The Four Nuclear Outlier States

The Four Nuclear Outlier States

The countries outside of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty--North Korea, Pakistan, India, and Israel--present a significant challenge for U.S. diplomacy and efforts to restrain the spread of nuclear weapons, experts say.

May 19, 2010 4:12 pm (EST)

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The 1970 Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was intended to prevent new countries from developing nuclear weapons and confine the arms race to the five nuclear weapons countries of the time--the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain. Today the NPT is nearly universal. Only Israel, Pakistan, and India refused to sign the treaty and subsequently built nuclear arsenals. A fourth, North Korea, left the treaty in 2003 and tested a weapon in 2006. A CFR Working Paper says in a little over a decade Britain and France could find their arsenals "eclipsed by those of Pakistan, Israel, and India." Experts say the likelihood of the outliers joining the NPT or disarmament efforts is small, making them a significant challenge for the nonproliferation regime. They also pose difficulties for U.S. diplomacy and the Obama administration’s nonproliferation goals since the United States enjoys significant ties to all the outliers except North Korea. Below is a profile of the NPT outliers.


IsraelIsrael was the sixth nation to develop nuclear weapons, using its reactor in Dimona, built under a civilian nuclear deal with France. Declassified U.S. intelligence documents show it is believed to have started production of weapons in 1968, the same year many other countries acceded to the NPT. In response to pressure from the United States to join the NPT a year later, the Israeli government refused but pledged not to become a declared nuclear country and "not use its nuclear status capability for diplomatic gains," according to a report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused on nonproliferation. "Israeli leaders from all the major political parties have been remarkably restrained and consistent on the nuclear issue," and nuclear weapons have remained largely in the background of regional and domestic affairs, says a 2010 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report (PDF) edited by George Perkovich and James Acton.

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Though nonproliferation experts believe Israel has ample security to prevent proliferation, they say the country’s secrecy makes it difficult to verify. The U.S.-based Arms Control Association estimates Israel’s nuclear arsenal is somewhere between seventy-five and two-hundred warheads. But this arsenal has not acted as a major deterrence against low-level conflicts with its neighbors.

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Egypt and Turkey have been extremely critical of Israel’s weapons program and of the U.S. government for not applying more pressure to end it. Charles Ferguson, executive director of the Washington-based Federation for American Scientists, said although Israel’s weapons are a poorly kept secret, a lack of official acknowledgement by Israel and other nuclear weapons countries has provided other leaders in the region with enough political cover to avoid domestic pressure to start their own programs. And Israel has been aggressive in countering its neighbors’ capabilities, including air strikes against alleged nuclear weapons facilities in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007). It is also widely believed to be contemplating similar action against Iran.

A number of countries argue that Israel’s arsenal and non-NPT status make it harder to argue that Iran should be forced to give up ambitions it might have for pursuing nuclear weapons. These countries hope the 2010 NPT review conference will yield progress on efforts to create a Middle East zone free of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons that would include Israel. Along with Syria and Egypt, Israel has yet to ratify international treaties banning chemical and biological weapons. Israel has said it supports the idea of such a zone, but would require a number of assurances including durable peace with countries in the region and a high level of transparency and verification for all countries, including Iran.


IndiaIndia tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974, which officials described at the time as a "peaceful nuclear explosion." It did not test another device until 1998 during heightened tensions with Pakistan. India’s longstanding conflict with Pakistan and insecurity over China’s military might, along with a desire for greater global prominence, have been prime motivators for its weapons program. The Federation of American Scientists estimates it has between sixty and eighty warheads. The Indian government maintains a "no-first-use" nuclear doctrine and says its weapons are needed to maintain a minimum credible nuclear deterrent.

"When it becomes about the countries and not about the weapons, that is when we have a problem because different countries have different friends," said Deepti Choubey, deputy director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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In 2008, the Unites States and India formalized a nuclear deal that opened up the prospect for greatly expanded U.S.-India ties yet also raised concerns about its impact on the nonproliferation regime. The deal received a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group--a forty-five-country consortium that had banned nuclear trade with non-NPT countries. The agreement expands India’s access to civilian-nuclear technology and opens up many of its civilian nuclear reactors to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But the deal does not ban weapons testing and does not limit India’s production of fissile materials or nuclear weapons. U.S. officials and some independent experts argued it was important to begin to bring India into some kind of nonproliferation regime. But some arms control experts, such as Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said it was a missed opportunity to add constraints on the country’s weapons program.

