The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) establishes a balance of obligations undertaken respectively by nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states to ensure nonproliferation and move toward a nuclear weapons-free world. Often referred to as containing the Grand Bargain, the pact calls on the nuclear-weapon states to initiate negotiations to eliminate their arsenals (Article VI) and not to assist efforts by non-nuclear-weapon states to acquire nuclear weapons (Article I). At the same time, the NPT requires the non-nuclear-weapon states to forgo the acquisition of nuclear weapons (Article II) and to place all of their nuclear facilities under international safeguards (Article III). In examining the success of the Grand Bargain, much has been written over the years, and especially recently, about the transgressions of non-nuclear-weapon state “cheaters”—states such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea who became states-parties to the NPT but prepared either secretly or openly to mount a nuclear weapons program. Yet, less attention has been paid to the failures of nuclear-weapon states to meet their commitments under the NPT.
It is important not to lose sight of the fact that any compliance failure by a prominent state-party to the NPT is a potentially serious blow to the long-term survival of the treaty, the existing nonproliferation norm that the treaty has helped nurture, and the hopes for a peaceful world. In this respect, the NPT obligations of the nuclear-weapon states are crucial. If collective action to confront a proliferator and roll back or otherwise neutralize its program is to be successful, the most powerful nations must come to the table with clean hands if their leadership is to be viewed seriously and not cynically. At the same time, this task is made more difficult by the fact that the five nuclear-weapon states recognized by the NPT (the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China), by virtue of their special status as permanent members of the UN Security Council, enjoy veto power over UN sanctions and investigations. Enforcing adherence to their commitments requires them to police themselves and each other.
The Nuclear-Weapon States and Article I
The obligations contained in Article I of the NPT (see box) are among the most critical elements of the current nonproliferation regime because, without outside assistance, would-be proliferators, even if relatively advanced technologically, are hard-pressed to succeed in their plans. Indeed, the history of proliferation tells us that every country that has decided to make nuclear weapons since the end of World War II received assistance in its nuclear endeavor either as a result of scientific collaboration with the United States or other states with nuclear weapons or via espionage. The Soviet Union’s first weapon was at least partially assisted by espionage at the Manhattan Project, and the Soviets in turn provided important assistance to the Chinese program. The French and British programs were assisted by their collaboration with the United States on the Manhattan Project. France made a conscious decision in 1956 to give Israel the means to acquire the bomb, and Israel in turn provided some assistance to the French program and perhaps to the South African program as well, possibly in return for South African nuclear materials. The Indian program was substantially aided by the unwitting assistance of Canada and the United States. The Pakistani program proceeded from theft of design plans for a European nuclear enrichment plant, assistance from China, and a substantial clandestine worldwide purchasing program for the technology and components to complete the needed infrastructure to make weapons.
More recently, despite their NPT vows, the nuclear-weapon states have fostered a second wave of proliferation, with Russia indirectly aiding Iran’s nuclear weapons program and China helping Pakistan further its nuclear weapons program with tacit U.S. acquiescence.
Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.
Beginning in the early 1980s by its own recent admission to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has pursued, by legal and illegal means, the building of a fissile material production infrastructure that could have as its ultimate development the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Among the illegalities committed by Iran during this period, as detailed in an IAEA report, are the unsafeguarded production of small quantities of plutonium and the unsafeguarded importation and/or building of centrifuges and lasers for the enrichment of uranium. The IAEA has also discovered, via environmental sampling, evidence of highly enriched uranium (HEU) at an Iranian nuclear facility, although the Iranians deny that they produced such material. Denials notwithstanding, the Iranian program is unambiguously oriented toward a nuclear-weapon capability. In response to international pressure, Iran has agreed to “suspend” its enrichment and plutonium separation activities and to permit more intrusive inspections in the future.
Moscow has advanced Tehran’s ability to acquire nuclear technology by aiding Iran in the construction of a nuclear reactor at the city of Bushehr. Such nuclear assistance by a nuclear-weapon state carries with it the transfer of technology that would be indirectly helpful to a proliferator’s nuclear weapons program and is therefore proscribed under Article I. To be sure, if the Russians were unaware of the Iranian activities, then they would not be in violation of Article I; but the question is: Was Russian intelligence in the dark about Iranian nuclear activities for 20 years, or did Russia turn a blind eye to Iran’s nuclear program in order to proceed with the reactor deal? At the very least, there was insufficient attention paid to considerable reports over the years that the Iranians were moving in the direction of achieving a weapons capability. That alone does not make Russian assistance to Iran a violation of Article I, but it suggests a willingness to skirt the associated obligations via legalistic interpretations.
