Repairing the Nonproliferation Regime

Daryl G. Kimball

Six decades after the first atomic blasts, the world’s leaders agree that nuclear weapons pose one of the greatest threats to global security and human existence. But as the recently concluded nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference demonstrates, there is a growing divide about how to address this danger. The four week-long conference closed in New York on May 27 without any agreed assessment or plan to bolster the global nonproliferation and disarmament regime.

Future progress will depend on correcting the policies that sank the 2005 review conference. Well before the meeting, the Bush administration signaled that it would not support core disarmament-related commitments and decisions made at the 2000 and 1995 review conferences, including supporting the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, irreversibly and verifiably reducing nuclear arms, and negotiating a verifiable ban on the production of fissile material for weapons. Yet, U.S. representatives claimed their disarmament record is “unassailable.” At the same time, they argued that peaceful nuclear cooperation is put at risk unless cases of noncompliance involving North Korea and Iran are forcefully addressed.

Predictably, Egypt and other nonaligned states did not want to allow the repudiation of past NPT conference commitments, which include pursuit of a nuclear-free Middle East and negative nuclear security assurances. Meanwhile, Iran, under investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency for safeguards violations, mischaracterized concern about its nuclear ambitions as an assault on developing states’ treaty “right” to peaceful nuclear endeavors. As a result, participants took weeks reaching agreement on an agenda and none of the three “main committees” could produce consensus reports.

U.S. officials deny any responsibility for the breakdown of the conference and blame Cairo’s stubborn resistance. But Egypt and others might have been more flexible if the United States did not seek to discard prior NPT agreements. U.S. intransigence scuttled the chance for agreement on Western proposals to make treaty withdrawal more difficult; toughen treaty monitoring, compliance, and enforcement; and tighten controls on nuclear weapons-related technology.

The NPT remains vital, but a crucial opportunity to strengthen it was squandered. Overcoming the differences revealed at the 2005 NPT Review Conference and avoiding further setbacks will not be easy but are possible, especially if the United States can adopt a more balanced, pragmatic, and flexible strategy.

The most urgent tasks are the resumption of talks leading to the verifiable dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and the successful conclusion of an agreement between the European Union and Iran that recognizes Iran’s “right” to pursue peaceful nuclear endeavors but produces a voluntary and indefinite freeze of its uranium enrichment program. Failure on either front could lead neighboring countries to rethink their nuclear options and/or lead to a military confrontation.

The Bush administration must seize on North Korea’s recently stated intention to resume long-stalled negotiations on its nuclear program and be prepared to offer a new and more practical proposal to resolve the crisis. To increase Iran’s incentives to cooperate and comply with the NPT, the White House must make it clear that it will not seek regime change and that it will support the guaranteed and controlled supply of nuclear energy fuel as a substitute for an Iranian uranium enrichment program.

To prevent the further production and proliferation of weapons-usable nuclear material, the United States, EU, and others should back an indefinite moratorium on all new uranium enrichment and plutonium separation plants. Even with tougher international inspection authority and tighter controls on nuclear technology transfers, confidence in the nonproliferation system will erode if more states produce more nuclear bomb material. The pause would provide time to consider options for the guaranteed supply of nuclear energy fuel services and launch long-stalled talks on a global ban on the production of fissile material for weapons.

Finally, the leaders of the nuclear-weapon states must restore confidence that they will continue to reduce the number and the role of nuclear weapons. It is in the United States’ self-interest to resume talks with Russia on verifiable strategic nuclear reductions before START I and its verification provisions expire in 2009. NATO should move to withdraw the obsolete U.S. tactical nuclear weapons stockpile in Europe to encourage Russia to account for and reduce its even larger tactical nuclear arsenal, parts of which could fall into terrorist hands. The nuclear-weapon states should also disavow the development of new types of nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear- weapon states and targets.

The dangers of the bomb are obvious and the need for action is as clear as ever. Without more effective global leadership in all—not just some—of these areas, the struggle against nuclear proliferation will fall short and leave behind an even more dangerous world for generations to come.