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A Proliferation Plateau May Offer Unique Opportunities
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April 2016

By Leonard S. Spector

Has the spread of nuclear weapons to new countries reached a plateau? That is how things appear in early 2016 on the basis of publicly available information.

If North Korea is treated as a nuclear-weapon possessor state, for which the opportunity to prevent proliferation has passed and whose capabilities must be addressed through deterrence and containment, and if Iran’s nuclear potential has been capped for the coming decade at a point well short of nuclear weapons possession, then, using publicly available sources, it is not possible at this moment to identify additional states aspiring to acquire nuclear arms and taking concrete steps to achieve this goal.

This would be very good news, but if horizontal proliferation may be stabilizing, overall nuclear dangers are far from going on holiday, with arsenals growing in China, India, North Korea, Pakistan, and possibly Israel and tensions growing in a number of potential nuclear hot spots.

A Plateau…

A look back at the history of nuclear proliferation reveals that the apparent absence of new aspirants is quite unusual and may be unique. In the early 2000s, for example, Iran, Iraq, and Libya were widely believed to have aspirations for nuclear weapons. Later revelations would indicate that these assessments were correct. Throughout the 1990s, North Korea would also have been on the list of perceived aspirants.

Nonetheless, if one works through the current list of states that are seen as most likely to be the next proliferators given their strategic environments, none appears to be taking steps in this direction, and all have good reason not to do so.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are often named in this context as states ready to respond in kind to the Iranian nuclear challenge. Yet, each of them faces obstacles.

Egypt remains in some political disarray, and its current nuclear program is very limited. Even if a deal signed with Russia in 2015 for Egypt’s first nuclear power plant progresses, it will be a decade or more before the facility comes online. No plans have been announced for the construction of domestic uranium-enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing facilities, which would provide the capability to produce weapons-usable nuclear material, and there have been no published reports of Egyptian advances in this direction.

Saudi Arabia has only the most rudimentary nuclear infrastructure and has yet to sign a contract for a nuclear power reactor. Analysts often note that, in 2009, King Abdullah warned that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, “we will get nuclear weapons”; other Saudi officials subsequently made statements to similar effect.1 Yet, these are widely believed to have been rhetorical declarations seeking to add urgency to U.S. and international efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions rather than announcements marking the launch of a nuclear weapons program.

Turkey was to begin construction of its first nuclear power plant, supplied by Russia, this year, but Ankara’s downing of a Russian warplane near the Turkish border with Syria in late November 2015 has put this project on hold.2 Construction of a French-supplied nuclear power plant is scheduled to begin in 2017.3 Turkey has not indicated any intention to engage in enrichment or reprocessing activities, and no evidence has surfaced suggesting it is moving in this direction or taking other steps toward nuclear weapons development.

With the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 states (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) now freezing Iran’s nuclear program at a reduced level for the next decade, possible Egyptian, Saudi, and Turkish, motivations to pursue indigenous nuclear deterrents have presumably eased. Another factor reducing such motivations is that all three have close security ties with the United States, with Turkey being a member of NATO. Such security relationships provide a robust alternative to the development of an indigenous nuclear deterrent and would be at risk if any of these states were perceived to be taking steps in that direction.

It should also be added that all three are non-nuclear-weapon-state parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), under which they have formally renounced nuclear weapons and agreed to place all nuclear materials and related facilities under inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure they are not being used for such weapons. Any violation would entail significant diplomatic costs, as well as the risk of sanctions.

For Japan and South Korea, the context is quite different from that of the three Middle Eastern states, but the bottom line is the same. The two East Asian countries have sizable, advanced civilian nuclear programs, and Japan has stocks of separated plutonium sufficient for a substantial nuclear arsenal. Moreover, both confront nuclear-armed antagonists, namely North Korea and China. The very immediacy of this threat, however, militates against Tokyo or Seoul launching a nuclear weapons program. With Japan lacking effective delivery systems and South Korea lacking fissile material, they cannot hope to meet the threat from the nearby nuclear-armed states by means of indigenous nuclear deterrents for at least five years and quite possibly longer.4 Thus, the only effective counter in these circumstances is reliance on the United States through their respective mutual defense treaties.5

A further factor restraining these countries is that both are non-nuclear-weapon-state parties to the NPT. Were they to disregard the treaty, they would face strong diplomatic interventions by the United States and other like-minded governments. In addition, the two states would certainly anticipate a confrontational response from China and North Korea to any steps toward nuclearization. The Japanese government also would face substantial popular opposition to going down the nuclear weapons path, given the country’s history.6

...Or Steep Challenges Ahead?

