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After the NPT Review

26 May 2005

After the NPT Review

By Gwynne Dyer

“If we could get out of this conference without a major blow-up, we would be doing well,” said Matt Martin, deputy director of the British American Security Information Council, when the review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) opened on 2 May. There was not even a final document when it closed on Friday (27 May), but nobody actually stormed out vowing never to return, so maybe we are doing well. Not nearly well enough, however.

 These review conferences have been held every five years since the NPT came into effect in 1970, and the last one, in 2000, seemed to be making real progress: it agreed on “Thirteen Steps” to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons and to hold the existing nuclear-weapons powers to their commitment to eliminate their nuclear arsenals in the long run. But that was then, and this is a very different time.

President George W. Bush, elected only six months later, promptly cancelled the US signature on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and started pushing various nuclear war-fighting technologies like new mini-nuclear weapons for bunker-busting. He dismissed the “Thirteen Steps” as merely an “historical document,” and reneged on the US pledge to sign a verifiable accord ending the production of new fissile material for nuclear weapons (though you would have thought that the current US supply was enough to last it for a hundred years).

North Korea, panicked by its inclusion in President Bush’s “axis of evil” in early 2002 and by loose talk in Washington about “regime change,” pulled out of the NPT and began claiming that it had or would soon have nuclear weapons. Whether that is true remains open to question, but the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 confirmed Kim Jong-il’s belief that only nuclear weapons could reliably deter a US attack.

Last February, North Korea flatly stated that it had nuclear weapons and refused to return to the six-power talks that were intended to persuade it to drop its nuclear plans. Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, called Pyongyang’s actions “a cry for help,” adding that “North Korea has, I think, been seeking a dialogue with the United States…through their usual policy of nuclear blackmail, nuclear brinkmanship, to force the other parties to engage them.” They are hopelessly inept at diplomacy, in other words, but basically they want a deal.

It’s probably true, but nobody in power in Washington believes it. Nor do they believe Iran’s assurances that its uranium enrichment programme is purely to fuel peaceful nuclear power reactors. After all, the Iranians have lived under the threat of Israeli nuclear strikes for around forty years, and latterly their inclusion in Mr Bush’s “axis of evil” has led them to fear a direct American attack as well.

Surely, American analysts reasoned, any sane Iranian government would be trying to develop its own nuclear weapons as a deterrent — and the discovery that Tehran had been concealing the size of its enrichment programme for many years merely strengthened their conviction that Iran planned to pursue that course (quite legally) until it had accumulated enough enriched uranium — and then withdraw from the NPT and assemble nuclear weapons in a matter of months.

So the US has been itching to drag Iran before the UN Security Council and impose sanctions on it — and meanwhile the Bush administration continues to pursue its goal of a new generation of mini-nukes (despite Congress’s rejection of the project last year) under cover of the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead programme. Britain plans to replace its existing Trident missiles and probably its nuclear warheads as well. And neither country will allow Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear weapons to be discussed in non-proliferation talks. It’s a mess, with plenty of blame all round, and it meant that the 2005 NPT review conference was bound to fail.

The non-nuclear countries of what used to be called the Third World insisted that the priority was for the existing nuclear powers to start living up to their promises to eliminate nuclear weapons from their arsenals. The main Western nuclear powers swept that aside, saying that the priority was to prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons. They were both right, of course, but they were unable even to agree on an agenda until the third week of the conference, and it closes with absolutely nothing accomplished. How bad is that?

Although America and Russia continue to possess over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons between them, the actual number of warheads in their arsenals has fallen by more than half in the past fifteen years, and is scheduled to shrink by many thousands more in coming years as they rationalise their stockpiles. The more “usable” mini-nukes beloved of Bush administration strategists have not yet been authorised by Congress, and would take more years than the administration has left to design and build.

Even if Iran and/or North Korea should acquire a token number of nuclear weapons for deterrent purposes, neither regime has shown the urge for self-immolation that would be needed for it to launch those weapons, in the certain knowledge that instant annihilation would follow in the form of a prompt and overwhelming nuclear counter-strike. And even if they did get nuclear weapons, it is not clear why other countries in their region would feel compelled to follow their example. The situation is not good, but it is probably less bad than it seems.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“President…years”;and “Surely…months”)