NPT 101: Clash between nuclear haves and have-nots

The review of the NPT – the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – in New York this month pits Iran against Western powers suspicious of Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Iran's fight for nuclear 'rights' resonates with many countries around the world.

Jason DeCrow/AP
Demonstrators rally against nuclear proliferation in Iran outside United Nations Headquarters, Monday, in New York. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed a UN treaty conference reviewing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty during a visit to New York Monday.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force 40 years ago to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. From May 3-28, the NPT’s signatories are gathering in New York to review the treaty. The exercise, which takes place every five years, will pit Iran against Western powers suspicious of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

The clash is emblematic of a critical one at the heart of the NPT: nuclear “haves” vs. “have-nots” – and fulfillment of their obligations to each other.

With 189 members, the NPT is the most universally accepted arms control agreement. The core bargain is that the five recognized nuclear states – the US, Russia, China, France, and Britain – promise to completely disarm, while all non-nuclear states forever forgo nuclear weapons.

IN PICTURES: Nuclear Weapons

In return, the treaty gives non-nuclear states an “inalienable right” to pursue peaceful nuclear energy – which Iran claims to be its sole aim – and to benefit from the “fullest possible exchange” of nuclear technology.

The US and Russia control some 95 percent of the world’s estimated 23,000 nuclear warheads, according to a tabulation of sources by the Arms Control Association in Washington. Critics say the two countries have not cut back quickly or deeply enough. President Obama has recently negotiated a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, and says the US is committed to a nuclear-free world.

But Iran says the NPT has “failed” to stop proliferation, and vows “fundamental reforms” to address imbalances of the non-proliferation treaty.

“Under the pretext of prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation, they impose heavy pressures on independent countries,” said Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the only head of state attending, before leaving Tehran on Sunday. “The atomic bomb has become a tool for bullying, domination, and expansionism.”

Iran’s fight for nuclear “rights” under all circumstances resonates with the 118-members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and countries such as Brazil and Argentina, and Libya and South Africa, which gave up weapons efforts in years past.

A NAM “working paper” for the conference rejects “any restriction or limitation on the transfer of nuclear equipment, material and technology” to fellow NPT members.

NPT 101:

Part 1: How relevant is the cold war treaty in an age of terrorism?

Part 2: Which countries have nuclear weapons?

Part 3: Why Iran sees nuclear 'hypocrisy

Part 4: Clash between nuclear haves and have-nots

Part 5: Is Iran violating the nuclear treaty?

IN PICTURES: Nuclear Weapons

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