Not that Russia was alone. How China and the United States dealt with Pakistan’s situation also illustrates how some nuclear-weapon states have either violated or skirted their NPT commitments vis-à-vis Article I.
Chinese assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program began more than 20 years ago. It has reportedly included in 1983 the design for a 25-kiloton nuclear explosive device that was the object of the fourth nuclear test carried out by the Chinese. In addition, China reportedly gave Pakistan enough HEU in 1983 to fuel two nuclear weapons, sold tritium to Pakistan in 1986 that can be used to “boost” the explosive yield of nuclear weapons, and provided technical support for the construction of the Kahuta gas centrifuge nuclear-enrichment complex that has since been the major source of Pakistan’s nuclear-weapon material production.
All of this activity took place prior to China’s accession to the NPT in 1992. In the years leading up to and following China’s decision to sign and ratify the NPT, China went through a series of policy moves that gradually moved it closer to alignment with the other nuclear powers on nonproliferation policy. Initially, Chinese policy was characterized by support for proliferation and open hostility to the treaty when it was presented for signature in 1968. It gradually ended its support for proliferation, joining the IAEA in 1984 and agreeing to place all its nuclear exports under safeguards. It took further positive steps in the 1990s, signing the NPT in 1992 and calling on nuclear-weapon states to issue no-first-use pledges and positive and negative security assurances and voting for the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995. This record of apparent continual progress in the evolution of China’s legal support for nonproliferation has unfortunately not always been backed up by appropriate action. In particular, China’s support of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program did not end with China’s accession to the treaty in 1992.
In 1994 the China National Nuclear Corporation sold 5,000 ring magnets to the unsafeguarded A.Q. Khan Research Laboratory at Kahuta. This equipment is used in special suspension bearings at the tops of rotating cylinders in gas centrifuges allowing for the production of weapons-grade HEU. The magnets were delivered in three shipments between December 1994 and mid-1995. Although both the CIA director and the U.S. secretary of defense were reported to believe that the Chinese government approved the sale and had therefore violated Article I of the NPT as well as U.S. law, the Clinton administration in 1996 chose not to impose sanctions on China. The grounds for this decision were stated to be that there was no evidence that the Chinese government had “willfully aided or abetted” Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program via the ring magnet sale and that China had (1) promised to provide assistance only to safeguarded facilities, (2) reaffirmed its commitment to nonproliferation, and (3) agreed to consultations on export control and proliferation issues. Pakistan was also not penalized.
Contemporaneous with these events, China sold to Pakistan in 1996 and helped install a special industrial furnace that can be used to melt plutonium or HEU into the shape of bomb cores and was reported to have provided assistance to Pakistan during 1994-1996 in the construction of an unsafeguarded production reactor at Khushab that could produce plutonium suitable for use in nuclear weapons.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that China was indeed in violation of Article I but got away with it with U.S. complicity. That was not, however, the first time nor the last time that U.S. policy involving Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program found itself at odds with its own expressions of support for nonproliferation.
For nearly three decades, except for two short periods, the United States has largely turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, emphasizing other more immediate foreign policy priorities, such as using Pakistan as the main supply base for supporting the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has renewed this emphasis on short-term tactical goals over more important long-term strategic needs. The administration moved quickly to lift many remaining sanctions on Islamabad that had been imposed following Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests. As part of a U.S.-supplied program of stepped-up defense assistance, Pakistan is now seeking Bush administration approval to upgrade its fleet of F-16s, at least some of which are believed to have been refurbished to carry nuclear weapons. The United States is now providing hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to Islamabad, and some U.S. aid, even if not specifically nuclear, can release Pakistani resources that can be used to fund additions to its nuclear arsenal and that increases the risk of nuclear war in South Asia. Pakistan’s egregious record, along with the history of U.S. assistance in the face of that record, provides an arguable case that the United States has been and is in violation of its Article I commitment not to, in any way, assist or encourage the making of nuclear weapons by a non-nuclear-weapon state as defined by the NPT.
