The Iranian announcement on Monday that it was now going in for “industrial level” uranium enrichment is another nail in the coffin of the world nuclear order as defined by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968.
Everything that Iran is doing, and claims that it wants to do, has legal sanction in the treaty. Yet, everything the West suspects it is doing, is also probably true. The countries, which are now so dead set against Iran, have no one, but themselves to blame. Their original sin was in pushing NPT with the stated intent of getting the nuclear genie back in the bottle, even while their real aim was to create a world order where some states would have nuclear weapons and others would be barred from having them.
Shortly after the Chinese conducted their first test in October 1964, negotiations got under way and a treaty was finalized. All those who conducted their nuclear tests before 1 January 1967 were declared “nuclear weapons states” (NWS) in the eyes of the treaty, and all others as “non-nuclear weapons states” (NNWS).
The latter had to sign a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which would ensure that they could not divert material from their civil nuclear programmes to make nuclear weapons. In exchange, under Article IV, they were promised the moon in terms of nuclear technology and materials, and got a commitment, under Article VI, that NWS would eventually completely eliminate nuclear weapons.
In the 1990s, NWS went a step further. They succeeded in persuading NNWS to extend the treaty in perpetuity, even while making more vague promises about disarmament. Instead of eliminating nuclear weapons, they fashioned a cartel, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, whose aim was to deny any technology, especially that relating to enrichment or reprocessing of nuclear materials, to an arbitrary list of countries.
In recent years it has become clear that India, though not a signatory, had upheld the basic non-proliferation principles of NPT by not transferring unsafeguarded nuclear technology to anyone.
On the other hand, countries such as China (signatory) and Pakistan (non-signatory) have not been so responsible. In fact, there are charges that the two have even broken the greatest taboo—traded weapons designs.
Iran, an NNWS, has confirmed, for example, that the centrifuges it has, came through the illegal A.Q. Khan network. Libya, another signatory, received centrifuges and even a weapon design from the same network. North Korea, an NNWS category member since 1985, has declared that it has withdrawn from the treaty citing Article X, and has gone on to test a nuclear weapon. Iran and North Korea have asserted their right to enrich uranium, though they have no reactors in which the fuel can be burnt, at least not yet.
This extensive digression was aimed at pointing out that the old nuclear order shaped by NPT is shot full of holes and is collapsing before our eyes. Yet, the key ideal of the treaty—a world free of nuclear weapons—is something we should not abandon in a hurry.
The dangers from weapons of mass destruction and their proliferation are obvious. The problem is that solutions, which categorize one set of powers as good guys and the others as “proliferators” or worse, “axes of evil”, are not very helpful.
Capability vs intention
The issue of Iran is a case in point. Tehran claims that it does not intend to make nuclear weapons and that its founder, Imam Khomeini, prohibited such weapons, need not be taken too seriously. On security matters what counts are capabilities, not intentions.
Capabilities are tangible and can be used, while intentions are difficult to detect and can change very fast. As it is, some Iranian actions, such as hiding its nuclear facilities till they were disclosed by dissidents, don’t appear to be so benign. By their step-by-step moves towards setting up centrifuges to provide enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon, the Iranians are creating facts on the ground that cannot be ignored.
And especially Iran’s neighbours will not overlook them. Any Iranian nuclear capability will destabilize West Asia, especially the Persian Gulf region from where the bulk of the world’s oil comes from. It is not only Israel that will worry about the Iranian bomb, but countries such as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Besides traditional elements of oil politics and security, newer tensions have gripped the region as a potential Shia-Sunni civil war unfolds in Iraq.
It is difficult to see the shape of the world nuclear order in 2020. Suffice to say, it will not be the one that prevails today. The world, however, does need an order that will promote the peaceful uses of nuclear technology, even while avoiding the consequences of runaway proliferation. But this cannot be done through imbalanced treaties such as NPT, or through force alone.
(Manoj Joshi keeps a close eye on geopolitics from his perch as the strategic affairs editor of Hindustan Times. You can respond to the column by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org)