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January 19, 2011
News ANALYSIS: NPT Preparatory Meeting Scores Some Success

Oliver Meier reporting from Vienna

Substantive discussions at the first of three preparatory meetings for the 2010 review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), held April 30-May 11 in Vienna, were cut short because of an Iranian objection to the agenda. Yet, conference participants viewed the meeting as a success because of an improved atmosphere and despite continuing differences with regard to the appropriate balance between the treaty’s nonproliferation and disarmament commitments as well as on next steps to improve the operation of the treaty.

A Difficult Start

The Vienna meeting took place against the background of the failed 2005 NPT review conference, which stalled for more than two weeks because of disagreements over the agenda. (See ACT, June 2005. ) Therefore, many participants had a sense of déjà vu when Iran at the end of the first day of the meeting prevented the adoption of the agenda by objecting to discussions on “the need for full compliance with the treaty.”

Ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh, head of the Iranian delegation, told Arms Control Today May 21 that Iran proposed to amend the agenda to clarify that the meeting should discuss compliance with “all provisions” of the treaty in order to prevent “any sort of interpretation or misinterpretation and to avoid ambiguities” and enable, in particular, discussions on compliance with nuclear disarmament obligations.

Soltanieh also repeated allegations that the chair of the preparatory committee, Japanese Ambassador Yukiya Amano, had not shown the draft agenda to Iran before the meeting. In an unusual move, Amano publicly rebutted these accusations during the conference and listed the occasions that he had presented the draft text to Iran, which he said at that time had not voiced any objections.

In Vienna, Amano refused to reopen discussions on the draft agenda, apparently because he feared that other delegations might also push for amendments and cause the agreement to unravel. Soltanieh said this approach “forced Iran into a corner.” Thus, the meeting effectively came to a halt on May 2, after three days of general debate.

Many participants believe that Iran, which has been censured by the UN Security Council as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for the lack of transparency related to its nuclear activities, was trying to block or delay proceedings because it was afraid of becoming the center of criticism at the meeting.

“If it wasn’t this, it would have been something else,” Christopher Ford, U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, who headed the U.S. delegation in Vienna, told Arms Control Today May 16. This sentiment was shared by many Western delegates.

In contrast to past meetings, Iran was unable to get public support for its position from the group of nonaligned, or developing, states, of which it is a member. Iran remained all but isolated, with only Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela publicly supporting its stance. Privately speaking, some nonaligned delegates voiced a certain degree of sympathy for Iran’s position, arguing that the emphasis on compliance was indeed a U.S. priority and that singling out particular issues in the agenda could prevent a balanced debate.

The dispute over the agenda was finally resolved by a South African compromise proposal. Ambassador Abdul Minty, South Africa’s special representative on disarmament and head of the South African delegation, had proposed at the end of the first week to leave the agenda unchanged but to reflect Iranian concerns through a separate decision by the conference that “the reference in the agenda to ‘reaffirming the need for full compliance with the treaty’ to mean that it will consider compliance with all the provisions of the treaty.” Iran accepted this compromise language, linked via an asterisk to the agenda, on May 8, three and a half days before the scheduled end of the conference.

Differences on Disarmament

As a result of these delays, substantive debates on disarmament, nonproliferation, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, as well as a number of proposals to improve the operation of the treaty, were cut short. Many delegates felt that debate on disarmament was “remarkable for its very constructive tone rather than its content” as a senior EU diplomat told Arms Control Today May 18. The debate was seen as useful primarily for fleshing out differences on nuclear disarmament rather than bridging these gaps. Because the preparatory committee did not have to agree on a consensus document, participants were not forced to resolve disagreements. The EU official cautioned that this year’s debate did not increase his expectation “that there will be a final document in 2010.”

Most non-nuclear-weapon states criticized nuclear-weapon states for not disarming fast enough and for abandoning nuclear arms control, increasing reliance on nuclear weapons, and especially for developing new types of nuclear weapons. There were repeated calls on states that have not done so to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty so that it can enter into force. There was also broad support for commencement of negotiations on a treaty to end production of fissile material for weapons purposes on the basis of the six presidents’ proposal tabled at the Geneva Conference on Disarmament.

