bridges vol. 12, December 2006 / OpEds & Commentaries

by Harold D. Bengelsdorf

Several developments over the last few years have suggested that the global nuclear nonproliferation regime is starting to crack and that the principal foundation of that regime, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), needs to be supplemented by new measures. North Korea's withdrawal from the NPT, its expulsion of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and its recent test of a nuclear weapon have created fears that there may be a dangerous nuclear arms race in Asia. Iran's clandestine acquisition of uranium enrichment equipment and technology and its failure to accede to the demands of the IAEA and the UN Security Council to cease its sensitive nuclear activities and to cooperate with IAEA inspections are also creating regional and global concerns. The network established by the Pakistani A.Q. Khan to market uranium enrichment know-how and nuclear weapons technology has reinforced fears that the proliferation problem may become unmanageable. There has also been a deep-seated, ongoing apprehension that sizeable stocks of nuclear-weapons-usable materials existing in some countries, notably in the former Soviet Union, are not subject to adequate physical protection and are thus subject to theft or misuse. Moreover, many non-nuclear-weapon states are deeply troubled that the nuclear-weapon states are not meeting their obligations under the NPT to try to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and ultimately eliminate them.

These developments have also led to criticisms that the NPT has major loopholes, since it allows states to acquire their own enrichment and reprocessing facilities for peaceful purposes. The fear is that a state Party to the NPT could abuse the flexibility provided by the Treaty to acquire these facilities when they do not really need them and could use them to produce weapons-usable materials. Such a state could then withdraw from the Treaty on 90-days notice and quickly manufacture nuclear weapons without technically violating the NPT. As a consequence some argue that major new moves are now urgently needed to discourage the further spread of enrichment and reprocessing facilities.

There is little doubt that the world faces some formidable challenges in reducing the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation. However, the nonproliferation regime is far stronger than many think, and we may not be effective in dealing with new threats if we lose our perspective over some issues.

Most notably, the North Korean and Iranian nuclear threats should not obscure the fact that the great majority of countries in the world have long shared a strong nonproliferation ethic and have made legally binding commitments to forgo nuclear weapons. Given this fact, there are reasonable grounds to believe that the international community will make ongoing efforts to prevent North Korean and Iranian actions that could catalyze a breakdown in nonproliferation norms. Hopefully these endeavors will persuade North Korea and Iran that their current adventures could be very self-destructive.

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