Tough Issues for NPT Review

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference at the UN is likely to yield agreements on strengthening the treaty even if a final consensus declaration is elusive, says arms control expert Daryl Kimball.

April 28, 2010

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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The five-yearly Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference that begins at the UN next week will likely include discussions on the proliferation challenges of Iran and North Korea, nuclear weapon-free zones, and other ways to strengthen the treaty. While the conference is supposed to arrive at a consensus final declaration, that eluded the conference in 2005 and may do so again. Still, arms control expert Daryl Kimball is optimistic about progress. He also predicts that the New START agreement between Russia and the United States could be ratified before the Senate’s recess in August, and that the Senate will also ratify the 1995 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which it rejected in 1999.

What do you expect to come out of this meeting?

Ideally, the review conference leads the states to agree on steps to update and strengthen the treaty. The difficulty is that reaching agreement on additional political commitments to implement and strengthen the treaty generally requires a consensus. So it has been only on rare occasions, such as at the 1985 NPT review conference and the 2000 NPT review conference, that a formal, final conference document has been agreed to. Our survey of the proposals that have been put forward by key states in connection with the NPT suggests that there is a very large plurality of states that support each of the main areas of the treaty.

North Korea--which was once a member of the NPT--withdrew and then tested nuclear weapons, so it’s obviously not in compliance with the treaty, or at least it’s a non-signatory to the treaty. Iran is a signatory, but is accused by many states of not being in compliance. How are North Korea and Iran going to be dealt with?

Yes, North Korea in 2003 declared its withdrawal from the NPT, although its withdrawal has not been formally recognized by other NPT parties. It conducted two nuclear tests; its nuclear enrichment production is outside of safeguards. These clearly put it in violation of its NPT obligations. Iran’s secret pursuit of enrichment capabilities, its failure to answer the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about its current and past activities, puts it out of compliance also.

This time around, we’re going to see the U.S. and the Western states pursue a more country-neutral approach, but one that tries to get the review conference to approve measures that make it clear that if a state withdraws from the treaty, it does not have a right to use technology or material acquired under peaceful auspices for military purposes.

Now, even though those two proliferation cases are clearly the most immediate threat to the nonproliferation system, it doesn’t mean that there will be a focused debate about those countries’ programs at the conference. In fact, by naming or singling out Iran, Western states could help Iran stymie progress in developing a consensus around steps that would strengthen the treaty and address the very problems that Iran has exposed within the treaty system. This is what happened in 2005. The Bush administration used the NPT conference as a platform from which to complain and haul out Iran for its noncompliance. Iran responded by working with other states to block consensus on steps that might have strengthened the treaty.

This time around we’re going to see the United States and the Western states pursue a more country-neutral approach, but one that nonetheless tries to get the review conference to approve measures that make it clear that if a state withdraws from the treaty it is still responsible for its actions--that such a state does not have a right to use technology or material acquired under peaceful auspices for military purposes. In addition, the United States and other countries are going to seek to make mandatory the additional protocol to the IAEA safeguards system for improving inspections, which the Iranians are resisting. This is extremely important for making sure that Iran is not pursuing illicit enrichment outside of their known enrichment facilities at Natanz and Qum.

The United States and Russia signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which calls on both of them to again reduce their arsenals of nuclear offensive weapons, though they’ll both still have significant arsenals. But you don’t hear much about China: Is it a significant nuclear power?

What I’m expecting the United States to do is to work with the other recognized nuclear weapons states to support language calling for deeper reductions. If you look at the Nuclear Posture Review of the Obama administration, it underscores its interest in starting a strategic dialogue not just with Russia on further steps on disarmament, but also with China on building transparency with respect to nuclear stockpiles and postures. It’s also likely that the five recognized nuclear weapons states under the NPT--the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France--are going to reiterate their commitment to not just pursue but achieve nuclear disarmament as part of their commitment to create a world without nuclear weapons. And we will see the nuclear weapon states and others reiterate their strong commitments to the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), one of the key nuclear disarmament steps that was endorsed at the 1995 NPT review conference.

That treaty was signed by President Clinton and all the other leaders of nuclear powers, but the U.S. Senate failed to ratify that treaty in 1999. What is the likelihood of Senate approval now?

The logic for ratifying the test ban treaty is extremely strong now. It’s been ten years since the Senate rejected the CTBT. There is no technical or military reason that any serious observer can cite for the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing. The verification and monitoring capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community--as well as the international monitoring systems set up to verify compliance with the test ban treaty--have only grown, and the United States essentially is already carrying out all the obligations of a state that has ratified the CTBT. It’s very unfortunate that the Obama administration was not able to make good on the president’s pledge back in April 2009 to immediately and aggressively reconsider that treaty.

After the New START treaty is approved, and I think it will be approved by a healthy margin, the test ban treaty becomes the next major nuclear policy question on the Senate’s agenda. The prospects for its ratification are better today than at any time in the past. If there’s a vote tomorrow on the CTBT, there would be at least sixty votes if not more [sixty-seven are needed for ratification] and while getting additional Republican votes for anything is a challenge, it’s clearly within the president’s reach to get above sixty-seven. The argument and the qualms that the senators had about the test ban treaty in 1999 have clearly been addressed, and when the debate is joined we’re going to find that there is far more support than superficial analysis today might suggest. And I would just add that there’s nobody paying more attention to this issue than the Arms Control Association. But anyone who says the treaty will or will not be ratified by the Senate simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about because the debate has not been joined. There’s no possible way anyone could possibly make a clear prediction about what will happen with the test ban treaty.