One notable development was the revitalization of the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), an informal grouping of states formed in 1998 to advance nuclear disarmament, which issued a joint working paper and made joint statements. NAC members Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden explicitly called on nuclear-weapon states “not to develop new nuclear weapons,” particularly if these weapons have new capabilities or are designed to take on new roles.

Nuclear-weapon states, by contrast, argued that nuclear weapons reductions since the end of the Cold War had contributed to the fulfillment of disarmament obligations under Article VI, which obliges nuclear-weapon states to pursue negotiations on nuclear disarmament.

The United Kingdom defended its position to pursue a replacement system for its Trident nuclear submarines. (See ACT, April 2007. ) British Ambassador John Duncan rejected criticism that it is “hypocritical” for the United Kingdom “to maintain its nuclear weapons while calling on others to desist from their development” by arguing that the United Kingdom “does not belong to an opposite camp that insists on ‘non-proliferation’ first.”

The United States went on the offensive. A U.S. working paper on disarmament submitted to the conference May 3 stated that the planned development of a reliable replacement warhead “advances the goals expressed in the preamble and Article VI of the NPT” by making it possible to reduce the size of the reserve stockpile of nuclear weapons and making it more unlikely that nuclear testing needs to be resumed.

This line did not find support among non-nuclear-weapon states, but many participants viewed the U.S. presentation of “A Work Plan for the 2010 Review Cycle: Coping With Challenges Facing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty” as Washington’s attempt at least to appear more constructive than at past NPT meetings. “The United States was more forthcoming and prepared to engage where previously it was sitting back much more,” Minty told Arms Control Today May 17. A senior Brazilian diplomat, speaking to Arms Control Today May 2 pointed out, however, that U.S. positions on arms control issues had not changed despite the softened rhetoric.

Several parties urged the United States and Russia to agree on further cuts in strategic nuclear arms. The European Union in its statement noted that START I is due to expire in 2009 and the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty will end in 2012. It stressed “the need for more progress in reducing these nuclear arsenals through appropriate follow-on processes.” The 27 EU states “would welcome a further continuation of the above processes represented by a bilateral follow-on agreement to the expiring START I.”

With bilateral discussions about possible follow-on measures to the START verification provisions still taking place (see ACT, May 2007 ), the United States was reluctant to go into detail about its wish list for those talks. A senior U.S. official in a Vienna press conference April 30 only told reporters that Washington hopes that a “post-START way of living together would include significant transparency and confidence-building measures.”

Europeans also urged Russia and the United States to begin “negotiations on an effectively verifiable agreement to best achieve the greatest possible reductions” in tactical nuclear weapons. The nonaligned states went further and implicitly called for an end to NATO nuclear-sharing arrangements, under which the United States still deploys about 480 tactical nuclear weapons in six European countries, stating that “nuclear-weapon states, in cooperation among themselves and non-nuclear-weapon states, and with states not parties to the treaty, must refrain from nuclear sharing for military purposes under any kind of security arrangements.”

Preparing for a Nuclear Fuel-Cycle Debate

The debate on a reform of controls of nuclear fuel-cycle activities was muted because states were waiting for the IAEA Secretariat to prepare a report on the topic to be presented to the agency’s Board of Governors at its June 11-15 meeting. The IAEA in its statement to the conference did not provide details on the report but announced that it would entail “modalities and criteria for possible assurance mechanisms.”

According to the statement, the IAEA envisages a two-step approach and is likely to propose, first, that “mechanisms for assurances of supply of fuel for nuclear power reactors” would be established, including possibly for the acquisition of reactors. “The second step would be to encourage all enrichment and reprocessing operations to be under multilateral control,” the agency stated. From the IAEA’s perspective, “any assurance of supply of nuclear fuel should be formulated in a manner that is equitable and accessible to all users of nuclear energy.”

This point was echoed by many nonaligned states, and Minty told Arms Control Today that, for him, “it is very clear that the board cannot accept any discriminatory practice. That is just impossible to conceive of.” The EU official admitted to Arms Control Today that based on the debate in Vienna, “much work remains to be done” to convince potential recipients of a fuel-supply mechanism of the concept. There appears to be no clarity yet as to what will happen after the IAEA report has been presented to the board in June, but substantive discussions and possible decisions on the issue are not expected before the IAEA General Conference in September or a board meeting in November.

