Home The Washington Diplomat June 2010

Nuclear Non-Starter? Old Gripes May Strangle Push for Nonproliferation

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At the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in New York in 2005, failure was evident almost from the outset.

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CREDIT: UN PHOTO / ESKINDER DEBEBE
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, talks with President Barack Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, a major international gathering hosted by Obama ahead of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference last month. Both Ban and Obama have advocated for nuclear disarmament and strengthening the NPT, which, with 189 members, remains the world's most important global nuclear weapons pact.

The Bush administration made immediately clear it would focus with laser-like intensity on the growing nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea. Meanwhile, the American delegation refused to acknowledge commitments the United States had made at previous review conferences, specifically pledges to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, enact deeper reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and other disarmament agreements.

The disconnect — viewed as American arrogance by many of the non-nuclear weapons states — resulted in a large number of countries chafing at the U.S.-proposed agenda, and the conference ended in general disappointment all around.

Fast forward five years.

The United States has a new president in Barack Obama who not only has a more inclusive, conciliatory leadership style, but also a deep commitment to global — including American — nuclear disarmament. In the frenzied few weeks prior to the May 3-28 NPT conference, Obama convened a global nuclear terrorism summit in Washington and signed a new START treaty with Russia, cutting each side’s nuclear warheads by 30 percent. The administration also released its long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review in May and, significantly, for the first time ever publicly revealed the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal (about 5,000 warheads).

Obama’s nuclear declarations leading up to the review conference in New York seemed to be an attempt to blunt charges often leveled by the developing world that the United States and other nuclear powers aren’t holding up their end of the NPT bargain — which essentially states that atomic powers will work to eliminate their nuclear arsenals and, in exchange, other countries will abandon their weapons ambitions in favor of peaceful nuclear power programs.

To that end, another proposal that emerged halfway through the conference was for the United States, Russia and other nuclear powers to negotiate a timetable for abolishing nuclear arms at a global conference in 2014. The highly ambitious plan was only an opening gambit that was highly unlikely to become reality because the five nuclear states signed to the treaty — Britain, France, the United States, Russia and China — have never endorsed a timetable for nuclear abolition.

Still, the shift in words — and more importantly, in deeds — made for a more collegial and less combative tone at the twice-a-decade conference in New York last month to strengthen the landmark 1970 NPT accord and help it adapt to today’s nuclear-evolving world.

“This time, the U.S. came in with a much more balanced and comprehensive approach — some concrete, deliverable commitments,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. “It reflects our previous obligations and commitments. Nothing in the international diplomatic field comes without a little bit of give and take.”

But that give and take has hampered past efforts to bolster the NPT — which, with 189 members, remains the world’s most important global nuclear weapons pact. In fact, many of the same disagreements that have dogged past negotiations cast a pall over the May negotiations in New York, where the divide between the nuclear haves and have-nots may have softened a bit, but was as sharp as ever when it came down to hard commitments from either side.

According to Julian Borger of the Global Security Blog, Obama’s nuclear speech in Prague last year, the changes in the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review and the new START treaty “have all been credited to the account of the weapons states, and defused some of the us-versus-them friction that torpedoed the last review conference in 2005,” he wrote in the Guardian in mid-May. “But the feel-good factor does not necessarily imply there will be a meaningful agreement at the end of the month on what should be done about disarmament and nonproliferation. The weapons states are not going to sign up for a timetable for disarmament, and non-weapons states are not going to accept tougher IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspections, known as the Additional Protocol, as obligatory.”

One nation in particular has long balked at stronger IAEA oversight — and like the 2005 conference, it returned as a focal point of the discussions. And once again, Iran did little to appease its critics in the West, with the country’s firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, angrily dismissing accusations that his government posed a nuclear threat and pointing the finger at the United States for fostering a nuclear arms race as the first and only state to have ever used a nuclear bomb.

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CREDIT: UN PHOTO / MARK GARTEN
Yukiya Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is pictured inside the U.N. General Assembly Hall in New York before addressing the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, which takes place every five years.

Iran’s declaration to ship most of its low-enriched uranium to Turkey in a surprise nuclear fuel swap deal aided by Brazil also seemed to throw a wrench in the administration’s plans to enact tougher U.N. sanctions against Tehran. Indeed, many say the announcement was a bold gambit by emerging nations such as Turkey and Brazil to assert their influence and push back efforts by the NPT superpowers to restrict nuclear fuel programs in the name of preventing proliferation.

But just as quickly as the announcement was made, the Obama administration seemed to shrug it off and made their own surprise declaration that they had secured Russian and Chinese backing for a strong draft resolution to impose new U.N. sanctions on Iran. But it remains to be seen if the resolution will win the full support of the U.N. Security Council because Turkey and Brazil, which currently hold rotating seats on the council, have expressed opposition to new sanctions.

In fact, Turkey blasted the U.S. maneuver and said it reeked of hypocrisy. “This is the time to discuss whether we believe in the supremacy of law or the law of the supremes and superiors,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Madrid shortly after the announcement. “While they still have nuclear weapons, where do they get the credibility to ask other countries not to have them?”

The differences expose a deeper rift in the NPT club. As much as Iran is a lightening rod for the nuclear powers, for many emerging nations, Tehran isn’t their biggest irritant. For them, the pink elephant in the room is the four nations that already possess nukes — Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea — but have never signed onto the treaty and don’t have to abide by its rules.