As encouraging as this picture seems, history also shows that the efforts of aspiring states to advance nuclear programs often remain secret for some time.

  • In the early 2000s, Syria’s effort to develop a clandestine plutonium-production reactor with the help of North Korea was apparently not known even to Western intelligence services, which first learned of the facility in 2007. The facility was not publicly revealed until early 2008.
  • Iran’s secret construction of the Natanz enrichment plant and the Arak reactor were not revealed until 2002 although they were probably known to U.S. intelligence officials well before that time. Iran’s subsequent construction of the Fordow enrichment plant, which began sometime before June 2007, may not have been confirmed by U.S. intelligence officials until shortly before it was publicly exposed in September 2009.
  • North Korea’s development of a uranium-enrichment facility was not confirmed even in U.S. intelligence circles until 2002, apparently well after construction began.
  • Saddam Hussein’s massive effort to develop a nuclear weapons infrastructure in Iraq in the 1980s eluded detection until exposed by uniquely intrusive inspections imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Thus, it is all too possible that surprises lie ahead that will cut short the momentary respite from proliferation pressures.             

Today, such a surprise might be the product of a number of emerging technological advances that could significantly lower the barriers to the development of nuclear arms and create new incentives for states to pursue such weapons. In particular, additive manufacturing—the extremely precise and rapid printing of machine parts, such as those needed for uranium-enrichment centrifuges and missile engines—and the use of lasers to enrich uranium may create new pathways to more-rapid development of nuclear weapons and the systems necessary for their delivery.

It may only be a few years, if that, before additive manufacturing is widely adopted. Although laser enrichment has not been commercialized, it may be adapted before long for enriching uranium on the smaller scale needed for a nuclear weapons program. Because of the small footprint of facilities employing these technologies, states could believe that they would be able to maintain the secrecy of their programs until they had achieved their objectives.

Potential political developments could also truncate the pause in horizontal proliferation. A further drift toward dictatorship or a possible military coup in Turkey, for example, could increase the interest of Turkish leaders in a nuclear weapons capability. Increased instability accompanied by heightened nationalism might create such a trend in Egypt. A further rightward drift in Japan or South Korea could create added support for nuclear arming. One cannot rule out the possibility that Iran will abrogate its nuclear deal with the P5+1 and sprint toward a nuclear arsenal. The future activities of powerful, territory-controlling nonstate actors, including the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, and others must also be borne in mind.

Thus, although the technical and political stars appear to have aligned to create a pause in the pursuit of nuclear arms by additional parties for the moment, that alignment is likely to be fragile and could be disrupted by future technological or political developments.

Other Nuclear Risks Not Fading

If horizontal proliferation may be leveling off, the risk of confrontation involving nuclear-armed states appears to be growing. With grim regularity, North Korea has been testing new capabilities, including more-powerful types of nuclear weapons, longer-range missiles, and submarine-launched systems. It also has been building up the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal, which could easily reach 50 in a few years.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has declared that her country will respond in kind to any further militarized provocation from the North, while new UN Security Council sanctions and expanded U.S.-South Korean military exercises risk triggering just such a provocation from Pyongyang. The stage therefore is set for a confrontation with serious potential for escalation.

China’s modernization of its nuclear arsenal will improve its capabilities for striking the United States. Its militarization of islands in the South China Sea, coupled with assertive U.S. Navy freedom-of-navigation cruises in contested nearby waters provides another emerging source of confrontation between nuclear-armed parties.

In Europe, Russia is modernizing its nuclear arsenal apace, although total numbers of deployed warheads are constrained by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Russia has repeatedly brandished its nuclear capabilities—through statements by President Vladimir Putin that have been taken by most observers as threats to escalate to the nuclear level if the West interferes in Moscow’s seizures of former Soviet territory—and through multiple military exercises threatening the Baltic states and other members of NATO. As NATO responds by intensifying air patrols in the Baltic states and increasing its presence there with expanded troop rotations, yet another locus for a possible nuclear confrontation has emerged.