Meanwhile, the IAEA and Russia have agreed to set up a working group to establish an international uranium-enrichment center at the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Complex in Siberia as Moscow had proposed under its January 2006 Global Nuclear Power Infrastructure initiative. (See ACT, November 2006. ) According to a March 22 IAEA press release, IAEA Deputy Director General Yuri Sokolov told a press conference March 18 in Angarsk that the agency’s main point of concern about proposals discussed with Russia was the provision of a mechanism that would ensure that states are not cut off from fuel supplies for political reasons.

On May 10, Russia and Kazakhstan signed a bilateral agreement on the establishment of an international enrichment center at Angarsk. “We consider this document the first step in the implementation of our initiative to create a global nuclear energy infrastructure,” Russian President Vladimir Putin was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying. Kazakhstan holds 15 percent of the world’s uranium reserves. Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Russian Federal Agency of Nuclear Power, was quoted in the same article as saying that “now that the agreement is signed, the process of establishing the center is complete” and inviting other countries to join the project by signing a similar intergovernmental agreement with Moscow.

On April 26, Germany proposed establishing a new enrichment plant on an extraterritorial site outside the current provider states. Germany introduced the idea during an IAEA special event on nuclear fuel-supply assurances in September 2006, but the proposal got caught up in bureaucratic infighting in Berlin between the Ministry of Economics and the Federal Foreign Ministry. According to the scheme published on the IAEA site as an official document, the plant would be “under sole IAEA supervision with regard to export controls.” The facility would be constructed by a commercial company but financed and owned by an international consortium of member states. The IAEA would supervise the plant and decide on the release of deliveries of low-enriched uranium on the basis of “a binding catalogue of criteria.” In a May 2 article in the German daily Handelsblatt, Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier emphasized that contrary to other proposals, the plan “would not prohibit anyone from enriching uranium. If a country wanted to develop and perform its own enrichment openly and in accordance with the IAEA, nobody would stop it.”

Raising the Hurdles for Withdrawal

The conference also debated whether and how to raise the bar for states to withdraw from the NPT. At the 2005 review conference, the EU had been a major proponent of related measures; at this year’s event, the issue was also endorsed by the United States. A U.S. working paper lists possible measures to dissuade states that have previously violated the NPT from withdrawing, including:

• the use of coercive measures by the UN Security Council;

• continued safeguards or withdrawal of nuclear facilities and technology through the IAEA in cases where such material was acquired during NPT membership; and

• “appropriate means to halt the use of nuclear material and equipment previously supplied to the withdrawing state and to secure the elimination of such items or their return to the original supplier.”

These proposals met mixed responses from nonaligned states, some of which placed the issue in a broader context. They argued that higher hurdles for withdrawal would be primarily aimed at non-nuclear-weapon states and that nuclear-weapon states in return should also accept new obligations, for example, with regard to nuclear disarmament. Minty, in his closing statement May 11, argued for limiting discussions on withdrawal to procedural matters. He warned against any discussion of penalties, which in South Africa’s view would require a formal amendment of the treaty. “It can be argued that if it had been the intention of the drafters to penalize withdrawal, then it would have been expressively provided for in the NPT,” Minty stated.

Soltanieh, when talking to Arms Control Today, described the debate as unnecessary and divisive. He argued that “any change or any interpretation of Article X needs an amendment conference” of NPT states-parties. The EU official, when talking to Arms Control Today, disputed the notion that the debate on withdrawal was “an attempt to develop new disciplinary measures.” He said that the perception of some nonaligned states in this regard was wrong and that it was not the EU’s intention to curtail the sovereign right to withdraw from the treaty.

Careful Criticism of the U.S.-Indian Nuclear Deal

Several states indirectly raised their concerns about the effects on the NPT of a possible lifting of nuclear sanctions on India. The NAC in their working paper reminded states-parties that, “at the Review Conference in 2000, states parties reaffirmed the unanimous agreement at the Review and Extension Conference in 1995 not to enter into new nuclear supply arrangements with parties that did not accept IAEA full-scope safeguards on their nuclear facilities.”

The EU official supported the view that the U.S.-Indian deal is of relevance to the NPT and argued that “it is wrong to focus this debate only on decisions to be taken in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.”

