Scheinman: Iran, North Korea, and the NPT’s Loopholes

Scheinman: Iran, North Korea, and the NPT’s Loopholes

February 1, 2005 6:20 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Lawrence Scheinman, a top arms control official in the Clinton administration, says he is concerned that Iran is using the cover of the 35-year old Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) to develop nuclear weapons. Scheinman says an NPT review conference in May will likely focus on Iran’s program, though participants will also discuss North Korea as well.

“The Iranian case is more serious,” he says, “because it raises a question about whether a country can use a civil cover in order to acquire all the technology necessary from outside to put together a comprehensive fuel cycle, claiming that it’s for civil purposes, and then exercise the right of withdrawal under the treaty and say, ’Sorry, things have changed and we’re going to use this for weapons, thank you.’”

Scheinman, distinguished professor of international policy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of, on January 27, 2005.

Other Interviews

It’s been nearly 35 years since the NPT went into effect. How would you say it’s done over the years?

It certainly has been historically one of the most successful treaties in dealing with matters of security. There are 188 states that are parties to the NPT, the largest number of states ever to have subscribed to an arms control treaty, which is what the NPT essentially is. It has grown from a very small start with a handful of countries to a 25-year time frame [and then] into an indefinitely extended treaty, in which all these states participate.

However, the treaty and regime are not free of challenge from three de facto nuclear-weapon states that are not party to the NPT -India, Pakistan, Israel; from parties that have carried out clandestine nuclear weapons development activity while professing to be in compliance- Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and, presumably, Iran; and from the emergence of the threat of nuclear terrorism by non-state actors.

How did the treaty come about?

It was basically a bargain of sorts. On the one hand, states were being called upon to forego the option, or the right, to make nuclear weapons or acquire them. In exchange, they expected certain things to be done for them by the five then-acknowledged nuclear weapons states, the states that had conducted nuclear tests before January 1, 1967 [China, France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States]. One of those conditions that they sought was an assurance that there would be an inalienable right for non-nuclear weapons states to have access to peaceful nuclear energy. Secondly, the weapons states would strive to end the arms race and to negotiate in good faith toward nuclear disarmament. Article 4 [of the NPT], which deals with the inalienable right, and Article 6, which deals with disarmament, have always been held up by the non-nuclear weapons states, sometimes collectively and sometimes not, to ask the weapons states, “What have you done for us lately?”

Are the non-nuclear states satisfied?

The non-nuclear weapons states are still not satisfied that the weapons states have done enough to achieve nuclear disarmament. Every five years, the NPT has been reviewed. The first review was in 1975; May 2005 will be the seventh. In all those reviews, the weapons states have been held to account for what they’ve been doing in respect to Article 6. Sometimes the answers have been satisfactory and sometimes they have not; for the most part, they have not. It was not until the latter days of the Cold War that the United States and the Soviet Union began to negotiate, as they did on the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, and the Strategic Arms Reduction treaties in the early 90s; people were very happy to see some progress was being made.

On the other hand, as a condition for extending the NPT from 25 years to an indefinite term, some non-nuclear weapons states started in 1995 to press for a comprehensive test ban treaty [CTBT]. In the NPT’s preamble, a comprehensive test ban treaty is cited as something to be achieved, and now [the non-nuclear states] say the time has come to achieve it.

The CTBT has been talked about since the first partial test-ban treaty in 1963, which banned nuclear tests in the air, underwater, and in the atmosphere. What’s held it up?

Soviet and American reluctance, because a test-ban treaty would put a damper on their ability to improve their weapons capabilities, upon which they saw themselves depending for deterrence.

Of course, in the Cold War, there was a fear that one of the other parties would be hiding some weapons or that they would secretly test.

Secret testing remains a problem. It’s one of the reasons given by [opponents] when the Senate in 1999 did not approve the CTBT, which President Clinton had signed.

What happened after the Senate rejected it?

President Clinton assembled a small team of people under John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to do a thorough review, including a lot of interviewing at the Senate, [to determine] why people felt the treaty was inadequate, what those inadequacies were, and what could be done to remedy them. The idea was that we would find ways to remedy the inadequacies and bring the treaty back up for consideration before the Senate. But, of course, the administrations changed in 2000 and that put an end to that, because this administration does not believe that a CTBT is in our national security interest.

If the administration does not want a CTBT, what will happen at the review conference? Are the nonaligned countries going to say, “Why should we stay in the treaty?”

No, I don’t think so. We should not have high expectations with respect to what the 2005 conference will bring. We might better consider the 2005 review conference the first preparatory conference toward the 2010 review conference.

As far as most countries are concerned, they are in this treaty because it provides for their security. The fact that there is still not a comprehensive test ban treaty in force does not detract from the view of most of these countries that they’re better off with a treaty that has verification arrangements and formally legally binding commitments on their neighbors, which bar them from going into the nuclear-weapons business.

Without this treaty, we would be back to the early 1960s when President Kennedy said that, if we don’t do something about proliferation, we are going to be faced with 20 or so nuclear weapons states in 20 years. The truth of the matter is, there are only eight weapons states, nine if you count North Korea. The Indians, Israelis, and the Pakistanis all have nuclear weapons. Two of them, the Indians and the Pakistanis, have already tested [weapons] and declared [themselves nuclear powers]. Nobody who has their head screwed on tightly is going to believe the Israelis don’t have this capability. Eight or nine is a lot better than 20 to 30.

The Iranians claim they’re abiding by the treaty, and the United States and some of the Europeans are questioning that very strongly.