Yet, some supporters of U.S. policy toward Pakistan want to compound these errors further. They argue that the presence in Pakistan of radical Islamic groups allied with or sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda makes it imperative for the United States to shore up Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s regime in order to make a coup less probable and to help the Pakistanis protect their nuclear weapons from theft, even though doing so might also be a violation of Article I. History has shown, however, that the instability of Pakistani politics means there are no guarantees that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will not ultimately fall (by inheritance or otherwise) into the hands of elements unfriendly to the United States. Our previous abandonment of a strong nonproliferation stance in South Asia for a tactical advance in the Cold War ended badly for all involved, and a further dilution of Article I obligations for the current war on terrorism is sure to do so again.
Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.
Consequences of Article I Violations
The result of collaborating with or turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program can be seen in the better-known and more recent attempts of North Korea and Iran to develop nuclear weapons. There has been much hand-wringing, attempted diplomacy, and thinly veiled threats over Pyongyang’s decision to withdraw from the NPT and proceed to reprocess 8,000 spent fuel rods in order to obtain plutonium for nuclear weapons. If North Korea were to succeed in producing an arsenal of nuclear weapons, the subsequent political turmoil in the region and globally would be difficult to overestimate. Likewise, a nuclear Iran might well inflame a region that is already a tinderbox. Yet, the major role of Pakistan in assisting these illicit programs has been insufficiently publicized. Pakistan traded nuclear weapons-related technology to North Korea in return for missile technology, and Iran has recently admitted that its clandestine work on nuclear enrichment was also aided by Pakistan.
These unholy trading activities have the potential of morphing into a threat that was not envisioned when the NPT was drafted nearly four decades ago: terrorist acquisition of nuclear weapons. North Korea is well known for financing its nearly bankrupt regime through exports of ballistic missiles, and Pyongyang has shown few scruples in terms of screening out potential buyers; it is not unimaginable that a desperate Kim Jong Il might sell nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons technology to terrorists. The United States lists Iran as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
Pakistan may even prove more of a tempting target for terrorists than these two better known rogue states. Pakistan is an authoritarian-led country with significant sympathy for al Qaeda at high levels within its powerful military and its nuclear establishment. It is a country that has at least 30 nuclear weapons waiting to be seized in the event of a coup, a country that sponsored the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s, a country that has supported terrorism in Kashmir, and a country that is evidently prepared to trade its nuclear-weapon technology to anyone who will provide it with a quid pro quo that enables it better to confront its larger and stronger Indian neighbor.
1. Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes to accept safeguards, as set forth in an agreement to be negotiated and concluded with the International Atomic Energy Agency in accordance with the Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Agencys safeguards system, for the exclusive purpose of verification of the fulfillment of its obligations assumed under this Treaty with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Procedures for the safeguards required by this article shall be followed with respect to source or special fissionable material whether it is being produced, processed or used in any principal nuclear facility or is outside any such facility. The safeguards required by this article shall be applied to all source or special fissionable material in all peaceful nuclear activities within the territory of such State, under its jurisdiction, or carried out under its control anywhere.
The Nuclear-Weapon States and Article VI
The nuclear-weapon states can also be fairly criticized for failing to fulfill their obligations under Article VI, which requires measures toward eliminating nuclear arsenals. It is fashionable these days to claim that there is no connection between the presence of nuclear weapons in the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the NPT and the desire by other countries to proliferate. Although it is undoubtedly true that the existence of nuclear weapons in the nuclear-weapon states is not the sole motivator of a proliferator, the presence of such weapons and the attitudes toward them cannot help but have an impact on the decision of a non-nuclear-weapon state to change its nuclear status. To the extent that nuclear weapons are seen by the nuclear-weapon states as central to their strategic posture and foreign policy, the message being sent to the world is that the commitment to Article VI is a sham, and that nuclear weapons bring international prestige and other benefits.
Those who claim that Article VI has only a tenuous relationship to the health of the NPT should recall the hard fact that the early proposals for the NPT were being aggressively attacked by India and others as being unacceptably discriminatory in favor of the five nuclear-weapon states. The addition of Article VI to the treaty blunted these attacks and allowed the treaty to go forward, albeit without the Indians, who would not give up their right to make nuclear weapons. Moreover, the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 was predicated in part on assurances of continued commitment by the nuclear-weapon states to Article VI.