Nonaligned states, which are traditionally also critical of Israel’s nuclear program, argued in their statement to the conference, delivered April 30 by Cuba, that there should be a “total and complete prohibition of the transfer of all nuclear-related equipment, information, material and facilities, resources or devices and the extension of assistance in the nuclear, scientific or technological fields to states that are not parties to the treaty without exception.” Some delegations were even more explicit in their national statements. Egypt in a May 1 working paper maintained that it is in “direct contravention with the treaty, as expressed in the 2000 final document, to engage in nuclear cooperation with any state whose nuclear facilities are not under IAEA full-scope safeguards.”

The United States defended its plans to engage in nuclear cooperation with India. In a statement during the debate on regional issues, Ford argued that the U.S. interactions with Pakistan and India “continue in every respect to be consistent with our NPT obligations.”

When talking to Arms Control Today, Ford emphasized that the United States is committed to “ensuring that any nuclear cooperation avoids providing assistance to the military side” of India’s nuclear activity and that this remains “a critical consideration for being able to provide assistance” to India. Ford also stressed that India’s “separation plan is intended to separate the military aspects from the civilian aspects in such a way that there is no spillover between the two.”

The Role of the Review Process

Disagreements about the character of the review process itself loomed in the background of substantive discussions. The United States argued in its statement that review conference decisions are not binding on member states and that “suggestions” the 2010 review conference “might make in a consensus document would be recommendations.”

Ford elaborated in the interview with Arms Control Today that “[i]f we offer good advice to future policymakers in such a document, they should take it. But if our advice doesn’t address the challenges they face, they shouldn’t be shy about re-evaluating.”

According to Ford, this argument also applies to past agreements at review conferences. “I don’t see any reason for people to adhere reflexively to an obsolete recommendation just because one hasn’t gotten consensus on a replacement recommendation.” Such an approach “would be almost a sort of policymaker professional malpractice,” he said.

At the 2005 review conference, France and the United States argued that they felt no longer bound by the 13 practical steps on nuclear disarmament contained in the 2000 consensus final document because the global context had changed so dramatically after September 11, 2001. Yet, even nuclear-weapon states disagree on this point. Thus, Duncan reaffirmed in Vienna the United Kingdom’s commitment to “the unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the relevant disarmament measures contained in the 1995 Review Conference decisions and in the 2000 Final Document.”

Several non-nuclear-weapon states, while agreeing with Washington that decisions by review conferences are not legally binding, flatly rejected the U.S. line that review conferences only make suggestions. Minty in the interview with Arms Control Today pointed out that the U.S. line has broad implications.

“If you selectively decide how to deal with [decisions taken at review conferences], then you break the consensus on the regime because the regime is not just the treaty. The nonproliferation regime is the treaty plus the decisions taken at multilateral meetings.” This was echoed by the EU diplomat, who argued it would be difficult to strengthen any multilateral treaty based on the U.S. approach. Minty pointed out that “we have taken decisions before to which the United States has not objected to. In 1995, we extended the treaty. So, should we now say that the extension at that time should have been thought of as a recommendation? And then, who would have extended the treaty?”

Adopting the Report

In contrast to the slow start, the conference ended in a hurry. With the morning of the last day still occupied by substantive debates, Amato had little time available to finish his report. As a result, several delegations, including those of the nonaligned group and France, were unable to endorse the chair’s “factual summary.”

Soltanieh told Arms Control Today that the report is “biased” but also objected in principle to the chairman being entrusted with summarizing proceedings at a multilateral meeting without delegations being able to discuss and alter the report. Asked about a statement in Amano’s report that “serious concern was expressed over Iran’s nuclear program” during the meeting, Soltanieh called it “unacceptable that we come to a meeting of parties to a treaty and we criticize one of the parties explicitly in the report.” He warned that “[t]his will have serious consequences for the future of [the] NPT.”

In the end, Amano’s paper was issued as a working paper instead of being formally annexed to the conference report. This procedural downgrading was not seen as significant, and many echoed Minty’s assessment that no “real damage is done by the fact that the chairman’s summary will appear in another section of the conference proceedings.” Instead, many participants thanked the chair for successfully steering the meeting around multiple points of potential failure, obviously relieved that the meeting had not completely collapsed.