The confrontation between Washington and Tehran over Iran's nuclear program remains very menacing. President George W. Bush has dismissed as "wild speculation" reports that US officials were planning military attacks against suspect sites in Iran. And he has reaffirmed his commitment - for now - to using diplomatic means to address concerns about Iran. But his military doctrine of active "prevention" of developments like Iran's acquisition of nuclear-weapons technology remains in place, and he and his officials pointedly note that no US options have yet been taken off the table regarding Iran.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush is urging Congress to take actions that directly contravene the global Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). He is asking for legislative changes that would allow the export of US nuclear technology to India, a country that - unlike Iran - remains outside the NPT and has openly tested a number of nuclear weapons.
Is the administration schizophrenic about the NPT? On the one hand, it criticizes Iran for not adhering to an optional, superstrict addendum to the NPT called the Additional Protocol, and on the other, it is openly undermining the NPT through its own legislative initiative.
I do not think the administration is schizophrenic. Bush and his key advisers probably dislike the NPT just as much as they dislike other international treaties which could constrain US actions, such as the Kyoto Treaty on carbon emissions or the Rome Treaty on the international war-crimes court. But whereas the United States has never ratified those other treaties, it has always - until now - been a stalwart member of the NPT.
Bush and his officials are not at this point arguing that the US should withdraw from the NPT. But the legislative changes he is urging regarding exports of US nuclear technology and materials to India would, if they are passed, certainly cause a crisis in Washington's relations with the NPT's other signatories. These include all the world's other nations except India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea (all of which have nuclear arsenals that remain outside any international regulation).
As our legislators and the American people consider the changes Bush is urging in our nation's 50-year-old antiproliferation laws, we need to understand and carefully reassess the value of the NPT. Has this global set of rules really, as many in the Bush administration have suggested, started to outlive its usefulness? Or does it still provide a useful first approach to dealing with problems such as that being caused by Iran?
I believe the NPT still has considerable value. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is able to conduct on-the-spot inspections and other verification measures in suspect nations only because the NPT authorizes it to do so. Are these verification measures foolproof? No. Several NPT members, including North Korea and Iran, conducted clandestine programs that it took the IAEA many years to discover. But still, the IAEA's verification work provides a key base line of globally accepted information - in a field in which information is often either unclear, or manipulated for political purposes, or both.
In 2003, after IAEA inspectors discovered North Korea's clandestine program, Pyongyang withdrew from the NPT. Iran, which claims that its nuclear programs have only legitimate, peaceful goals, remains inside the NPT. Indeed, IAEA inspectors have been at work in various Iranian sites during the past week, and IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei is expected to hold talks in Tehran soon.
Just as important as the inspection measures the NPT allows is the broader mind-set of the respectful international cooperation that informs it. The NPT is not a perfectly egalitarian treaty. When it was negotiated in the 1960s it divided the world into two groups: those that were then acknowledged as nuclear-weapons states, and those that were not. The aim was to prevent any transfer of nuclear weapons know-how, production plants, weapons, or weapons precursors from the five nations that had nuclear weapons to any of the 130-plus that did not. All that, while allowing the nonweapons states to continue to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful ends.
The NPT's text also includes an important commitment from all signatory states that they will "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to ... nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament."
Today, the whole world can see in Iraq a vivid picture of the harmful and destabilizing effects of Washington's pursuit of unilateralism and its use of massive military power. So surely, it is the NPT's version of cooperative harm-reduction and eventual disarmament that we should be strengthening rather than the Bush administration's preference for unilateral action and its frequent hostility to international agreements.
Nuclear weapons are a challenge to humanity that can't ever be treated lightly. I have been to Hiroshima and talked with survivors of the very primitive nuclear bomb dropped there in 1945. Today's weapons are hundreds of times more devastating. Our clear aim should be the corralling, deactivation, and destruction of all nuclear weapons, regardless of who currently holds them. Only international cooperation can achieve this. Let's strengthen the NPT by rejecting the proposed US nuclear deal with India, and let's use the NPT's mechanisms to address our outstanding concerns with Iran. The alternative is incendiary madness.
• Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.