In particular, Israel’s assumed nuclear weapons stockpile has fueled acrimony and charges of hypocrisy among many Arab states. (Israel neither acknowledges nor denies possessing nuclear weapons, but most experts believe they have between 100 to 200 nuclear weapons.) Anger over Israel’s NPT exclusion helped to derail the 2005 talks and emerged again this year as a potential spoiler.

“There is mistrust,” confirmed Maged Abdelaziz, Egypt’s U.N. ambassador, who is serving as chairman of the 118-member so-called Non-Aligned Movement.

Israel’s nuclear program has long been a source of contention, but this time Egypt — which has spearheaded the drive for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East since 1995 — is linking the issue to Iran’s surreptitious nuclear agenda.

“If major countries wish to address Iran’s nuclear dossier, they can do that by bringing Israel and Iran to the negotiating table,” Egyptian U.N. Ambassador Abdelaziz recently told the Al-Ahram newspaper. To that end, Egypt and the so-called “New Agenda Coalition” — including middle power states such as Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden — are pushing for a broader nonproliferation agreement that could isolate Iran in return for progress on the Middle East nuclear-free zone.

As such, Cairo holds a “key lever” of power at this year’s conference, according to Leonard S. Spector, Washington director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

“What they are bargaining for is satisfaction on this issue, and what we [the United States] want to do is try to find a reasonable compromise that will enable Egypt to support the very important other issues we want to advance,” Spector told The Washington Diplomat.

But unlike past reviews, Egypt is insisting on concrete plans to move the Mideast nuclear-free concept forward, proposing that a conference be held next year at which all regional states — including Israel and Iran — start negotiations on the zone.

“Some of these ideas, such as a conference, are getting some attention but it’s not clear just where that takes us,” Spector said. “There are different ways such a conference could take place and there are differences as to whether the conference should be a starting point for negotiations or a review of where things stand. And there are big differences within the Arab group — those who would be satisfied with a conference and those who would want more.”

Sharon Squassoni, director of the proliferation prevention program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, credited Egypt’s diplomats for forcing the Israeli issue with some degree of success in New York.

“The diplomatic team they are fielding here is very sophisticated, very articulate and very demanding,” Squassoni told The Diplomat. “Sometimes at these diplomatic conferences half the people don’t know what’s going on. They are seasoned, skilled diplomats in these areas.”

But Spector questioned Egypt’s insistent focus on Israel as slightly puzzling, arguing that if Cairo is really looking to protect its leadership role in the region, then Iran poses the bigger threat than Israel does.

“The fundamental question was how far did it want to take this,” Spector said. “At the 2005 conference, they wouldn’t even settle for the agenda. This time around they didn’t block the agenda, they just bargained hard for something they care about for reasons that are still a little bit uncertain.”

Spector and Squassoni both said they suspected Egypt’s maneuvering was about more than simply pressuring Israel.

“I’ve always thought it’s about domestic and inter-Arab politics at the heart of it,” Spector said. “The more they go against this Zionist state — quote-unquote — the taller they stand in the eyes of some in the region. It doesn’t seem to actually be consistent with what any observer would say are the actual strategic requirements of Egypt. It’s not going to be displaced by Israel asserting leadership in the region; it will be displaced by Iran asserting leadership in the region. It’s a strange brew here.”

Squassoni echoes that sentiment. “Why isn’t every single state in the Middle East up in arms about Iranian actions?” she asked. “I’m sure we say this to Egypt again and again.”

At the same time though, she believes that Israel’s unwillingness to sign the nonproliferation treaty has genuinely infuriated Egypt, and is one of the reasons the country won’t sign an additional protocol.

“It’s so angry Israel hasn’t joined the NPT and has nuclear weapons,” she said. “Egypt — the only state to have signed a peace treaty with Israel — feel like it’s out on a limb. It doesn’t have much to pressure Israel with.”

In private, the Obama administration has reportedly told Israel that it will not support a push to make Israel sign the NPT or pledge to participate in a nuclear-free zone. Publicly, it has stated that its policy on the Israeli nuclear question remains unchanged. But the current administration is apparently willing to hear Egypt out on the issue.

An unnamed U.S. official told the Wall Street Journal prior to this year’s conference that the future American position will “go beyond what the U.S. has been willing to do before” on the nuclear-free zone. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in May also hinted that the United States was “prepared to support practical measures to move us toward achieving that objective.”

But most experts doubt the U.S. administration will press Israel to make any nuclear arms commitments before tangible peace is achieved in the region that would ease Israel’s security concerns.

“The Israeli case gets treated differently partly because it’s a fait accompli,” Spector explained. “There is nothing we can do about it. They are a very close ally, they are one of the few democracies in the region, and they are very westernized. We have a very strong affinity to Israel, and there is a sense that these weapons are not being used as a political tool to advance their interests in the region.

“This is a legitimate issue, and it’s one the U.S. is trying to work out a solution for,” Spector added. “But it’s been difficult. It’s clear that the path to a WMD-free zone is long and arduous, but all the states in the region officially support it.”

Kimball of the Arms Control Association said that the United States generally supports a conference to discuss the issue but won’t endorse a formal convention or treaty to achieve a WMD-free zone, agreeing that such a move would simply be premature.

“Many of these countries just haven’t set down and talked to each other, period,” Kimball pointed out. “Some states don’t recognize Israel as a sovereign state. Israel is openly threatening Iran with military strikes if it doesn’t stop its uranium enrichment program. There are difficulties that prevent countries from sitting down in an adult fashion and actually having a negotiation.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 1, 2014