Headline news about the threat of nuclear terrorism and the concerns about the nuclear capabilities and ambitions of Iran and North Korea regimes has led some Washington policy makers and pundits to conclude that the nuclear nonproliferation system has failed. A new strategy, they say, must be developed to replace it, or, perhaps, we must even accept that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable.

The global nuclear nonproliferation system and the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is certainly under stress. But rather than pursue a selective approach to the nuclear weapons threat or abandon the attempt, the U.S. must work with other states to reinforce and update the regime, which has performed very well in the 35 years since the treaty’s entry into force.

The NPT has established increasingly tough technical and political roadblocks for the non-nuclear weapon-states to acquire or produce the fissile material and technology needed to build nuclear weapons. At the same time the treaty allows these states controlled access to nuclear technology for civilian purposes under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards to detect and deter the diversion of “peaceful” nuclear technology for weapons purposes. The NPT has been reinforced by a voluntary system of nuclear export controls on dual-use items.

Equally important, the NPT commits all member states, including the five original nuclear weapon states–the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China–to pursue and eventually achieve nuclear disarmament. The NPT process has led these five states to pledge not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon NPT members and prompted a global ban on nuclear test explosions, thereby reducing the salience of nuclear weapons and the motives for other states to acquire them.

The nonproliferation system has created a set of mutual responsibilities and helped to reinforce a taboo against nuclear weapons that has led dozens of states to abandon nuclear weapons research programs and led several others–including Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine–to eliminate their renounce their nuclear arsenals. As a result, some 40 countries have peaceful nuclear programs that could be retooled to help produce nuclear weapons. Yet today, there are only eight states that clearly have nuclear weapons, including the only three states (India, Israel, and Pakistan) that never signed the NPT.

Future success requires that United States and other nations work together to:

  • Achieve universal compliance with strengthened rules against nuclear weapons possession, trade, development, and use by any and all states;
  • Address regional security tensions that fuel the pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities by certain states; and,
  • Renew progress toward fulfillment of the nuclear-weapon states’ NPT disarmament obligations.

Today’s Proliferation Challenges

Preventing a system-wide breakdown starts with a comprehensive assessment of today’s nuclear dangers, which range from potential new nuclear weapon states; to the huge stockpiles of fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium); to the existing arsenals of the nuclear weapon-states, which total 27,000 warheads.

Within the last four years, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the treaty, renewed production of plutonium, and claims to have produced nuclear weapons. A nuclear black market network run by Pakistan’s former lead nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, was discovered to have sold sensitive technologies to Iran, North Korea, Libya, and possibly others. One NPT member state–Iran–was discovered by IAEA inspectors to have secretly built facilities that can enrich uranium. After a three year-long and still unfinished investigation, Iran insists that it will move ahead with the effort despite international concerns that its nuclear activities are part of a bomb program and not simply for nuclear energy production.

If the international community fails to turn North Korea and Iran away from the nuclear arms path and either of these two states demonstrate that they have acquired nuclear weapons, neighboring states–such as Japan, South Korea, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia–might reconsider their decision to join the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states.

Another threat stems from the existing global stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, the fissile materials that are the fuel of nuclear bombs. Located at dozens of major sites in the former Soviet Union and other countries, some of these materials are inadequately secured and accounted for and, as a result, are vulnerable to terrorist acquisition. U.S.-Russian cooperative threat reduction programs have made enormous strides in lowering the danger, but even more energetic action is needed to secure and dispose of the most vulnerable stockpiles.

The United States and Russia, meanwhile, have maintained and to some extent sought to expand the role of their nuclear weapons in their post-Cold War military strategy. At the same time, progress toward disarmament by the two nuclear superpowers has stalled. Today, the United States has 5,000 and Russia has 4,300 deployed long-range nuclear warheads. Most of these weapons remain on hair trigger alert, which increases the risk that some of these weapons might be launched by accident or without authorization. They plan to retain as many as 2,200 strategic nuclear weapons each, with more in reserve, along with large numbers of tactical nuclear weapons through 2012 and beyond.