But the timetable seems to be to bring the New START up for ratification first. Is that correct?

Yes, and one reason for that is that the START I treaty of 1991 expired on December 5, 2009. It’s important that this New START treaty enters into force sooner rather than later, so that we can restore the verification system and the predictability it provides, and so the United States and Russia can move forward to deal with the other issues that they are concerned about or have in common. New START is the very next issue on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agenda.

In other words, you expect the Foreign Relations Committee to take up New START in late spring, early summer?

They’re likely to hold a hearing or two that lays the groundwork for their consideration of New START. The article by article analysis and other associated documents connected with the New START treaty still have to be delivered to the Senate, so I would expect sometime in May that material will be delivered to the Senate and the formal hearings in the Foreign Relations Committee, the Armed Services Committee and Intelligence Committee can begin.

So you’re fairly optimistic that this can begin? I’ve heard people who purport to be experts predicting that the treaty will not be ratified before the elections in November.

No one is expert enough to know how long the confirmation process will last. It probably can’t begin until approximately June, which is when Associate Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is due to step down. The process for finding his replacement will take a certain amount of time. But if the necessary documentation that accompanies a New START treaty can be delivered to the Senate by early May, and the Senate can begin work on New START, then it’s conceivable, if not likely, that the Senate could consider New START and vote on it before the August recess. There could be of course other timing factors having to do with other issues that delay the Senate’s final consideration on New START. But the real question is what will happen when the Senate provides its advice and consent. The logic argues strongly for ratification.

After the New START treaty is approved, and I think it will be approved by a healthy margin, the test ban treaty becomes the next major nuclear policy question on the Senate’s agenda. The prospects for its ratification are better today than at any time in the past.

This treaty does not weaken the United States in any way despite some of the vague protestations of some on the right. Number two, it provides the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff with great flexibility on the size and structure of U.S. forces. The treaty will only affect modest reductions in current warhead and delivery system levels, and most importantly it will reestablish a common sense, up to date, and more effective verification and monitoring regime that not only covers deployed delivery systems but also deployed strategic warheads for the first time. The alternative to this common sense agreement is no regulation of U.S.-Russian stockpiles. We would not have a cap on Russian warhead deployments. We would not have on-site inspections. The intelligence community would be flying blind without New START’s verification system. And so once the Senate takes a close look at the actual treaty, the pros vastly outweigh any cons.

Just come back briefly to the NPT conference. Is there an attempt at having a final declaration, or is that not feasible?

There will be a strong and serious effort made to come up with a conference document, but the final conference document is not necessary for success. The best judge of success for the NPT conference is the extent to which the majority of states can agree on a common plan of action to strengthen the treaty in its three key areas.

What about the efforts to ban nuclear weapons in the Middle East?

In 1995, the NPT review conference approved the goal of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. That has been a goal of the United States for quite some time, but since 1995 there really has been no tangible work done to achieve such a zone. For understandable reasons, there’re a lot of difficulties in the region beyond nuclear weapons issues. Egypt, which has long sought this goal, has grown increasingly frustrated about the lack of progress and it’s pretty clear that Egypt, which is going to chair the non-aligned movement going into the NPT review conference, is seeking some agreement at the conference on practical next steps toward a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. It is possible for states to come together around some simple ideas to advance a goal. One would be to have a special envoy to convene key governments to discuss steps toward realizing a weapons-free zone in the Middle East.

Does Iran enter into the Middle East geography?

The area includes Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Syria.

Israel is the only state in that group that we know has nuclear weapons. But Israel’s not likely to go along with any nuclear ban unless it’s guaranteed that Iran will be barred from having nuclear weapons.

For Israel, the realization of a nuclear weapons-free zone is connected to the achievement of broader nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons disarmament in the region as well as a broader peace agreement. Now Iran obviously is an added factor in this equation. The pursuit of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the region is all the more important given the trajectory that Iran is on. It leads countries like Egypt to be increasingly interested in moving toward a nuclear weapons-free zone. And it could be a vehicle by which other Arab states in the region also put pressure on Iran to suspend its enrichment activities as a good faith effort toward the realization of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. So what we’re talking about here is that this review conference cannot solve all the Middle East’s problems in one month.

What about Pakistan and India?

Remember that the three countries that have never signed the NPT--India, Pakistan, and Israel--will not be actively participating in the NPT review conference. North Korea will not likely be there. So the NPT review conference will likely reiterate the long-term goal of achieving NPT universality, meaning all states should join the NPT; and under the terms of the NPT, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea [should] join or rejoin as non-nuclear weapons states. Now, that is not a likely route at the moment, and the NPT review conference will indirectly address the challenges posed by nuclear weapons states outside the NPT by saying that we need to pursue the realization of a global Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). The NPT review conference will also likely endorse the goal of the CTBT entering into force. India and Pakistan have not signed the CTBT, but they both have declared unilateral testing moratoriums, and many believe that if the United States and China were to ratify the CTBT, they’d be persuaded to follow.