Finally, in South Asia, mismatched Indian and Pakistani strategic doctrines are creating another potential nuclear flashpoint. India has made clear it will respond with force if it experiences another major terrorist attack on the scale of the 2008 attacks on Mumbai in which it sees Pakistan’s handiwork. New Delhi appears to be confident that, by declaring it has only limited war aims, Pakistan will have no cause to respond with nuclear arms. For its part, Pakistan is prepared to employ such weapons to repel any incursion of Indian forces into Pakistani territory. Given the uncertainty over where Pakistani government control over terrorist groups begins and ends, the situation is rife with escalatory dangers.7

Exploiting the Pause

The tensions just described underscore the importance of sustaining and reinforcing the current lull in horizontal proliferation by strengthening U.S. and international nonproliferation tools to forestall the efforts of the next would-be nuclear-armed state, should one begin to emerge. Building on the nuclear deal that is now constraining Iran and on other initiatives, it might be possible to buttress nonproliferation efforts by the following measures.8

Reinforce the role of the UN Security Council in enforcing nonproliferation norms by lowering the threshold for council involvement in cases of incipient proliferation. The threat of Security Council sanctions should be immediately invoked, for example, when the council receives confirmation of the secret construction of a sensitive fuel-cycle facility in an NPT non-nuclear-weapon state, and the council should remain ready to act until it is satisfied that the threat posed by such a facility has been effectively mitigated. The same mechanism should be employed if a number of states acting together formally complains to the council that the nuclear export controls of the group’s members are being repeatedly violated by another UN state.9 China, Germany, Japan, the United States, and a number of other countries might have raised such a complaint over Iran’s repeated abuse of their nuclear controls during the past decade. It should not be necessary to await a nuclear detonation or the formal determination of noncompliance with an IAEA safeguards agreement to trigger council involvement.

Build on the one-year early-warning benchmark in the Iran nuclear deal to help limit enrichment and reprocessing. Various measures in the Iran nuclear deal are intended to lengthen to one year the time that would be required for Iran to produce nuclear weapons through misuse of its uranium-enrichment capability. Concerned states should work toward making this one-year early-warning standard an additional de facto requirement for approving transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technology. International support for the one-year early-warning benchmark in the Iranian case should also be used to underscore the dangers of enrichment and reprocessing more generally, as a counter to arguments that all states are entitled to pursue such technologies without restriction.

Take steps toward making the powerful inspection tools adopted in the Iran nuclear deal a new standard for nuclear transparency. Various measures in the Iran nuclear deal are intended to prevent Iran from building nuclear arms by diverting nuclear materials from declared facilities or by building clandestine facilities. Steps such as monitoring uranium mines and the output of the mills that refine uranium ore should be promoted as essential components of standard IAEA inspection arrangements.

Refine and publicize the innovative economic sanctions tools used to bring Iran to the bargaining table and the additional innovations in the newly adopted Security Council sanctions against North Korea. Widespread appreciation of the impact of these tools can create a powerful deterrent against further proliferation.

Work to make illicit trafficking in nuclear goods an international crime, so as to establish universal jurisdiction and remove obstacles to the prosecution of malefactors. The difficulty in pursuing such traffickers was evident in the many failed attempts to prosecute members of the nuclear commodity smuggling network led by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. It was also highlighted more recently when, in parallel with formal implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, the United States terminated Interpol Red Notices against 14 parties for illegally assisting the Iranian nuclear or missile programs.10 Washington publicly justified the terminations in part by declaring that pursuing efforts to arrest the individuals in question had little chance of success.