The Bush administration has also sought funding for research on new nuclear weapons for new missions, including possible preemptive strikes against non-nuclear states. The administration has also rejected the adoption of the 1996 treaty banning all nuclear test explosions, which would limit further nuclear warhead development, and it has held up negotiations on a verifiable treaty to ban the production of fissile material for weapons purposes.

Meanwhile, China continues to expand its arsenal of 100 plus nuclear weapons, which includes nearly 20 warheads on long-range missiles. Great Britain and France are considering modernization of their strategic nuclear arsenals, which number under 200 and approximately 350 warheads respectively.

Consequently, a growing number of states do not believe that the five original nuclear-weapon states intend to fulfill their NPT-related nuclear disarmament commitments. That growing conviction erodes the willingness among certain states in the non-nuclear-weapon majority to fulfill their own treaty obligations, much less agree to strengthen the regime. Combined with the U.S. military invasion of Iraq, it provides hard-liners in states such as Iran and North Korea an excuse to press their governments to keep their nuclear weapons options open.

As the 2005 U.N. high-level panel report, “A More Secure World” warned, “We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the nonproliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation.”

The Bush Administration Response

The troubling array of proliferation problems has prompted interest across the political and ideological spectrum in new nuclear risk reduction strategies. Over the last five years, the Bush administration has pursued an ad hoc approach that is based on the perception that the problem is dangerous regimes with dangerous weapons and not the inherent dangers posed by the weapons in the hands of any state. The policy has not produced many positive results.

Beyond its decision to invade Iraq on the basis of false claims that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting a nuclear weapons program, the administration has focused on trying to pressure North Korea and Iran to comply with their nonproliferation commitments. In each case, it has pursued the effort in the absence of a deeper strategy to confront the underlying motives of these two isolated and profoundly nationalistic states and failed to substantially alter their behavior. As a result, North Korea has accused the Bush administration of maintaining a “hostile” policy and is once again producing nuclear bomb material. Iran and its newly elected hardline president have become even more publicly committed to developing a domestic nuclear fuel program, which could enable it to produce highly-enriched uranium for weapons as soon as 2008.

President Bush has advocated that all non-nuclear weapon states subscribe to tougher IAEA safeguards–known as the Additional Protocol–and that nuclear supplier states only export to states that have agreed to such monitoring. The Additional Protocol gives the IAEA the authority to inspect undeclared as well as declared nuclear facilities. In 2004, Bush also proposed a ban on the construction of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities in states that do not already possess them. The latter proposal would, however, affect states such as Iran, but not U.S. allies such as Japan, and it has not been embraced by other states so far.

The Bush administration has also put a great deal of faith in its effort to cooperate with like-minded states to interdict shipments of dangerous weapons, materiel, and equipment to certain states of proliferation concern. The effort–known as the Proliferation Security Initiative–might be a useful adjunct to other nonproliferation strategies, but it cannot reliably interdict all nuclear weapons-related possible transshipments.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has bent the nonproliferation rules for its friends. In 2005, the U.S. rewarded Pakistan–one the world’s worst proliferators–with advanced fighter jets and other military aid to maintain President Pervez Musharraf’s support for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. To foster a better strategic relationship with India and to offset Chinese influence, the Bush administration has offered India even more: full nuclear cooperation despite the fact that it is not a member of the NPT and resists both comprehensive IAEA safeguards and a halt to fissile material production for its weapons program.

In response to calls from even some U.S. allies to make further progress on the nuclear disarmament agenda, the Bush administration officials have failed to respect important disarmament obligations made in the context of the NPT, including the test ban treaty and deeper, verifiable nuclear weapons reductions. In an April 27, 2004 speech at the NPT Preparatory Conference, then-Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton declared, “[W]e cannot divert attention from the violations we face by focusing on [disarmament] issues that do not exist.”

U.S. officials took that same “do as I say, not as I do” attitude into the 2005 NPT Review Conference and, along with Iran and Egypt, effectively blocked the conference from reaching agreement on a concrete action plan to strengthen the treaty. The same dynamics blocked agreement at the September 2005 summit of heads of state on recommendations for action on disarmament and nonproliferation, an outcome which UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called “a real disgrace.”

Retreat or Reinvigorate Nonproliferation?

Some independent analysts are increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of holding back “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, because of the Bush administration’s one-dimensional approach and/or because they believe that North Korea and Iran appear to be determined to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Some, like Charles Pena and Ted Galen Carpenter, believe that the global nuclear nonproliferation system has not worked and should be abandoned for an alternative strategy to counter nuclear threats. Like the Bush policy team, Pena and Carpenter base their proposals on the proposition that aggressive and erratic regimes with nuclear weapons are a threat to their neighbors, while nuclear arsenals in the hands of stable, democratic, U.S. allies are not. They suggest that the United States should extend its nuclear umbrella to guarantee the security of allies and clients, and not impede “peaceful states that want to become nuclear powers to deter unfriendly actors in their neighborhoods.” In this vein, Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has even suggested that it is in the U.S. interest to encourage India to modernize and expand its minimal nuclear force to counter China-s nuclear capabilities and influence.

But can the United States and its friends pick and choose who can and who cannot have nuclear weapons, even as it maintains and further develops its own nuclear arsenal and implies its possible use against others? Should the U.S. offer nuclear security guarantees to additional states or condone nuclear weapons efforts by “responsible” states? Is it “realistic” to believe that a world with more nuclear-armed states is safer and more stable than a world with fewer? No.

Clearly, the existing nonproliferation model, especially as it is being applied by the Bush administration, needs to be adjusted and strengthened. But abandoning the original NPT system to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons and reduce existing arsenals is not a realistic option. A world in which there are eight nuclear weapon states is already far too dangerous. A world with more nuclear weapons and/or more nuclear weapon states would be even more dangerous and unpredictable. Arms competition between regional rivals would accelerate. The odds of nuclear war by design or miscalculation in East Asia, South Asia, or the Middle East would rise. Our ability to control the sale of nuclear weapons-related technologies would further diminish and the risk that one or more state might lose or decide to sell nuclear material, or decide to sell its know-how to a terrorist organization, would increase.

As IAEA Director-General Mohamed El Baradei said in a December 13, 2005 speech, “To continue to have the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is absolutely unsustainable. Either we continue to rely on nuclear weapons, and face the reality that in the next 10-20 years, 20 or 30 countries will have nuclear weapons, or each country must cease its nuclear weapons programme and destroy existing nuclear arsenals.”

Elements of a More Effective Nonproliferation Strategy

We cannot abandon the effort to hold back nuclear proliferation everywhere or tacitly endorse the acquisition of nuclear weapons by allies to counter proliferation by adversaries. Today’s security environment requires a more comprehensive, sophisticated, and robust global nonproliferation strategy that also addresses the underlying regional tensions that propel proliferant behavior.

Turning North Korea and Iran Away from Nuclear Weapons

The most urgent tasks are to begin the process of freezing and dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programs and reaching an agreement between the European Union and Iran that recognizes Iran’s “right” to pursue peaceful nuclear endeavors but produces a voluntary and indefinite freeze of its uranium enrichment program, which is not necessary for Iran to produce nuclear energy and could be used to make weapons.

Despite the breakthrough agreement in September on a Joint Statement of Principles outlining a series of action-for-action steps to denuclearize North Korea in a verifiable manner, the main antagonists are again at odds over the substance and sequencing of the deal. Following an unproductive round of six-party talks in November, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on North Korea to “get serious” about dismantling its nuclear program. North Korea, however, insists that the United States must act first before it freezes and then dismantles its nuclear weapons program.

To keep things moving and to test each other’s commitment to the process, the United States and North Korea should take unilateral reciprocal steps. For its part, North Korea should suspend its plutonium separation operations at Yongbyon, which would give both sides more diplomatic breathing space and restore some of the confidence established by the 1994 Agreed Framework. Without a freeze, the DPRK can produce enough nuclear material for several bombs per year.

At the same time, the United States might announce it will cancel the next scheduled joint ROK-U.S. military exercise, which the DPRK sees as a sign of the United States’ “hostile policy.” If North Korea maintains the freeze at Yongbyon, the United States might also pledge to withdraw some of its strike aircraft from the region to demonstrate it has no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons.

