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Iran’s Nuclear Program and the NPT 2.0

Is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in need of an update due to rising concerns over Iran?

April 26, 2006

Is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in need of an update due to rising concerns over Iran?

The NPT today faces a fundamental crisis — both in terms of its effectiveness and legitimacy. The clear and present danger is entropic, illustrated by NPT signatories Iran and North Korea. The second is older, deeper and systemic, as symbolized by the NPT's pre-eminent refusenik, India.

Together, such challenges provide an opportune moment to upgrade the NPT, and renew its mandate. As the U.S. Congress seeks to recognize India as a nuclear weapons state, it has in fact already begun to address the second challenge.

More than the fait accompli of the Indian nuclear tests, it is becoming increasingly difficult to explain the relevance of an 'international' agreement excluding a country like India — home to one in six human beings, alongside its status as the world's fourth-ranked and second fastest growing economy.

As its largest democracy, India can also claim sanction for its nuclear choices by a billion voices, or more than the United States, Western Europe, Russia, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea combined. Equally crucial: Indian high technology (including its nuclear knowhow) is, in several respects, already on par or close to that of the West.

Indeed, the Indian opt-out — and its 'peaceful' nuclear test in 1974 — was the first nail in the NPT’s coffin. This was rather like the Soviet Union’s nyet to a previous non-proliferation initiative, the Baruch Plan — or the United States opt-out, in a still earlier era, from the League of Nations.

Although the present US effort to acknowledge India's nuclear status seemingly undermines the NPT, it serves to address a gaping hole in the treaty — and could make new, global non-proliferation efforts more meaningful.

The NPT was a somewhat unique product of the Cold War. It was a rare instance of the Soviet Union and the United States (alongside their main allies) collaborating towards a common goal — to close the nuclear weapons option to new aspirants. Nevertheless, the NPT did seek to strike a balance between non-proliferation by nuclear aspirants and disarmament by nuclear weapon states.

Article VI of NPT obliges the latter to fully eliminate their nuclear arsenals, albeit in "good faith". Their disinclination to do so was India's consistent complaint, until it broke its self-imposed quarter-century moratorium in May 1998 — and fatally undermined the international relevance of the NPT.

Unlike India, Iran’s and North Korea's challenge to the NPT entails a broader opposition to the global economic and political order, well beyond nuclear issues. Still, there is also a pattern within such entropy, which a revamped NPT will have to address.

Nuclear technology is not a commodity, and true nuclear weapons capability is limited to a handful of states with an adequate industrial/technological base.

Iran's nuclear ambitions are little more than a spin-off from the bazaar of Dr A. Q. Khan, father of the Pakistani nuclear program. Even as the world focuses on Iran, it is important to ask why Dr. Khan was so inadequately sanctioned by Pakistan.

Or worse, why the Pakistani government was not sanctioned more by the international community — for turning a blind eye to Dr. Khan’s bazaar, or being unaware of it. It is therefore important today to learn exactly how safe Pakistan’s nuclear technology is, and encourage that country to seek help if it has any doubts on this score.

The strength of such concern is illustrated by another entropic actor, North Korea, whose Nodong system fathered Pakistan’s missile program. This followed a bargain on core competencies — Pakistani nuclear technology in exchange for North Korean missile know-how.

Any serious non-proliferation efforts today must therefore work hard to avoid the next Iran-type situation in North Korea, whose Maximum Leader and autarchic economy are even less predictable or manageable.

We need to also ensure that an A. Q. Khan clone does not emerge in the future out of Iran, leaking knowhow to, say, the Syrians, or to terror groups clamoring for even the crudest form of nuclear device. This would be the serial proliferation nightmare.

Meanwhile, should there be serious will to meaningfully handle the twin challenges to non-proliferation — from India on the one side and Pakistan, Iran and North Korea on the other — what is required is a dramatic re-legitimization of the NPT.

A revision of the NPT would consist of the following steps. The key would be to eliminate the universally destabilizing first-use nuclear option, alongside transfer of a second-strike capability to a credible organ of the 'international community'.

1. The United States and Russia agree to reduce their nuclear weapon stockpiles in a step-down fashion, according to a rolling five-yearly schedule. The United States should not just support and finance cuts in Russia’s nuclear weapons, but commit to accelerate its own disarmament in tandem. Both Russia and America’s massive arsenals — in numbers, yield and delivery systems — mean little unless directed solely at one other. Instead, they serve to destroy any moral grounds to urge restraint on nuclear newcomers.

2. Britain and France place their nuclear weapons under the European Union. Unlike other nuclear weapon states, it is becoming increasingly difficult for these middle-ranking powers to justify who their nuclear arms are directed against.

3. China, India and the European Union commit to 'kick down' their own arsenals (even if they have increased it in the meanwhile), as soon as the US and Russia downscale to a specified and agreed threshold.

4. Led by the United States, all nuclear powers forsake a nuclear first use option. While deterrence between nuclear weapons States would continue, this would be the only way to counter the attractiveness of nuclear weapons for unstable new aspirants and terrorists. Crude nuclear devices and a barebones arsenal have significance only in terms of first use; so do Soviet-era Scud progeny such as the Nodongs and Ghauris, fielded by entropic actors as nuclear weapon delivery systems.

5. All nuclear powers — including special cases Pakistan and Israel — commit to progressively transfer and surrender control of a specified part of their nuclear weapons to an international authority at some specified date in the future. Such a transfer should enable the authority to immediately attain an effective level of deterrence.

6. The authority, which may well be the UN Security Council — in an expanded form, to include recognized new nuclear powers like India and key non-nuclear states like Brazil and Japan — provides a nuclear umbrella to all States. It would guarantee second-strike retaliation on behalf of any country, nuclear or not, attacked with nuclear weapons and extend such a threat to state sponsors of terrorists who use nuclear weapons.

(Existing technology in the form of permissive action links would equip the authority, to both prevent unauthorized use and require multiple, simultaneous authorizations before operating nuclear weapons. Several possibilities also exist to locate/co-locate and secure such assets).

7. While most entropic actors draw mileage from the United States as a perceived enemy, few would be ready to do so against a concert of major powers, in other words the wider international community. (Unlike 'Death to America', 'Death to the World' sounds silly, even to a mob).

This step-by-step program, as outlined above, would bring a dated but still useful instrument like the NPT into line with changed global realities. Though difficult, it would echo meaningfully in a multipolar world facing the disruptive nuclear aspirations of small states, alongside a crisis in legitimacy of the United States, its preeminent power.