A Surprising Consensus on Nuclear Nonproliferation

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Bebeto Matthews / AP

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives at the NPT summit at U.N. headquarters on May 4, 2010

There are few more crucial linchpins to global security than the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968. The document helps curb the ambitions of nations that covet nuclear weapons and puts pressure on countries holding the bomb to work toward its eventual elimination. So there was a lot at stake when delegates met in New York City in May for a monthlong review of the NPT. The last major review conference, in 2005, ended in acrimonious failure, and there were concerns that a similar fate this year would put the future of the treaty in doubt at a time when it is needed most. But then something unexpected happened: the global community came together.

"This was a win for multilateralism," says Deepti Choubey, who attended the conference on behalf of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for which she is deputy director of the nuclear-policy program. "I was very pessimistic about the chance of achieving this outcome. But the document moved the treaty forward. It had several key advances in it."

The advances could not have been better timed. On June 1, three days after the NPT conference was over, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that equipment that could be used to isolate weapons-grade plutonium had disappeared from a facility in Tehran, raising further questions about the country's compliance with its NPT obligations. But by having reached a consensus, the conference reinvigorated the treaty, which means the U.N. now has a stronger legal and moral case to press countries suspected of hiding nuclear programs — such as Syria and North Korea, as well as Iran — to come clean. An emboldened French Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that the IAEA's report forced the U.N. Security Council to "seek the rapid adoption of new sanctions against Iran."

The NPT has three pillars: disarm nuclear states, ensure nonproliferation among nonnuclear states and encourage the safe use of civilian nuclear technology. The 2010 review conference has laid out a series of concrete actions that states must take to work toward those three goals. "That's a novel measure," says William Potter of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, who has attended four NPT review conferences as an adviser to the delegation of Kyrgyzstan. "We now have a scorecard with specific benchmarks against which the NPT parties can be judged during the next five-year review cycle."

Many states, including the U.S., had to make major compromises and accept a diluted text, but, Potter says, such horse-trading was inevitable, given that the conference's final document required the approval of all 189 signatory countries. "It's very rare for 100 states to agree on anything," he says. "For them to reach consensus on a number of practical steps touching on the most sensitive issues of national security must be regarded as a major accomplishment."

The 2005 NPT review conference failed to reach consensus in large part because nonnuclear states felt that the nuclear powers — especially the U.S., under George W. Bush — were not meeting their NPT obligations to disarm. That remained one of the sticking points during negotiations at this year's conference, with the so-called Non-Aligned Movement of nonnuclear states pushing France, Britain, China, Russia and the U.S. to accept a commitment to dismantle all nuclear weapons by 2025. (Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, and Israel, which is suspected of having the bomb, are not signatories to the NPT, and North Korea withdrew in 2003.) The weapons states were never going to agree to such a bold disarmament agenda, Choubey says, but reached a compromise by agreeing to language in the final document that called for "further efforts to ultimately eliminate all types of nuclear weapons."

Delegates also faced disagreement about whether to name Israel in the final draft and encourage it to join the NPT signatories, something the U.S. initially opposed. The naming of Israel is significant because if it were to join the NPT, it would have to relinquish its suspected stockpile of nuclear weapons. The U.S. eventually backed down, and the document now notes "the importance of Israel's accession to the NPT." This was a significant concession by the U.S. When Iranian delegates found out that the U.S. planned to accept the naming of Israel in the document, they were so shocked, they asked for a postponement of the final session so they could call their government, the Washington Post reported.

Israel's suspected weapons again caused controversy when Egypt and other nonnuclear countries pushed for a conference in 2012 to look into the feasibility of making the Middle East a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Such a conference was initially agreed upon at the 1995 NPT review but has since foundered. The U.S. acquiesced, much to the chagrin of the Israeli government, which immediately pledged to boycott the conference. U.S. officials later backtracked, saying it would not support such an event until there is "comprehensive peace in the region first." But a nuclear-free-zone conference need not be a bad thing from the U.S. point of view, Choubey argues. "If you are concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions," she says, "then a conference on a nuclear-free Middle East can be another tool or framework for trying to curb their ambitions. Critics of the conference need to get past the reflexive view that this is just an attempt to criticize the Israelis."

Both Potter and Choubey say countries worked past such differences largely because of the positive atmosphere established by the nuclear states. Britain recently revealed the number of nuclear weapons it carries (225 warheads) and pledged to review the conditions under which it would be prepared to use them; Russia and the U.S. signed a new START arms-control agreement; and perhaps most crucial of all, President Obama told the world in a speech in Prague last year that America would "work toward a world free of nuclear weapons." For the NPT, those were magic words. Describing a scene of "high drama" on the final day of the conference last Friday, when delegates scrambled to reach agreement, Choubey says, "States were so eager to get an outcome in part because Obama has created a lot of political capital. The Prague speech created the atmosphere to achieve this outcome." The response of the 2,000 or so delegates when a last-second agreement was reached seemed fitting: they gave themselves a round of applause.