UN seeks therapy for disarmament depression
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
"Words must mean something."
- US President Barack Obama, Prague April 2009.
NEW YORK - In preparation for the 2010 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
review conference, the United Nations (UN) is holding a two-week conference
that theoretically should culminate in a "consensus report containing
recommendations" for next year's conference. There are common concerns about
the threats posed by nuclear weapons, but the world community continues to have
conflicting priorities with respect to the twin agendas of the NPT, namely,
disarmament and non-proliferation.
The NPT, which entered into force in 1970 and was extended indefinitely in
1995, requires that review conferences be held every
five years. The treaty is regarded as the cornerstone of the global nuclear
non-proliferation regime. Its objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear
weapons, to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and complete
disarmament and to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Forty years after its adoption, the general appraisal regarding the NPT's
achievement is mixed: the states that are parties to the NPT have by and large
avoided proliferation yet the disarmament pillar scores "much lower," to
paraphrase Brazil's envoy to the conference, ambassador Luiz Filipe de Macedo
Soares. He has criticized the nuclear weapons states (NWS) for using
"anachronistic concepts such as 'credible deterrent' even though they could
lead to convince non-nuclear weapons states of the usefulness of these
As China's speaker at the conference, Cheng Jingye, reminded the audience,
China is the only one among the five NWS that has made a commitment "not to use
or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states or nuclear
No wonder, then, that global consensus on nuclear weapons is in short supply,
despite glimmers of hope regarding a new US-Russia nuclear engagement that may
or may not culminate in any significant breakthrough.
With respect to US-China relations, a new study by the Council on Foreign
Relations dismisses the idea of a similar arms limitation agreement between
Washington and Beijing due to their nuclear "asymmetry". It instead calls for
renewed military-to-military discussions with China to encourage transparency
and a serious dialogue about outer space militarization, including seeking a
trilateral ban by China, Russia, and the US on testing anti-satellite weapons.
In a largely unnoticed message to the UN's preparatory conference for the 2010
NPT Review Conference, US president Barack Obama reiterated his strong
commitment to disarmament that he spelled out in Prague last month. He
elaborated on his speech in the Czech capital, saying his administration is now
seeking to "achieve reductions [in its strategic nuclear arsenal to] lower than
those in existing arms control agenda." Also, Obama stated that "universal
adherence to the NPT itself - including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North
Korea - remains a fundamental objective of the United States".
"Words must mean something," Obama also said in his landmark speech in Prague,
yet it remains to be seen if his administration can achieve any of the nuclear
goals it has publicly set for itself. It has laid down plans such as a new
comprehensive test ban treaty, a nuclear fissile material cut-off treaty, a
strengthened nuclear inspection regime and closing the NPT loophole for
unilateral exit by NPT signatories.
Moscow does not quite have the same level of optimism that is projected by the
White House, going by Russian ambassador Anatoly Antonov's frank admittance at
the conference that "many plans approved at the 2000 NPT Review Conference have
never been implemented." Antonov listed the NPT's vulnerabilities:
"The ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, which ensured the maintenance
of strategic stability as regards strategic offensive arms reductions and
limitation, is no longer effective. The START-II has never entered into force.
We are also a long way to go to bringing the CTBT [test ban treaty] into force.
Far from completed - as the participants in the 2000 NPT Review Conference
planned - the negotiations on the prohibition of production of fissile
materials for nuclear weapons have not even started. ... [T]he decision of the
1995 NPT Review Conference to establish a zone free from nuclear weapons, as
well as from all other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery means,
has never been implemented.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
echoed this rather gloomy sentiment at the conference's opening session by
admitting that "for a long time, the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation
agenda has been stagnating in a Cold War mentality". Still, Ban was optimistic
about "emerging from a low point" in light of the last NPT review conference's
dismal failure to reach any consensus, citing the hopeful signs of cooperation
between US and Russia, who together possess some 95% of the world's nuclear
US and Russia have fulfilled obligations to reduce their strategic nuclear
arsenal to the limit of 1,600 strategic delivery vehicles and 6,000 nuclear
warheads. But such "disarmament" has been offset by so-called vertical
proliferation through new types of nuclear weapons, not to mention the complete
failure of NWS to implement the "13 practical steps" toward disarmament that
were adopted at a previous NPT review conference. This has caused a backlash on
the part of the non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) who have criticized the NWS'
failure to adhere to their disarmament obligations.