Keeping Iran nuclear weapons free will require some more visionary diplomacy than either the EU or United States have attempted so far. The United States, the EU, and Israel have pressed other IAEA states to refer the Iranian case to the UN Security Council, where they could seek international sanctions against Tehran.

While it is crucial that IAEA safeguards violations be met with a firm response, referral of the Iranian case to the Security Council could push Iran to eject IAEA inspectors or withdraw from the NPT. Preemptive military action is also unwise. A strike by Israel or the United States at Iran’s nuclear facilities would only delay–not destroy–its program, and would likely trigger a wider war in the region involving exchanges of ballistic missiles.

Although difficult, diplomacy remains the best option. Even as the EU and the U.S. keep open the option of referring the Iranian nuclear file to the UN Security Council for possible punitive action, they U.S. must try to increase Iran’s incentives to cooperate and comply with the NPT by making it clear that they will not seek regime change, they support efforts to rid the region of all weapons of mass destruction, and are prepared to support international guarantees of the supply of nuclear energy fuel as a substitute for a domestic Iranian uranium enrichment program. Without such an approach, it will continue to be difficult to convince Iran to slow or halt its program or, if it doesn’t, build international support to pressure Iran to do so.

Controlling Fissile Materials and Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

To prevent the further production and proliferation of weapons-usable nuclear material worldwide, the United States, EU, and others should back an indefinite moratorium on all (not just some) new uranium enrichment and plutonium separation plants, as El Baradei has proposed. Even with tougher international inspection authority and tighter controls on nuclear technology transfers, confidence in the nonproliferation system will erode if more states produce more nuclear bomb material. The pause would provide time to consider options for the guaranteed supply of nuclear energy fuel services and launch long-stalled talks on a global and verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for weapons.

The United States and its European allies must work even more closely with Russia to lock-down the remaining quantities of nuclear weapon-usable material scattered throughout its nuclear complex, with special emphasis on returning highly enriched uranium to secure storage for blend-down and accelerating security and accounting at remaining nuclear and research facilities throughout Russia and the former-Soviet Union.

The United States must not jeopardize the nonproliferation rules intended to prevent “peaceful” nuclear trade from contributing–directly or indirectly–to the nuclear weapons capabilities of any state. As the U.S. and other states consider the possibility of nuclear trade with India, they should insist that India accept (at a minimum) comprehensive safeguards of its “civilian” nuclear facilities and a cap on the production of fissile material for weapons. Otherwise, the supply of nuclear fuel services to India could free up its existing capacity to produce bomb material and expand its arsenal. Opening up nuclear trade with a non-member of the NPT would signal that states can defy the treaty and escape long-term political and economic retribution.

Reducing Nuclear Weapons Roles and Missions

Finally, the leaders of the nuclear-weapon states must restore confidence that they will continue to reduce the number and the role of nuclear weapons. It is in the United States’ self-interest to resume talks with Russia on verifiable strategic nuclear reductions before START I and its verification provisions expire in 2009. NATO should move to withdraw the obsolete U.S. stockpile of 480 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe to encourage Russia to account for and reduce its even larger tactical nuclear arsenal, which represent a target for terrorists. The United States should reconsider and finally ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to reinforce the NPT and make it difficult for other states to develop or improve their nuclear warheads.

To reduce the allure of nuclear weapons, the nuclear powers should also disavow the development of new types of nuclear weapons and reiterate their pledges not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states and targets.


In the 21st Century, nuclear weapons serve no practical purpose except to deter nuclear-armed adversaries from launching a nuclear attack on another nuclear-armed state. And today, the risk of conflict between those states is only increasing. Their devastating and indiscriminate power makes their use or threat of use against other state militarily impractical and morally indefensible. They are more useful for terrorists seeking to blackmail governments than they are for fighting terrorism. The obvious path towards a more secure world is to further reduce and verifiably eliminate these most dangerous weapons by reinforcing and consistently applying existing and improved nonproliferation and disarmament strategies.

Formerly with the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, Daryl Kimball is now Executive Director of the Arms Control Association.

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