Bring tools used by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to combat money laundering and financing of proliferation-related activities to international technology control institutions. Mutual assessments, sometimes known as “peer reviews,” and public shaming should be introduced at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to encourage more-effective implementation of the group’s technology control rules by member states. This tool is used to considerable effect at the 36-member FATF to enforce member-state compliance with that group’s anti-money laundering and anti-proliferation-financing standards.11 The approach should also be used more widely by the committee overseeing implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540. That resolution requires all states to implement controls, including export controls, over weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related goods. The committee has experimented with peer reviews, supporting such a mutual assessment of implementation of Resolution 1540 by Croatia and Poland in 2013.12 The 1540 Committee should use this tool more widely. In addition, the committee currently lists state compliance with the resolution’s requirements on a vast and difficult-to-navigate set of matrices. A step that would greatly encourage compliance would be to assign states an overall status, such as “largely compliant,” “somewhat compliant,” “noncompliant, but progressing,” and “noncompliant.” If this does not find favor at the committee, a nongovernmental organization might make such assessments and issue an annual report, similar to the Nuclear Security Index issued by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.  The NSG and the 1540 Committee also should consider issuing public statements regarding implementation of nuclear export controls, such as those that the FATF issues. The FATF public statements identify states that have particularly weak controls on money laundering and urge FATF members to take precautionary measures in their dealings with such states. The NSG and the 1540 Committee could issue similar statements identifying states that have particularly weak controls over WMD goods and urging other UN members to be wary of dealing with them.

Implement strategies, including international exchanges, for addressing new technological developments that could facilitate proliferation in coming years. Many concerned states are surely undertaking such analyses already. Internationalizing such work could broaden attention to this issue. One model for international exchanges might be through periodic meetings of technical experts on the margins of the NPT review conferences and Preparatory Committee meetings or under the auspices of the NSG.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but is intended to illustrate a range of initiatives that, in most cases, have gained a measure of international support in addressing the Iranian nuclear program or in settings that do not involve nuclear weapons.

Now is the time to seize the opportunity to buttress nonproliferation tools against an uncertain future. Despite the proliferation breather, this is no moment to relax.


1.   Chemi Shalev, “Dennis Ross: Saudi King Vowed to Obtain Nuclear Bomb After Iran,” Ha’aretz, May 30, 2012.

2.    World Nuclear Association, “Nuclear Power in Turkey,” October 2015, http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-t-z/turkey.aspx; “Russia Halts Work in Turkey’s First Nuclear Power Plant After Spat—Officials,” Reuters, December 9, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/mideast-crisis-turkey-russia-nuclear-idUSL8N13Y2WB20151209.

3.   World Nuclear Association, “Nuclear Power in Turkey.”

4.   Japan has a substantial and advanced space launch capability, with a number of systems that could be converted to nuclear-capable intermediate- and longer-range missiles. Nonetheless, it would require considerable time to make such conversions; refine warhead designs, fusing, and separation; manufacture sufficient numbers to stock a deterrent arsenal; and develop mobile or silo basing systems. Federation of American Scientists, “Missile Program,” June 1, 2012, http://fas.org/nuke/guide/japan/missile/.

5.   In mid-July 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acted to reinforce his country’s links to Washington, gaining the approval of Japan’s lower house of parliament to authorize the use of Japanese military forces abroad in cases when Japan is attacked or when a close ally is attacked and the result threatens Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to its people. Jonathan Soble, “Japan Moves to Allow Military Combat for First Time in 70 Years,” The New York Times, July 16, 2015.

6.   Tokyo or Seoul may take steps to reduce the time that would be needed to develop nuclear arms without getting so close as to antagonize adversaries and allies, but any such an “edging” strategy will likely remain quite cautious and limited.

7.   Reductions in U.S., UK, and French nuclear arsenals and somewhat less fraught relations between Iran and Israel in the wake of the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reflect more reassuring trends.

8.   Other specialists have offered additional recommendations to build on the Iran nuclear deal. See Alexander Glaser et al., “Building on the Iran Deal: Steps Toward a Middle Eastern Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone,” Arms Control Today, December 2015.

9.   UN Security Council Resolution 1540 declares in its preamble that trafficking in such nuclear goods poses a threat to international peace and security, the highest level of Security Council concern and one that serves as the standard for the imposition of sanctions under the UN Charter.

10.   An Interpol Red Notice is a request made to all Interpol countries for assistance in executing a member state’s arrest warrant for certain persons.

11.   All members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group are also members of the Financial Action Task Force or its affiliated bodies and should be familiar with the mutual assessment tool.

12.   “Joint Report of Croatia and Poland on the Bilateral Peer Review of Implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (2004),” n.d., http://www.un.org/en/sc/1540/pdf/Croatia-Poland%20Letter%20re%20effective%20practices%202014.pdf.

Leonard S. Spector leads the Washington office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. From 1997 to 2001, he served as assistant deputy administrator for arms control and nonproliferation at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.