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A protest in Berlin against the Iranian nuclear program.(AP Photo)

Nonproliferation and nuclear standoffs

ASK THIS | February 13, 2006

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty dates back to the 1960s. Expert Jeffrey Lewis reminds us that, among other things, a key part of the agreement was for countries with nuclear weapons to pursue negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament. A lot has changed since then.

By Jeffrey Lewis

Q. Why is it okay for the United States to have nuclear weapons, but not for Iran or North Korea?

Q. How can America's past non-proliferation efforts inform thinking on the current standoff with Iran?

Q. How has the Bush administration changed American non-proliferation policy?

These basic questions are probably the most important for journalists covering U.S. efforts to fight the spread of nuclear weapons to countries like Iran and North Korea. Each is frequently asked by newcomers to my blog, Arms Control Wonk.

The answer is not, as you might imagine, that the strong do what they will. The technology for nuclear weapons is more than 60 years old – there are no longer any profound secrets associated with producing fissionable material or fashioning it into a bomb. If economic or technological strength were the deciding factor, many more states – including friends like Sweden and Australia – would have the Bomb.

The vast majority of states with the capability to build nuclear weapons have not done so.  Largely this is because of a bargain struck in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT provides for non-nuclear states to refrain from building nuclear weapons. In exchange, the nuclear weapons states agreed to pursue negotiations in good faith leading to nuclear disarmament.

Though not without critics, this bargain has a basic legitimacy that has made nonproliferation a viable policy, creating space for export controls and pressure against states seeking nuclear weapons. This bargain is essential to understanding the drama unfolding in the Security Council regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions, including why the international community is concerned about Iran's behavior, why Iran claims to have a "right" to enrich uranium, and much of the skepticism about the motives of the Bush Administration.

U.S. Nonproliferation Policy

The idea that the United States should make concerted efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons arrived relatively late, in the 1960s. In the previous decade, civilian nuclear power programs – encouraged by the United States through President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program – had started to spread rapidly across the world.

But along with the spread of nuclear power plants, many countries were pursuing nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons were seen by many people as just another weapon, part of any modern military's future arsenal. Australia, Sweden, and Switzerland all had active nuclear weapons programs. The United States at one point mulled establishing a "multilateral force" including Germany, and at another time considered giving India nuclear weapons.

In 1963, President Kennedy warned that many countries soon might possess nuclear weapons: “I see the possibility in the 1970's of the President of the United States having to face a world in which 15 or 20 or 25 nations may have these weapons. I regard that as the greatest possible danger and hazard.”

Kennedy's estimate was based on a 1963 briefing paper provided by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara about possible nuclear weapons programs.

In October 1964 – the year after President Kennedy's warning – China became the fifth country to test a nuclear weapon. China's acquisition of nuclear weapons disturbed American policymakers, who briefly considered military strikes against Chinese nuclear facilities.

President Lyndon Johnson decided against air strikes. He did, however, name former Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric to head a new Committee on Nuclear Proliferation. (Click here to read more about the Nuclear Proliferation Problem from 1957-1967.)

The 1965 Gilpatric Report ended the ambivalence that had marked U.S. policy toward the spread of nuclear weapons, concluding that "preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons is clearly in the national interest" and calling for formal multilateral negotiations on treaty to ensure the "non dissemination and non acquisition of nuclear weapons."

That treaty – the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – embodies a fundamental bargain. Non-nuclear states agree not to build nuclear weapons, while five nuclear states commit "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament …" The NPT deputized an existing body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to safeguard civilian nuclear programs receiving international assistance, assuring that materials would not be diverted to secret Bomb-building efforts.

Largely as a result of the NPT, few of the 44 countries generally thought capable of building nuclear weapons have done so. The states that built nuclear weapons outside the NPT – India, Israel, Pakistan and South Africa – not coincidentally declined to sign the treaty. (South Africa later disarmed and joined the NPT in the late 1980s. North Korea also joined the NPT regime in the late 1980s, and recently left it. Whether North Korea has assembled nuclear weapons is not known).

This bargain remained at the heart of U.S. nonproliferation policy through the 1990s. In fact, the major nonproliferation achievement of the Clinton Administration was the negotiation of a treaty to ban all nuclear testing – the second recommendation of the Gilpatric Report.

The Bush Administration has challenged the framework of this bargain. As John Bolton, then the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, argued in an op-ed, "Rather than rely on cumbersome treaty-based bureaucracies, this administration has launched initiatives that involve cooperative action with other sovereign states to deny rogue nations and terrorists access to the materials and know-how needed to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD)."

These efforts are inherently ad hoc. When asked whether the US would attempt to deny Israel, India, and Pakistan access to nuclear technology, Bolton demurred: "There are unquestionably states that are not within existing treaty regimes that possess weapons of mass destruction legitimately. We're not trying to have a policy that attempts to cover each and every one of those circumstances."

Or, as another observer put it, "nuclear weapons per se are not the problem – 'bad guys' with them are."

The invasion of Iraq, explained at the time largely as a response to a threat from "weapons of mass destruction" that might lead to a "mushroom cloud" over an American city, has made this change in policy much more than an academic or theoretical question.

The Iranian Challenge

The drama over Iran's nuclear ambitions is playing out against this backdrop.

Iran – a signatory to the NPT – claims a "right" to enrich uranium, rooted in Article IV of the Treaty. Article IV provides for "the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty."

Article II prohibits Iran from building, or receiving help to build, nuclear weapons. Since some point in the 1980s, Iran has repeatedly violated its IAEA safeguards agreement, designed to ensure that its nuclear activities are for peaceful purposes. Iran claims that its nuclear programs are purely peaceful, but has failed to declare nuclear materials, the subsequent processing and use of those materials, and the establishment or use of facilities where the materials were stored and processed.

As a result, IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei has described Iran as having a "confidence deficit" concerning its obligations under the NPT. In early February 2006, the IAEA Board of Governors, a body consisting of 35 member states, approved a Resolution stating

That "the Board lacks confidence in [Iran's] intentions in seeking to develop a fissile material production capability against the background of Iran's record on safeguards as recorded in previous Resolutions, and unresolved questions…"

The widespread norm against the development of nuclear weapons, rooted in the nearly universal acceptance of nonproliferation obligations under the NPT, accounts for much of the opposition to Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Complicating U.S. and European diplomatic efforts to pressure Iran, however, is the degree to which many states in the international community – particularly Russia and China –  feel that the United States is taking advantage of Iran's safeguards violations to further a policy of regime change. In this sense, the United States has a "leadership deficit." That perception – right or wrong – stems from the novel approach the Bush Administration has taken to the basic bargain of the NPT, and how the Administration's fears about WMD played out in Iraq.

For journalists covering the diplomatic showdown, these questions will lurk behind statements by government officials and other observers: whether Iran's behavior is suspicious, whether Iran has the right to all types of nuclear technology, and whether the Bush Administration can provide credible leadership on nonproliferation.

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