry out these activities, subject to the safeguards of the IAEA.

In the zones. Meanwhile, nuclear-weapon-free zones can contribute a great deal toward the disarmament project, and the time has come to shift more focus toward them. Five such zones exist today — Latin America (1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco), the South Pacific (1985 Treaty of Rarotonga), Southeast Asia (1995 Treaty of Bangkok), Africa (1996 Treaty of Pelindaba), and Central Asia (2006 Treaty of Semipalatinsk). Within these zones the development of peaceful nuclear energy programs is accepted but the possession, acquisition, testing, and manufacture of nuclear weapons is prohibited under legally binding nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties and protocols. Nuclear weapon states pledge through separate protocols not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons within the zones.

In view of the severe tensions threatening peace and security in the Middle East, concerted global and regional efforts should be made to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region, composed of the members of the Arab League plus Iran and Israel. The Middle East is one of the most dangerous regions in the world, and was described as a "region of tension" by the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. This is the natural consequence of a heated conventional arms race in the region, fueled in part by Israel's presumed stockpile of nuclear weapons.

But it is also the consequence of a lack of political will, outside Arab countries, to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone or a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. The very cornerstone of establishing such a zone is the political commitment of the non-Arab parties in the region to enter into the undertaking. Such a zone has indeed received global attention thanks in large part to the 2010 NPT Review Conference's recommendation that official discussions begin — in fact, they are tentatively set for December of this year in Helsinki. But without greater international commitment to the project, this essential step in building a new Middle East cannot be achieved.

Following protocol. The time has also come to ban, through a protocol to the NPT such as those that accompany nuclear-weapon-free zone treaties, the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are parties to the NPT. For the nuclear weapon states to establish a legally binding commitment not to use nuclear weapons against states without nuclear weapons would constitute an essential step toward realizing the NPT bargain.

It should not be overlooked that the number of nuclear-armed states is on the rise. India and Pakistan have become de facto nuclear weapon states and refuse to become parties to the NPT; North Korea has become a de facto nuclear weapon state after withdrawing from the treaty; and Israel, the only country in the Middle East that is not a party to the treaty, is universally believed to possess nuclear weapons, though it maintains a policy of nuclear opacity. Preventing further cases of proliferation is difficult. Ultimately, the treaty regime can survive only if the NPT is adhered to and supported by all its members — both nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states — and Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are brought into the regime as non-nuclear weapon states. Realizing universality for the treaty is a crucial project.

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