Although the vast majority of non-nuclear-weapon states evidently see sufficient value in their membership in the NPT to give the nuclear-weapon states a wide berth in carrying out their disarmament obligations, a substantial part of every NPT Review Conference is devoted to the subject of Article VI. Complaints about the failure of the nuclear-weapon states to satisfy their obligations have been rising with each successive conference, aided in part by a 1996 unanimous opinion of the International Court of Justice that “[t]here exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” Unfortunately, the court did not define what is meant by “good faith,” so it has been easy for the nuclear-weapon states either to ignore the court or claim that their actions are in keeping with the goal of a nuclear-disarmed world.
To be sure, the end of the Cold War has ended the nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia, has resulted in a reduction of the number of nuclear weapons in existence, and has started the shutdown of fissile material production in the United States and Russia. START has brought down the number of deployed strategic warheads to 6,000 (from a level of 10,000 each for the United States and Russia), and the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) approved by the U.S. Senate on March 6, 2003, sets a goal for the two states of deploying no more than 2,200 warheads a piece by December 31, 2012. In addition, as a result of parallel unilateral reductions by the United States and Russia, total U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons have been reduced by nearly 90 percent.
All these happy facts do not present a complete picture of compliance with Article VI. For example, under SORT the United States will be storing rather than dismantling thousands of warheads removed from active deployment, thereby allowing fast redeployment whenever desired.
Additionally, the United States will still maintain large numbers of nonstrategic warheads.
Of course, it is not only the United States that is hedging on progress toward fulfillment of Article VI. Russia will also be able to store rather than destroy strategic warheads, and it currently deploys at least an estimated 3,500 nonstrategic nuclear weapons. In addition, Russia has thousands more undeployed tactical nuclear weapons. As for the other weapon states, neither France nor the United Kingdom has given any indication that they would be prepared to reduce their own nuclear stockpiles commensurate with reductions undertaken by the United States and Russia. China, despite claiming to support the opinion issued by the International Court of Justice, has embarked on a substantial program of modernization of its nuclear weapon systems and is expected to add to its stockpile of warheads. This may be motivated in part by India’s nuclear buildup, plans by the United States to build ballistic missile defenses, and reports that Taiwan may be interested in such defenses. However, it is unhelpful in the quest for progress on Article VI.
Most unhelpful of all are some policy decisions made by the Bush administration in the wake of the 2000 NPT Review Conference, given the longtime U.S. leadership role on nonproliferation efforts and contemporary U.S. military dominance.
Recall that at the previous review conference in 1995, which unanimously approved the indefinite extension of the NPT, the nuclear weapons states agreed to strengthen the NPT review process and pursue specific principles and objectives for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. In a follow-up to this agreement at the 2000 conference, the nuclear-weapon states elaborated and strengthened the principles adopted in 1995. In particular, they agreed to an “unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals,” along with 13 “practical steps” to fulfill their earlier pledge for systematic and progressive efforts to implement Article VI. Although the United States signed on to these steps at the 2000 conference, it has now reversed field and backed off a number of provisions, to wit:
Provision 1: The Bush administration has said it will not resubmit the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification. The Senate rejected ratification in 1999 during the Clinton administration. Because 44 countries designated as nuclear-capable states must ratify the agreement, and neither India, Pakistan, nor North Korea has signed it while 10 others have signed but not ratified, the treaty is effectively dead regardless of the U.S. position. Although the United States is maintaining its moratorium on testing, it is keeping alive the possibility of testing if its stockpile deteriorates or officials believe that circumstances demand it. In addition, the United States is considering the development of new low-yield nuclear weapons and other new nuclear warheads with the intended purpose of attacking bunkers or other tough targets. The development of such weapons might require testing for effectiveness.
Provision 5: SORT allows for the return to operational service of warheads that have been removed and stored, ostensibly to take care of the possibility that some operational warheads may need replacement on grounds of safety or reliability. Unlike previous U.S.-Russian treaties, SORT is missing a key element of irreversibility, provisions requiring the destruction of launchers for nuclear-tipped missiles. Also, the treaty’s invocation of “unforeseen changes in the global security environment” has been cited as undermining the pledge of strict adherence to the principle of irreversibility.
