It takes two to tango

By Maryam Javan Shahraki, November 29, 2012

In their first-round essays, all authors in this Roundtable analyzed the nonproliferation regime's strengths and shortcomings, and discussed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty's (NPT) prospects for future success. Beenish Pervaiz and I both focused considerable attention on discriminatory application of the treaty's rules, identifying unfairness as a key threat to the treaty's effectiveness and ultimately its survival.

Selim Can Sazak also discussed uneven application of the treaty's provisions, particularly the nuclear weapon states' selective tolerance of proliferation. But he commits an error by calling Iran and North Korea "the countries most likely to begin [a proliferation] cycle today." The problem with this statement is that Sazak inappropriately lumps together two nations. It is not unusual to encounter newspaper or television coverage that treats Iran and North Korea as a single, demonized bundle of threats to global security — but the truth is that they are two very different countries, with different nuclear programs and distinct histories of behavior regarding the treaty regime.

Sazak goes on to assert that "the prospect of a nuclear Iran … creates great anxiety in the Middle East," and refers to arguments that "Turkey and countries such as Saudi Arabia would be compelled to explore the nuclear option if Iran goes nuclear." But he does not distinguish between the legitimate fears that might be provoked whenever a nation proliferates, and the quite different anxieties that surround Iran's enrichment of uranium. And though Sazak does not believe that a cascade of proliferation is likely in any event, he fails to explain why Iran might provoke a cascade of proliferation in the Middle East. After all, Israel already possesses nuclear weapons, and two more states are nuclear-armed next door in South Asia, but no cascade of proliferation has occurred in the Middle East so far.

However, my main critique of Sazak's argument is that it confirms — intentionally or unintentionally — the same arms-race attitude that, in my first essay, I identified as the main threat to the future of the treaty. This attitude treats any threat as a reason for greater militarization and bigger military sales. And because threats by their nature are endless, there can be no end to arms races. For example, Turkey in recent years has considered purchasing expensive missile defense systems from abroad. Turkish officials say that the systems would not be intended to protect against threats from any particular country. Still, such purchases would only speed the arms race in the region. Exaggerating the threat of Iran's nuclear program does not make the Middle East a safer region and in fact could make the region's arms competition irreversible.

Keep the door open. Demonizing a treaty signatory like Iran may help the United States increase its international arms sales, but it will never strengthen the treaty regime or improve global security. To the contrary, such demonization only isolates Iran and pushes it away from its peaceful goals. Iran has remained a treaty signatory despite the international pressure it has faced over its nuclear program, and it is important to keep the door of diplomacy open. It is also important to remember that the treaty recognizes an inalienable right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes — a right that includes, despite some arguments to the contrary, uranium enrichment.

Much language in the treaty is vague and open to interpretation. Indeed, the United States and other nations may have deliberately favored ambiguity during treaty negotiations so that they could later leverage the treaty's rules to achieve their own national interests. So it may now be necessary to develop a neutral, global mechanism for interpreting the NPT and its provisions. But beyond that, the treaty regime will not succeed unless all parties realize that it takes two to tango. This means that, in the case of Iran's nuclear program, the West should stop demonizing Iran and stop portraying its nuclear program as an existential security threat to the whole world. Instead, the West should treat Iran as an equal partner in the nonproliferation regime and attempt to understand Tehran's security concerns. Because if the West continues to demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment, negotiations will continue to fail.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons