Is the world on the eve of a new arms race that could spread nuclear weapons to a dozen or more countries within the next few years? (Image source: iStock)
Is the world on the eve of a new arms race that could spread nuclear weapons to a dozen or more countries within the next few years?
This is one of the questions that haunt the next Review Conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Twice postponed because of the Covid-19 crisis, the conference which, under the NPT, should be held once every 10 years, is now scheduled for January 4-28 in New York.
Looking back to the past five decades, that is to say since the launching of the treaty in 1968, one could observe three distinct phases in how the world regards the possession of nuclear weapons.
In the first phase, with worldwide anti-nuclear sentiments in the ascendancy, there was much hope of the NPT paving the way for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Even those who believed that nuclear weapons and the doctrine of Mutual Atomic Destruction (MAD) had prevented a Third World War believed that the NPT was a giant step towards eventual nuclear disarmament.
What happened, however, was rather different.
In the first phase, in the years after the NPT came into force, a number of new nuclear powers emerged, among them India and Pakistan. At least 12 other countries, among them Iran under the Shah, South Africa under the Apartheid regime, and Argentina under the military junta, took giant steps towards what is known as "the threshold status", that is to say, a country that has the scientific, technical and industrial means of making nuclear weapons but stops just short of actually making and stockpiling them.
France, which initially had not signed the treaty, later joined it but continued to modernize and expand its nuclear arsenal. France also put Iraq, under the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein, on the first step of the nuclear ladder.
In the second phase, a series of arms-reduction agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union was counterbalanced by China's decision to expand its nuclear weapons arsenal while North Korea gate-crashed the exclusive nuclear club.
In the third phase, which witnessed the end of the Cold War, hopes for an end to nuclear arsenals rose again while all the five officially recognized nuclear powers under the NPT, that is to say, the United States, Russia, Britain, China, and France, continued to upgrade their nuclear arsenals. Germany, never a nuclear power, was also caught red-handed trying to build a "threshold" capacity, while in Japan, a self-imposed ban on nuclear weapons faced growing opposition.
Almost half a century after the NPT was launched, even its most ardent admirers find it hard to describe it as a success. The NPT, as its very name implies, was supposed to stop the emergence of new nuclear-armed nations. That hasn't happened. In fact, the number of nations with nuclear arsenals has almost doubled.
Curbing proliferation hasn't worked because two recognized nuclear powers, France and China, have chaperoned others on their way to building the bomb. At a lower level, North Korea and Pakistan helped the Islamic Republic of Iran to revive a moribund nuclear project. The building of a "nuclear research facility" in Syria by North Korea was also a clear case of proliferation.
Preventing proliferation, however, was just one of the NPT's declared objectives.
The other one was disarmament. There, too, the NPT record is one of failure. On paper, both the US and Russia have reduced the number of nuclear warheads and the missiles needed to carry them to targets.
In reality, however, several new generations of warheads and missiles have been developed to give the two original "superpowers" much greater destructive capability.
Those who preach "the right to develop nuclear weapons" in several countries use the fact that no meaningful nuclear disarmament has happened as an argument in favor of diverting resources to costly bomb-building projects.
The NPT has failed in other fields of its declared ambitions as well. It is supposed to operate risk-reduction schemes and promote security for non-nuclear nations.
It also holds the promise that established nuclear nations would freely and systematically share scientific and technological advances in the peaceful uses of nuclear power with non-nuclear nations. None of those, however, has gone beyond pious declarations and a few theatrical gestures.
US President Barack Obama's administration dealt a severe blow to the NPT by undermining the authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations' organ for monitoring the implementation of the treaty.
The Obama administration took the dossier of the Iran's nuclear project away from the IAEA and created an unofficial body, known as the P5+1, that is to say, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, to initiate a "dialogue" with the Tehran mullahs outside NPT terms, with the IAEA's role reduced to one of inspection and observation, the modalities of which are set by P5+1 and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) clearly states that it is tailor-made solely for Iran and will not be applicable to any other country.
However, a precedent is set to bypass the NPT and the IAEA by putting in charge a group of nations that have not created a formal legal status and pretend to replace the UN just as a posse replaces the sheriff in some Western movies.
In a different register, President Donald Trump's administration also undermined the NPT and the IAEA with his diplomatic pas-de-deux with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In a sense, Trump even out-Obamaed Obama by excluding the six-nation formula for dealing with Pyongyang.
The twice-postponed golden jubilee of the NPT may provide an occasion for serious reflection on its failures and ways of reshaping it as an effective instrument to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and speed up the dismantling of arsenals that, if the NPT is to be believed, pose as great a threat to the planet as does climate change, the currently fashionable "big cause".
At the risk of sounding alarmist, we may be entering a phase of banalization of nuclear weapons, something that the NPT in its present form would not be able to deal with.
Next month, once the golden birthday cake is cut and served in New York, serious work should start on revising a treaty that, devised to address the needs of yesterday, is manifestly unfit for dealing with the looming threats of tomorrow.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.