What nonnuclear weapon states want: six key issues

What if Americans were the ones without nuclear weapons and a well-stocked Iran was insisting that the US couldn’t have such weapons?

When most people talk of a world free of nuclear weapons, they generally focus discussion on the states that possess nuclear weapons. Ninety-five percent of the world, however, has decided not to pursue nuclear weapons, and they overwhelming view the bomb as inherently dangerous and destabilizing.

What if Americans were the ones without nuclear weapons and a well-stocked Iran was insisting that the United States couldn’t have such weapons?

As Washington wrestles with several nuclear issues, it would be useful to view the nuclear issue from the perspective of countries who have never possessed, let alone used, nuclear weapons. The question for Americans to consider in that light is, what do nonnuclear weapon states want?

This month, the 189 countries party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970 are meeting at United Nations headquarters for the NPT Review Conference. The conference, held every five years, aims to assess progress toward implementation of the NPT and to determine how the nonproliferation regime can be strengthened.

It provides these nonnuclear states with a global stage to articulate their agenda.

At the heart of the treaty, nonnuclear weapon states pledge not to develop or receive assistance in manufacturing nuclear weapons, and to accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards to verify this. Nuclear weapon states pledge to provide support to nonnuclear weapon states for developing peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to … nuclear disarmament.”

It might seem obvious to some, but it is this final pledge of nuclear disarmament that nonnuclear weapon states want to see more quickly enforced.

Between the large stockpiles of the NPT’s acknowledged nuclear states and smaller arsenals of non-NPT nuclear states, significant work remains to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.

Five countries that belong to the NPT have the bomb: Though exact figures are hard to come by, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the US has approximately 5,100 nuclear warheads; Russia, 4,600; France, around 300; China, 250; and Britain, 200. Four other states outside the NPT also have the bomb: The Wisconsin Project on nuclear arms control estimates that Israel has around 200, while the NRDC estimates India has about 70; Pakistan, 70; and North Korea, 10.

For nonnuclear weapon countries that neighbor these nuclear powers, or lie within regions of strategic importance, the bomb is a latent threat that is unsettling as it overshadows political, economic, and cultural relations. To move toward nuclear disarmament, six key issues must be addressed at the Review Conference:

Deeper cuts in US and Russian nuclear weapons

In April, Presidents Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which limits each country to 1,550 strategic (long-range) nuclear warheads. Even after this treaty is enforced, the US and Russia will retain some 90 percent of the word’s nuclear weapons, including thousands of nondeployed or inactive warheads awaiting dismantlement, not to mention tactical (short-range) nuclear weapons that have fallen outside prior bilateral nuclear reductions.

Nonnuclear weapon states seek further reductions in all types of nuclear weapons, more transparency to the outside world, and a greater commitment to ensure that such cuts are irreversible.

Ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996

The US, China, Israel, and Iran remain notable signatories of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that have not yet achieved ratification in their home countries As a step forward, after a failed ratification effort in 1999, the Obama administration has announced that it will reintroduce the CTBT for ratification by two-thirds of the US Senate.

Broad commitment to negotiate a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty

The US, Russia, France, and Britain have declared a moratorium on producing fissile material and support such a treaty. Pakistan has delayed progress on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva as it seeks strategic parity with India on developing the fissile materials necessary to make bombs.

Universal membership in the NPT

This requires that those four nuclear weapon states outside the treaty be brought into compliance with it, and to allow IAEA safeguards to verify such a pledge. If those four states refuse to sign the treaty, then they should be denied support for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The Bush administration’s decision in 2008 to support India’s civilian nuclear program, without New Delhi agreeing to any limits on its fissile material production, set a bad precedent here.

Penalties for states that violate treaty commitments, or withdraw from the NPT

The treaty allows each party “the right to withdraw from the treaty if it decides that extraordinary events ... have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” Iran undoubtedly watched as North Korea hid much of its illegal atomic ambitions from IAEA inspectors, and then abandoned the NPT only after it had crossed the nuclear weapons threshold. All states agree that this loophole must be closed with penalties in response to any withdrawal.

Progress toward the 1995 agreement on making the Middle East free of nuclear weapons and all weapons of mass destruction

Already, one-half of the Earth is declared a “nuclear-free-zone,” and many states seek to extend this commitment into the unstable Middle East, in large part to address Israel’s nuclear arsenal and the specter of Iranian nuclearization. Toward this end, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has asked all countries to provide evidence of support for Israel’s nuclear program. In addition, it is likely that the NPT Review Conference will call for the appointment of a UN special envoy dedicated solely to achieving this agreement.

Over the past 40 years, progress toward nuclear disarmament has been slow. An ideal conference scenario for the nonnuclear weapon states would mean the NPT Review Conference would address most of these issues and result in a consensus.

To be sure, a consensus is highly unlikely, given the diversity of agendas. Nevertheless, understanding that these six issues are key concerns for nonnuclear weapon states, and keeping them at the forefront of discussion, will ensure that the nuclear powers are forced to deal with the atomic inequality that enters its fifth decade.

Micah Zenko is a fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations

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