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What’s at Stake in the NPT Debate?


At Shadow Government, William Tobey covers the ongoing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conference and provides a useful overview of how the debate is being shaped by strategic framing of the treaty’s core rules:

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.

But Tobey argues that neither description of the Treaty’s trade-offs is fully accurate:

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.

These points make sense, except the part in his first paragraph about how the non-transfer of nuclear materials provision has been such a success. I think this overlooks the highly controversial US-India nuclear deal, in which the US agrees to transfer dual-use technology to India (a non-signatory to the NPT which has developed and tested nuclear weapons since the treaty came into force), albeit in exchange for policies that would bring India into partial compliance with the treaty’s provisions. To the extent that Tobey is right about non-transfer of nuclear weapons technology to non-nuclear-weapons-states (which in treaty terms include everyone but the P5), this bargain would seem to undercut the notion that these provisions have been a success.

Ultimately, as Julian Borger reports, the key issue on the agenda at present is a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. His coverage includes a useful round-up and lots of links for those interested.

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