Cuba's representative, ambassador Abelardo Moreno, speaking on behalf of the
Non-Aligned Movement countries that make up a solid majority of the UN's member
states, called for "a specific timeframe" for the implementation of Article IV
on disarmament, as a part of "non-discriminatory" and balanced approach to the
NPT. Moreno also defended the NPT members' "right of withdrawal", which has
been under fire in the West ever since North Korea's unilateral exit from the
NPT in 2002, insisting that "proposals on this issue go beyond the provisions
of the NPT".
But, if "words must mean something" as Obama said, then perhaps the less said
the better. This may explain the limited presentations by the European nuclear
weapon states of England and France, both of which mentioned disarmament
without offering any tangible disarmament steps. The European Union did express
concern over proliferation through the statement delivered by a representative
of the Czech Republic, Tomas Pojar:
"[The] European Union is committed to the pursuit of nuclear disarmament,"
Pojar said. He then went on to express the EU's concerns about Iran, "If Iran
was to acquire a military nuclear capability, this would constitute an
unacceptable threat to regional and international security."
This is a good example of nuclear Euro-centrism, as if the same speaker had
come from a different part of the world, say the Middle East, and expressed
similar concerns about France or England's current modernization of their
nuclear arsenal, let alone disarmament, that would certainly have left a
Iran's main speaker, Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali Hosseini, criticized
the "unbalanced, discriminatory and double-standard approach in implementing
this treaty," citing, among other things, the US's nuclear sharing with the NPT
states and the "rejection of any commitment to grant NSAs [negative security
assurance]  to the non-nuclear weapon states".
Interestingly, although the US and its European allies continue to accuse Iran
of marching toward nuclear weapons, the Assistant Director General of the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Vilmos Cserveny, admitted in his
speech that Iran has been implementing the terms of its safeguards agreements
with the IAEA. He added that the agency has declared the peaceful nature of
Iran's declared nuclear activities, and all the agency now requires from Iran
was some "clarifications regarding its past nuclear activities."
Not only that, Cserveny's speech made it clear that the agency has confirmed
the non-diversion of nuclear material of only 70 of the 163 states with
safeguard agreements with the IAEA, adding that one-fourth of the IAEA member
states have yet to implement the intrusive Additional Protocol. This raises the
question of on what grounds the nuclear issue has been assigned such an
exceptional status by the UN Security Council, which has imposed several rounds
of sanctions on Iran despite the absence of any evidence of nuclear
Citing this as a flagrant example of discriminatory behavior, Iran's officials
at the conference pledged to raise this at next year's NPT review conference.
Going by the positive reception that Hosseini's speech received by the
developing nations that are members of the Non-Aligned Movement, this promises
to be simply one of several challenges that the UN will face in formulating a
consensual report ahead of the 2010 conference.
"If we fail next year, like we did in 2005, the NPT runs the risk of gradual
erosion and possible marginalization, Such a development would undermine our
own common security," said Norway's ambassador Nona Juul. How true, but then
again, the problem is rooted in the conflicting interpretation of "common
security" in a world that is riveted between the nuclear haves and nuclear
Of all the speeches delivered at the conference, Japan seemed to have the best
idea of how to push the NPT's mutli-faceted agenda forward in a practical and
realistic manner that would translate into "gradual downward reductions" of
nuclear arsenal. Ambassador Nakasone last month unveiled Japan's 11-point
initiative to push for global disarmament. It included improved transparency,
the US and Russia taking leadership, a freeze on nuclear development activities
and the closing of nuclear weapons test sites. It also covered related steps
such as stepped up efforts against nuclear terrorism. enhancing the IAEA's
abilities, and globalizing the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty.
In light of a Japanese diplomat's current bid to become the next head of the
embattled IAEA, such a comprehensive approach was timely and yet another
reminder why Japan, the world's sole victim of nuclear weapons, remains at the
forefront of the disarmament movement.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.