Yes, the Iranians have had an ongoing, undeclared set of activities that date back to the 1980s. This includes the importation of nuclear material, equipment, and technology, and the conducting of activities on their territory. As an NPT party, they were obligated to report to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], so that the IAEA could conduct verification activities with respect to those materials, technologies, and equipment, to ensure they were being used for their declared civil purpose and not for some other purpose.

But the Iranians were importing technologies and material from China and elsewhere. Centrifuges [for enriching nuclear fuel] were imported from we don’t know where, because it’s very hard to get a clear answer whether this is a project of A.Q. Khan [the Pakistani nuclear scientist who confessed last year to secretly supplying weapons know-how to other countries] or whether it was through some national government’s intended transfer, possibly through Pakistan to North Korea to Iran.

The Iranians have a long-standing history of failing to do what they were supposed to do under their [NPT] safeguards agreement and only do it when someone says, “We’ve got you.” Then they say, “Oh, right, we forgot.” That’s one aspect. The second aspect is, you have to look at Iran in historic terms- near history and longer-term history. The longest-term history would be that Iran has always been an important entity in that region of the world. It has had a practice of trying to exercise control or influence over neighboring territories or states. More recently, of course, you have the Iran-Iraq War [1980-88] and you have the fact that the Iraqis used chemical weapons against the Iranians and that was a good enough reason [for the Iranians] to say “never again.” One way to prevent it would be to have a deterrent.

Is there anything in the NPT that allows other countries to use force against a treaty signatory that announces it is pursuing nuclear weapons?

The treaty doesn’t have a specific enforcement provision. Assume there is a country- take Iran- that is a member of the NPT and under its safeguards. Now it wants to have a comprehensive fuel cycle, that is, the ability to produce enriched uranium, allegedly for civil purposes, and also to extract plutonium from spent fuel, allegedly for civil purposes. A breeder reactor program would require having plutonium. So you could say, “OK, one and one does add up to two.” But, they could also exercise the right in Article 10 of this treaty, which allows a state to withdraw when the treaty is no longer responding to the needs of that country and to give 90-days’ notice to all members of the NPT, the United Nations Security Council, and to other members of the IAEA.

The Iranians have not done that yet, but the fear is that they might do it, that they might build a totally civil nuclear program, which also would serve a military purpose- if the political leadership decided to do so- and then withdraw from the treaty. What do you do? The treaty doesn’t have any provision for dealing with a country that withdraws. The only thing we’ve got, essentially, is that the Security Council, in 1992, speaking at the level of heads of state, said the Security Council regards proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as a threat to international peace and security. That, of course, unlocks Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter, which allows states to take action against the delinquent country.

That was in the context of Iraq?

Yes. That was after the first Persian Gulf War and amid fears that Iraq was looking for nuclear weapons, but it was a generic statement. The United States has been trying to get the IAEA board of governors, because of these failings I mentioned, to report noncompliance by Iran to the U.N. Security Council in the hope that it might be able to get a resolution imposing sanctions on Iran.

The North Koreans were members of the IAEA?

They were members of the IAEA and the NPT. They have withdrawn from the NPT [in January 2003] and they’ve withdrawn from the IAEA, because they think the IAEA is dumping on them, instead of contributing to their welfare.

The North Korea case will probably get mentioned at the review conference. The Iranian case is more serious, because it raises a question about whether a country can use a civil cover in order to acquire all the technology necessary from outside to put together a comprehensive fuel cycle, claiming that it’s for civil purposes, and then exercise the right of withdrawal under the treaty and say, “Sorry, things have changed and we’re going to use this for weapons, thank you.” There is going to be a lot of discussion, I think, on how you deal with a noncompliant party. There will be discussion of what needs to be examined, what needs to be looked into, what kinds of initiatives need to be put on the table for consideration. But they won’t resolve the problem, because there isn’t consensus among the major players about what the Iranians are up to.

We think they’re planning to get nuclear weapons. The three key European states involved in this negotiation with the Iranians- Britain, France, and Germany- are worried about where Iran is going. But they think they might be able to tie the Iranians down to some kind of arrangement that might reduce, if not eliminate, the risk that Tehran might appropriate the technology they receive from outside under guise of a peaceful program and turn it into a weapons program.

The Iranian case raises two questions. The right of withdrawal from the NPT is one: Are there any constraints on it? Should there be some kind of threshold criteria that must be met in order to withdraw from the treaty legitimately? The United States is in a difficult position. We can’t say you can’t withdraw from the treaty; after all, the Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM). The other question is: Can you withdraw from the NPT and not be held accountable for violations you committed while under the treaty?

Is there a consensus for a tougher NPT?

A lot of people are worried about compliance with the treaty and what you do when there is noncompliance, but they’re not quite sure what to do about it. And there’s one other problem: if the weapons states were to negotiate, in good faith, toward nuclear disarmament, they might well say that Washington’s interest in developing new nuclear weapons means the United States is not in compliance.

Neither we, nor any of the other nuclear weapons states, are interested in being called on the carpet for noncompliance. We’re all guilty in one way or another. The Chinese are modernizing their nuclear arsenal. We don’t know to what extent it’s being modernized, but there is activity ongoing, building more missiles, maybe building better and longer-range capabilities, improving their warhead components. The Russians had a policy of no-first-use but they’ve rescinded it, because they’re conventionally weak. They’ve got to compensate [for their conventional-arms weakness by placing greater emphasis on their nuclear capabilities] the way we and Europe did when our militaries were inferior in conventional terms to what the Russians could field in the 1950s. We have to be careful how we go about this, because compliance is compliance is compliance. We need to embrace both the commitment of the non-nuclear states not to cheat on their obligations, setting a very high standard to allow them to legitimately withdraw from the treaty, and the commitment of the weapons states that they are headed in the right direction.

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