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Ban (your) nukes!

Authors: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, and Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
October 6, 2005
International Herald Tribune


WASHINGTON While American diplomats have publicly cheered the International Atomic Energy Agency’s vote to find Iran in violation of nuclear nonproliferation obligations, it is much too early to pop open the Champagne bottles.

The United States still has failed to craft a broad international consensus behind its policy toward Iran’s nuclear challenge. This reflects not just maladroit diplomacy, but the contradictions and inconsistencies that have plagued America’s anti-proliferation strategy.

The 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty offered a unique compact between the five states possessing nuclear weapons and the rest of the international community. In exchange for the "have-nots" forgoing the weapons option, the nuclear-armed states pledged to reduce and eventually eliminate their own arsenal.

Contrary to such pledges, since coming to power, the Bush team has dispensed with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and sided with an influential segment of the Republican Party in its opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Moreover, the Pentagon is contemplating a new class of weapons that could involve resumption of testing.

It is difficult to make the case that America is concerned about proliferation when it stands in violation of at least the spirit, if not the letter, of the nonproliferation treaty. In a further setback to nonproliferation norms, Washington has absolved a number of its allies whose nuclear penchants have never been regulated by the nonproliferation treaty.

Pakistan was the first beneficiary of Bush munificence, as its cooperation on the "war against terrorism" was used to forgive Islamabad for its export of illicit nuclear technology and know-how to rogue regimes, including Iran and North Korea. As a gesture of balance in the subcontinent, this past July India was also rewarded and essentially welcomed to the "nuclear club" despite its snubbing of the nonproliferation treaty.

All this brings us to the perplexing and difficult cases of Iran. Tehran has been effective in exploiting the ambiguities of the nonproliferation treaty and the contradictory nature of U.S. policy.

The nonproliferation treaty does grant member states the "unalienable right" to "use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes." Traditionally, this clause has been interpreted as granting member states the right to enrich uranium.

However, it is feared that once Iran masters the enrichment cycle, it could effectively assemble the bomb. The much-maligned director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, offered a way out of the Iran imbroglio at last May’s nonproliferation treaty review conference by calling on all states to forgo new enrichment activities for five years until a more suitable inspection regime can be forged. The state that most systematically and successfully lobbied against this effort was the United States.

The Bush administration’s subordination of proliferation to other strategic objectives has made it vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. Iranian diplomats routinely point to India and stress that it is not Washington’s concern with proliferation but its opposition to the theocratic regime that propels it to press for referral of Iran to the Security Council.

Hovering over all this is the ponderous legacy of Iraq, when the Bush administration distorted and exaggerated intelligence data on Iraq’s nuclear portfolio to justify its predetermined invasion strategy.

The Iraq war and the Bush team’s expressed disdain for the determinations of the Security Council and global opinion have eroded America’s credibility to an extent that it is successfully outmaneuvered by Iran.

Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has made preventing proliferation of the "world’s most dangerous weapons" its foremost objective. Yet, after five years in power, the administration has not only failed to resolve the Iran issue, but done considerable damage to global nonproliferation norms.

Charles D. Ferguson and Ray Takeyh are fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

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