"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
Strengthen the Nonproliferation Bargain
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Daryl G. Kimball

Once again the nuclear nonproliferation system is facing a crisis of confidence. New measures to update and strengthen the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) are needed. The May 2010 treaty review conference provides an important opportunity for the pact’s 189 members to adopt a balanced action plan to improve nuclear safeguards, guard against treaty withdrawal, accelerate progress on disarmament, and address regional proliferation challenges.

There is widespread support for commonsense initiatives that would advance treaty implementation and compliance. But friction over Iran's nuclear program and pending UN Security Council sanctions and the lack of progress toward a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone could impede efforts to bolster the treaty. To succeed, responsible states must work together in six key areas.

Supporting Tougher Nuclear Safeguards. Although the vast majority of NPT states-parties have implemented traditional International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, many have not adopted an additional protocol, which would give the IAEA enhanced authority to detect undeclared nuclear activities. States-parties can and should recognize the Model Additional Protocol as the new international standard and call for universal accession by 2015.

Increasing the Costs of Treaty Withdrawal. North Korea’s declared but unrecognized withdrawal from the NPT in 2003 highlights that countries can acquire technologies that bring them to the very brink of nuclear weapons capability without violating the treaty and can leave the treaty without automatic penalties. In the years ahead, others such as Iran may be tempted to follow. NPT members have a common interest in ensuring that noncompliance comes with consequences. States should agree to convene an emergency session to develop a collective response to any case of withdrawal and affirm that a state remains responsible for violations of the treaty committed prior to withdrawal.

Recognizing Nuclear Rights and Responsibilities. To avoid being isolated at the conference, Iran will seek to justify its pursuit of sensitive fuel-cycle activities in defiance of Security Council resolutions with the NPT’s Article IV peaceful nuclear use guarantee. It is crucial that non-nuclear-weapon states do not play into Iran’s strategy. They should urge Iran to respond fully to the outstanding questions about its nuclear activities, suspend its sensitive fuel-cycle activities as a confidence-building measure, and agree to tougher IAEA inspections.

Accelerating Progress on Nuclear Disarmament. The continued possession of nuclear weapons by a few states, reinforced by lackluster progress on NPT Article VI disarmament commitments, has eroded the willingness of the non-nuclear-weapon-state majority to agree to strengthen the nonproliferation end of the NPT bargain.

Washington and Moscow have a better story to tell than they did five years ago. But there is clearly more to be done, and the NPT conference should outline the immediate next steps. To begin, the conference should recognize the value of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and call for deeper verifiable and irreversible reductions of all types of nuclear warheads, including NATO’s forward-deployed tactical nuclear bombs, and urge all nuclear-armed states to refrain from increasing the size or military capabilities of their nuclear forces.

The conference should also call on all NPT members to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty no later than 2015. Nuclear testing is a dangerous vestige of the 20th century, yet the United States, China, and Iran are still among the nine CTBT holdout states that must ratify before the treaty enters into force.

Supporting Progress Toward a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East. As part of the package of proposals leading to the extension of the treaty in 1995, states agreed to support “practical steps toward the establishment of an effectively verifiable” zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

Egypt and other states are understandably frustrated about the lack of progress toward this goal and are prepared to press their case. Visible and early support for tangible steps toward a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone, such as appointing a special envoy and organizing an international conference on the matter, would strengthen the nonproliferation cause.

Holding Non-NPT Members Accountable to NPT Standards. The India-specific exemption from nuclear trade rules adopted in 2008 is a body blow to the treaty because it extends to a non-NPT state the peaceful nuclear use benefits that have been reserved so far only for states that meet their nonproliferation obligations. It has led Pakistan to seek a similar deal and block negotiations on a treaty to stop fissile production for weapons.

To mitigate the damage, the United States and other nuclear supplier states should make clear there will be no further exemptions and that any nuclear test explosion would lead to the termination of nuclear trade with the offending country.

U.S. leadership is necessary but not sufficient to strengthen the NPT regime. All states have a responsibility to fulfill their part of the NPT bargain and ensure that the treaty continues to underpin collective security for another 40 years.