Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Stand Up to Iran at the Nonproliferation Review Conference

| May 16, 2010

Diplomats from around the world have convened in New York to review the Nonproliferation Treaty, an agreement second only to the United Nations Charter in size and importance. The Nonproliferation Treaty is designed to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.

The stakes for the review are high, because the Treaty is under assault by North Korea, which withdrew from it in 2003 and later conducted two nuclear tests; Syria, which built a covert nuclear reactor with North Korean help; and Iran, which violated its Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency by constructing its own once-secret facilities.

The United States and its allies want to strengthen the Treaty by making withdrawal more costly, improving measures to detect cheating, and limiting the spread of the most sensitive technologies. Iran is equally determined to block these measures and is assembling a coalition to do so, with Belarus, Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela at its core. Tehran also seeks broader support from the 118-member Nonaligned Movement, many of whose members are sympathetic to Iran or dismayed by lack of progress on their priorities, such as nuclear weapons free zones or disarmament by the nuclear powers.

A key question being debated at the Review Conference is:  What is the central bargain of the Nonproliferation Treaty? A leading South African diplomat, Abdul Minty, argues that the core of the treaty is a pledge by states without nuclear weapons to forego them, in return for a promise by states with nuclear weapons to work for their elimination. By this logic, any threat of nuclear proliferation is the fault mainly of the United States and Russia, because they have not met their disarmament commitments.

During the 2005 Review Conference, the United States held the central bargain of the Treaty instead to be: "if non-nuclear weapons states renounce the pursuit of nuclear weapons, they may gain assistance in developing civilian nuclear power." By this logic, states like Iran that violate their obligations should be denied international assistance. That would mean halting Russian construction of the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr, and foregoing just-announced discussion of Russian assistance in building a Syrian nuclear power plant.

In reality, neither description of the Treaty's tradeoffs is complete.  The Nonproliferation Treaty is a series of deals, including two additional bargains.

First, the Treaty was an agreement among nuclear weapons states not to spread their technology. When the Treaty entered into force in 1970, the United States and the Soviet Union recognized that escalating Cold War competition by further transfer of nuclear weapons technology could have disastrous consequences. Hence, the first obligation of the Treaty is not to transfer nuclear weapons to any recipient whatsoever. This provision of the Treaty has generally succeeded admirably.

Second and often overlooked, the Nonproliferation Treaty is a deal among non-nuclear weapons states to avoid a dangerous and fruitless competition that would leave them poorer and less secure. The economic and security benefits of the Treaty are most profound for peaceful states without nuclear weapons.  They avoid costly programs that will not ultimately improve their security.

Moreover, those nations most imperiled by Treaty violators are not the nuclear weapons states, but states without such weapons.  For example, Iran's actions are far more threatening to the neighboring Gulf States than they are to the United States. Thus, countries without nuclear weapons should actively support efforts to strengthen the Treaty and punish violations, instead of joining Iran's attempts to block progress. A stronger Nonproliferation Treaty would greatly benefit the overwhelming majority of Nonaligned Movement members.

What of the argument that proliferation is rooted in the failure of the nuclear powers to disarm? Experience and logic argue otherwise. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has reduced its nuclear arsenal by about 80 percent. President George H. W. Bush ordered the U.S. stockpile cut in half; his son ordered it to be cut in half again, and then reduced it by an additional fifteen percent. President Obama's further, albeit more modest, reductions under the New START Treaty will continue a twenty year U.S. trend reducing reliance on nuclear weapons, and greatly reducing nuclear arsenals. Unfortunately, this disarmament progress has had no apparent effect on North Korea, Iran, and Syria.

If the Obama administration is to succeed in averting a wave of nuclear proliferation, it will need support from the scores of countries around the world whose security would be most profoundly affected by it. For their own benefit, they should stand in support of strengthening the Nonproliferation Treaty and against efforts by Iran to divert the Review Conference from a successful outcome.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Tobey, William H..“Stand Up to Iran at the Nonproliferation Review Conference.” Foreign Policy, May 16, 2010.

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