Some experts also say the deal has harmed efforts to strengthen the NPT regime among countries like Brazil and Ukraine, which gave up their weapons programs. In a report (PDF) ahead of the 2010 NPT review conference, Deepti Choubey, deputy director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, quotes a Brazilian diplomat as saying the deal destroyed support for mandating additional protocols, which provides stronger verification procedures and more inspection powers to the IAEA.

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And the U.S.-India deal paves the way for other outliers to make similar arrangements such as a reported nuclear deal between Pakistan and China, she says. "When it becomes about the countries and not about the weapons, that is when we have a problem because different countries have different friends," said Choubey.


PakistanThe country’s nuclear weapons program began with the help of China in the 1970s. Pakistan tested five nuclear weapons in 1998 and declared it was a nuclear state within days of the Indian tests. Pakistan pursued its program to offset the Indian military’s conventional superiority, and its nuclear stance is primarily aimed at preventing a conventional attack. "In Pakistan, it is really about becoming equal with India," said Peter Crail, a research analyst for the Arms Control Association. Pakistan is thought to have anywhere between seventy and ninety warheads according to the Federation of American Scientists. Pakistan also has been scaling up its nuclear arsenal--producing enough enriched uranium per year for five to six bombs--worrying both Indian and U.S. officials. Brookings Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel said in a May 2010 interview that Pakistan has "the fastest- growing nuclear arsenal in the world."

Global Governance MonitorDuring the May 2010 NPT conference review, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called on the world to recognize Pakistan as a nuclear state and demanded a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group similar to the one received by India. However, Pakistan will have a much more difficult time achieving such an agreement because of its record on proliferation. Evidence surfaced in 2004 that Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan shared nuclear designs and technology with countries such as Libya, Iran, and North Korea; and there is strong indication he did so with the knowledge of the Pakistani military. Government officials have repeatedly denied this. While Israel and India have relatively firm export controls, Pakistan was involved in the worst proliferation ring in history, though experts like Crail say Pakistan has attempted to bolster export controls since then.

U.S. officials remain cool to the idea of the U.S.-Pakistan nuclear deal (Arms Control Today). However, there are reports that China signed a deal in 2010 with Pakistan for two new nuclear reactors. "China continues to view Pakistan as an important asset in countering India," writes nonproliferation expert Harsh Pant (ISN), a lecturer at King’s College London who calls the China-Pakistan relationship a wrecker of the NPT regime.

In a 2008 podcast, Charles Ferguson pointed out that remnants of Khan’s network are still dangerous because a country like Iran would have to turn to black markets if it wanted to buy supplies for a nuclear weapons program. And Pakistan’s ability to keep its nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists remains a concern for U.S. officials. A 2009 report from the Congressional Research Service notes that while U.S. and Pakistani officials continue to express confidence in controls over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, continued instability could impact these safeguards.

North Korea

North KoreaNorth Korea embarked on a nuclear weapons program in the 1980s. Though it acceded to the NPT in 1985 and signed a denuclearization accord (PDF) with South Korea in 1992, North Korea refused to allow IAEA inspections of the Yongbyon nuclear site and creation of a bilateral inspection regime with South Korea failed. In 1993, North Korea threatened to withdraw from the NPT, which effectively halted talks on easing relations with South Korea. Eventually, North Korea suspended withdrawal one day before it became binding and over the next decade the country entered into a series of tense negotiations with the United States--which included discussions of normalized relations and economic aid in exchange for dismantling its enrichment program--while continuing to pursue a weapons program. While the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula provides some reason for North Korea’s weapons program, the country has primarily used it as a device to obtain economic benefits and international aid.

Crisis Guide: The Korean Peninsula North Korea withdrew from the NPT in January 2003, backdating its mandatory three-month notification period for withdrawal to its 1993 notice. Because of this backdating, whether North Korea legally withdrew from the NPT remains in dispute. The country is thought to have enough materials to build about twelve bombs. It tested its first nuclear device in 2006 and conducted a second test in 2009. Following the 2009 test, the UN Security Council issued financial sanctions against North Korea.

North Korea is the only country to withdraw from the treaty, and nonproliferation experts worry about the precedent that withdrawal sets for countries like Iran. "The models represented by the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs to date must be made less attractive to nonnuclear weapon states," writes CFR’s Lettow in a 2010 Council Special report. Lettow also said the "nuclear blackmail" practiced by North Korea has the potential to create a perception of "net advantages." The 2010 NPT review conference is expected to clarify rules and consequences for withdrawal as a deterrent to other states. And there is some hope North Korea will return to the Six Party Talks, which stalled after the April 2009 missile test. The Six Party Talks, denuclearization negotiations with North Korea and five other countries--China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Russia--have been ongoing since August 2003.


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