Nukes: The Cart Before the Horse

7 July 2009

Nukes: The Cart Before the Horse

By Gwynne Dyer

Speaking in Moscow on 7 July, President Barack Obama was the very soul of reasonableness. The United States and Russia must cooperate to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, he said, while keeping the goal of a world without nuclear weapons always in sight: “America is committed to stopping nuclear proliferation, and ultimately seeking a world without nuclear weapons.”

Unfortunately, that is the wrong way round. The deal that underpinned the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed way back in 1968, was that the five great powers who already had nuclear weapons would gradually get rid of them. In return, the rest of the world’s countries would not make them at all. But more than forty years later, none of those five countries (the US, Russia, Britain, France and China) has kept its side of the deal.

In the circumstances, it’s remarkable that only four more countries have developed nuclear weapons. Three of them (Israel, India and Pakistan) never signed the treaty at all, and the fourth (North Korea) signed it in 1985, quit it in 2003, and then tested its first bomb in 2006. But the queue of those who are now thinking about doing it stretches down the block and around the corner.

“Any (treaty)…has to have a sense of fairness and equity, and it is not there,” said Mohamed El-Baradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper two months ago. “We still live in a world where if you have nuclear weapons, you are buying power, you are buying insurance against attack. That is not lost on those who do not have nuclear weapons, particularly in (conflict) regions.”

It was probably the US invasion of Iraq that made the North Koreans go nuclear, for finding yourself on President Bush’s short list for invasion (the “Axis of Evil”) is bound to be a bit unnerving. That may also explain why the Iranians put their nuclear programme into high gear – although there is an ideological difficulty here.

Just last month, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared once again that “Nuclear weapons are religiously forbidden in Islam and Iranian people do not have such a weapon.” Since Khamenei is a religious scholar, we may presume that he is not lying when he says that nuclear weapons are forbidden (haram) in Islam. Ayatollahs do not trim their conclusions on such matters to suit the tactical needs of the moment.

So how does Khamenei reconcile this principle with the obvious fact that Iran is relentlessly developing all the technologies needed to build nuclear weapons? “Virtual nuclear weapons,” of course. You get all the technologies and the enrichment facilities up and running, you continue to the point where you could build your first nuclear bomb in only a few months – and then you stop.

So far, all legal and morally correct. But if a hostile nuclear-armed country starts making open threats or secret preparations against you, you throw your legal and/or moral qualms out the window, quickly cover the remaining distance and presto! You have your own nuclear deterrent.

“This is the phenomenon we see now and what people worry about in Iran,” said 20El-Baradei in May. “And this phenomenon goes much beyond Iran. Pretty soon…you will have nine weapons states and probably another ten or twenty virtual weapons states.”

It’s legal because another part of the deal that underpinned the NPT gave all the signatories the right to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Since the technologies for enriching nuclear materials for fuel in reactors are basically the same as those for enriching them to weapons grade – you just run the fissile material through the process many more times – every country has the right to become a virtual nuclear weapons power.

The only thing that can stop the rapid spread of nuclear weapons now, argues El-Baradei, is a genuine move by the existing nuclear powers to get rid of their weapons. If they finally kept their forty-year-old promise, it would change the whole psychology that drives the current wave of proliferation. Can they?

It has to start with the US and Russia, who still own 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. The agreement that the United States and Russia signed in Moscow on 6 July doesn’t begin to meet that requirement, proposing only that the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) which must be signed by the end of this year will reduce their long-range nuclear weapons by up to a third within seven years. That’s not nearly enough.

But maybe they’re just trying to lower expectations. Maybe, by the time they actually finish negotiating the treaty in December, it will decree ninety percent cuts within three or four years, leaving Russia and America with only enough nuclear weapons to destroy a couple of hundred cities each. That might be enough to turn the tide and stop the proliferation.

El-Baradei got it exactly right. If that is done before the NPT comes up for review next April, “you would have a completely different environment. All these so-called virtual weapons states…will think twice…because then the major powers will have the moral authority to go after them and say: ‘We are doing our part of the bargain. Now it is up to you.’”

But the existing nuclear powers have to move first.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“It was…here”; and “It’s legal…power”)