Provision 7: The United States has officially withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to pursue nationwide missile defenses and has abandoned START II and START III in favor of SORT. Among other things, this rescinds START II’s prohibition of multiple warheads on missiles—multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles—and allows for storage rather than destruction of warheads or delivery vehicles.
Provision 9(d): Although the currently ongoing storage and retirement of warheads fulfills the letter of this provision, the fact that remaining strategic warheads are still on high alert presents an unnecessarily dangerous situation.
Provision 9(e): The Bush administration’s nuclear posture review projects retention of nuclear weapons for the indefinite future, and the administration is also looking at new types of weapons for new missions. For example, a key administration policy document unveiled in January 2003, NSPD-17, more formally raises the possibility of using nuclear weapons to retaliate for a chemical or biological weapons attack. (See ACT, January 2003.)
Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.
Whether the nuclear-weapon states, and particularly the United States, are in violation of their Article VI commitments depends on how one defines “good faith.” The stated U.S. position is still one of support for the NPT and for Article VI, but there is no question that the reversal of the pledges made at the 2000 conference are serious matters deserving serious consideration in world councils. Undoubtedly, the next NPT review conference in 2005 will devote considerable attention to this issue. There is a tendency in some circles to deride all the attention given to Article VI because it is seen by some as a utopian fantasy with no real prospect of implementation in any time frame of relevance to the next few generations. Critics also point out that India, Pakistan, and Israel have nuclear weapons but are outside the NPT and therefore have no Article VI obligations, but this should be a reason to find a way to bring those outliers into the nonproliferation regime, not a reason to abandon the Grand Bargain that made the regime possible in the first place.
Nonetheless, critics of Article VI have a point based on the behavior of the nuclear-weapon states. It is certainly the case that the nuclear-weapon states give lots of lip service to Article VI but do not appear to be making any significant security decisions that are driven by their obligations under it. Does this matter if there are no resulting near-term defections from the NPT by non-weapon states? I would argue that it does. The security issue that is now at the top of everyone’s agenda, namely, international terrorism, will be affected eventually by policy decisions that are relevant to the goals of Article VI. Can nuclear weapons protect us against terrorists? If not, how prudent is it to possess indefinitely arsenals of nuclear weapons when terrorists are known to be seeking them?
Articles I and VI are Complementary
We are living in an era where a proliferator with one nuclear weapon can present an unacceptable risk if he is willing to turn his weapon over to terrorists. That is why the proliferation problem is so critical today. We have already seen the results of nuclear-weapon states’ inattentiveness to and violations of Article I, the rising risk of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. Violations of the Grand Bargain in letter or in spirit by nuclear-weapon states undermine the NPT and decrease support for strong measures to deter proliferators who have themselves violated the Grand Bargain. Yet, ensuring that there is no assistance given to proliferators is only part of the necessary equation. The rest of the Grand Bargain is equally important for the long term, as the threat of nuclear terrorism as well as nuclear war would become moot in a world without nuclear weapons and new supplies of fissile materials (the latter being the objective of a needed Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty). Thus, Article VI goes hand in hand with Article I as necessary and complementary measures that the nuclear-weapon states must continue to undertake to reach the goal of a safer world in the short term and in the longer term.
On any given day, failure to comply with Article I can have consequences that may not be reversed by returning to compliance the day after. The long term nature of Article VI does not present the same immediate risk provided it is clear that the ultimate goal of a nuclear-free world is maintained. But maintaining the Grand Bargain does require evidence that the nuclear-weapon states are undertaking good faith efforts toward that goal.
In this context, “good faith” means, at the very least, the de-emphasis of nuclear weapons in a country’s strategic posture and the adoption of policies that will create the conditions under which further steps toward disarmament are seen as prudent and security enhancing. Current policies by the United States and the other states with nuclear weapons are not taking us in that direction.
The "13 Steps"
1. Achieve the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
10. Create arrangements by which fissile material no longer needed for military purposes will be placed within IAEA or other relevant international verification arrangement such that the material remains permanently outside military programs.
Leonard Weiss is a private consultant who has worked on nonproliferation issues for more than 25 years and wrote or directed major legislation on that topic during his tenure as chief of staff for the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs (1977-1999).