2015 is the year when the next conference on the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review is supposed to be held. These conferences take place every five years. Last time, back in 2010, the nuclear powers restated their commitment to a “diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination.” Now, things seem to be taking the opposite direction.
Shortly before leaving his post of the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel authorized the US Department of Defense to request a further 10 percent increase in funding to upgrade its nuclear infrastructure every year for the next five years. “Our nuclear deterrent plays a critical role in ensuring US national security and it is Department of Defense’s highest priority mission,” Hagel declared. “No other capability we have is more important.”
So, does that imply that the NPT is dead?
Says Professor Anoush Ehteshami, Joint Director of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World at England’s Durham University:
I think it is too early to write it off. I think it is also dangerous to write it off, because this is the only internationally binding treaty that we have which can, hopefully, prevent, but at the very least control proliferation. And its failure would come at great cost to all of us. In that regard, I then hope that this is not the end, that when the occasion of review comes up in 2015 we can really begin to look at the weaknesses of the treaty and find ways of overcoming those elements.
Professor, but what do you think has been standing in the way of its successful implementation?
Prof. Anoush Ehteshami: I think there are a number of critical issues, one of which is of course the difficulties that the five permanent members, the five nuclear states have had in managing the reduction. None of them, it seems to me, have any interest whatsoever in reducing the nuclear threshold below a level which then becomes visible to everybody else.
We know that there are the discussions between Russia and the US about a transition of nuclear weapons, but both countries develop new technologies, warheads. We don’t have much of a dialog with China about these matters. In France and Britain, in spite of the domestic pressures, certainly in Britain, to limit its nuclear program or indeed to end it, the governments of these countries seem to have little appetite for it.
And I think the global south, in particular, looks at this and sees an inherent bias built into the system – these countries have nuclear weapons, their programs are accepted through this nuclear regime and they can do what they like, irrespective of the international requirements.
And then, if a country like Pakistan develops the nuclear weapons and India develops the nuclear weapons, they are immediately sanctioned by the international community.
And then, Israel develops the nuclear weapons and nothing happens. It is allowed to hold the nuclear weapons, it has developed the nuclear weapons, and yet America remains it closest military partner.
North Korea declares that it wants to have a nuclear weapon, and it is immediately isolated and it is sanctioned, and its people are literally starved to death.
We can’t blame the West for this, but I'm just making a comparison of how the countries are treated from the perspective of their compliance with the NPT. So, the North Koreans have decided – you know what, we might as well leave the treaty, than be subjected to this kind of pressure which is coming upon us.
Then, there is Iran which says – you know, we don’t actually have a nuclear weapons program, we have a peaceful nuclear program. But nobody believes them for the previous transgressions and they are then subjected to the very intensive international sanctions regime.
We don’t seem to be judging the world by the same yardstick. And that, I think, at the heart of it, is the most important element that needs to be reviewed again. And when the review takes place, when they look at the additional protocol which requires a more intrusive investigation and presence of the international inspectors in the countries like Iran and elsewhere, they need to make sure that they actually look at all the countries with potential nuclear programs equally.
This is what every Middle Eastern country wants. That says – look, tell us if Israel has got nuclear weapons and bring it within the controlled international regime. If Pakistan has its nuclear program, make sure that it is part of a broader discussion about counter-proliferation or limiting nuclear proliferation. At the moment we are just kind of marginalized, bypassed, dismissed, sanctioned or ignored in this process which is going on globally.
So, like you are saying, the discriminatory approach is still there. Could it be the reason why all those attempts to hold an efficient conference on creating a WMD free zone in the ME are a failure? Is it the double-standard approach?
Prof. Anoush Ehteshami: I think that is absolutely the key issue that there is the double standard, at least that is how the parties see it. And for the Arab countries, certainly, before the Iranian crisis brew up in 2002, Israel was always in the sight – a nuclear weapons country that was never questioned for its clandestine nuclear program. While the rest of the region has been calling for the nuclear weapons free zone, for example, in the ME, Israel and the West have not engaged in that discussion at all with the rest of the region.
And it is that kind of double standard which is obviously taxing the other countries’ patience and their attitude towards the international regime. And they also, though maybe not correctly, cite what happened to Gaddafi in Libya, where some see cynicism in the West’s approach, that the minute he gave up all his defenses in terms of the nuclear, chemical program, missile program, he was totally vulnerable to the internal and external pressure.
The lesson learnt form that can be really dangerous for the rest of us – that if other countries think that our protection is only in having a WMD program. It is a recipe for a disaster, because what you are doing is encouraging proliferation by that misconception. I don’t think myself that Gaddafi’s fall was the result of it – the abandonment of his WMDs. There were very strong domestic reasons for what happened to him. Thirty plus years of dictatorship is an obvious case.
But, nevertheless, it is the lesson that other countries learnt from this situation that we need to be really weary of, because they take that degree of cynicism into their negotiations and they will not look at us as being fair and transparent, and applying the same global standard to every country. It is back again to the issue of double standards, I guess.
But now we have another challenge and, perhaps, that could be some kind of a wakeup call. I'm referring to the growing chaos in the region and the emergence of those militant entities. And they have already proved that they have a capacity to get hold of the WMD, the chemical weapons, for instance. And the chemical arsenal, if we talk about Libya, has been plundered and the weapons really got into the wrong hands. So, couldn’t that actually happen to the nuclear arsenals?
Prof. Anoush Ehteshami: Absolutely! This is very scary, I agree with you. And we need to be so cautious about this and about uncontrolled proliferation. You may recall that when the Soviet Union was dissolved, Russia and the US made a very conscious effort to make sure that the nuclear-related material in Kazakhstan would not be spilling over into the wrong hands. And they managed that together very carefully and very well.
What is happening now in other places, Syria is another example, where we know that there are stores of chemical weapons are now being destroyed, that could have fallen into the wrong hands; we don’t know whether any did or not. And this is a great cause for concern. Some say that the West needs to be really vigilant in Pakistan, because it needs to make sure that Pakistan’s nuclear facilities are completely safe from the Islamist terrorism, for example, and so on.
So, the proliferation increases, if you like, multiplies the dangers of insecurity for those country and their citizens, but also for the rest of us. And uncontrolled proliferation through the non-state actors is something that the nuclear regime just doesn’t have any means of dealing with, because it is so focused on the state.
In the review conference that comes up, it needs to begin the talk on how do you manage control of all the nuclear stockpiles. We have the technology for this for a long time, at the height of the Cold War. Very clear items were never offered to the Warsaw pact countries, were kept off the list. And the other side didn’t give the West the technologies that were seen to be of dual use and so on.
We need to revisit all of these criteria and categories to really understand how dangerous the proliferation is in this new world, and how the key countries – the five nuclear weapon countries – need to work together more closely and show the rest of the world that they are doing this in order to try and bring these unregulated proliferation, if you like, substate proliferation under control. But it is a very-very difficult act to undertake, I agree.
But Professor, since you’ve mentioned Kazakhstan, do I get it right that you have been referring to the so-called project Sapphire which was finalized something like 20 years ago, if I'm not mistaken. And it is seen as one of the best examples of cooperation between the huge state actors in the nonproliferation domain. Am I correct?
Prof. Anoush Ehteshami: Absolutely! That’s exactly what I'm referring to.
Do you think you could remind our listeners a little bit of the details of the project?
Prof. Anoush Ehteshami: Essentially, what happened was that all of the knowhow – the technologies, but also the software and the hardware to do with the nuclear program, that was there during the Soviet Union, were meticulously dismantled and nuclear materials were reprocessed in Russia and elsewhere. And the equipment was dismantled and taken back to Russia, and some that Kazakhstan could use without proliferation was left behind.
And at the height, if you like, the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union it cleared a very dangerous flashpoint internationally, that the two parties came together in the common interest, that also suited the emerging Kazakh Government’s interests as well. It had no interest in being a nuclear weapons state, nor did it feel that it had the ability to contain the facilities there and opened its doors, with the Russian approval at that time, to the West, so that the West could come in and assist in the cleanup operation. And as you know, it’s been a successful example of cooperation at that level.
Look, the nuclear weapons are so destructive, are so dangerous and the arsenals could blow up our planet a hundred of times, I suppose, though only once is needed, right? And the technological progress is still moving on. So, is the preservation of that nuclear arsenal that crucial for maintaining the security of a state nowadays?
Prof. Anoush Ehteshami: That is such a good question. When the Cold War ended, there were many who saw it as an opportunity to begin to really drawdown the nuclear arsenals across the world. If Russia and the US do it, then China, Britain, France and others will be under pressure to do the same.
And as you know, even during the Cold War the two sides made a huge progress is removing some offensive warheads, in extending the lifespan of their negotiations, during the Reagan and Gorbachev period in particular. They made real progress. In the 1990’s they made a real progress, and even in 2000’s they made progress.
But it comes down to politics, again. When the two sides have a sour taste in the mouth about each other, all of this other stuff becomes the flashpoint. It is interesting that both militaries recognize that they cannot afford to let the political spats between Washington and Moscow affect their dialog with each other, because they are the ones who know how bad a war is and how dangerous it is to start one, and how hard it is to end it.
So, actually, I think the military on both sides are probably the most alert tot eh dangers of not dialoging, not talking and not exchanging the information about the exercises, about the hardware and so on.
But that’s not the same for the politicians to sit around the table, the elected leaders of the countries to sit around the table and actually start knocking down a number of warheads, and the types of warheads, and delivery systems that they have. It is that level of discussion that we need to have. And for that to take place we need trust at all levels.
I cannot see China, for example, agreeing to sit down with the Americans and reveal all of its nuclear secrets in the hope that America would reciprocate by showing China all of its nuclear secrets, and agreeing not to have, for example, the nuclear weapons submarines offshore the South China Sea. I see that as an absolutely impossible proposition to make at this point.
So, the only place where this can start is between Russia and the US. And the only way that that can start is at the highest level – through a dialog at the elected leadership’s level. But maybe the NPT’s review conference can provide a forum for the countries to press the nuclear weapon states to take seriously the desire of the rest of humanity to begin to drawdown these weapons.
And it is interesting, because when you speak to any of these countries, they say – oh, no, we will never use our nuclear weapons, it is unthinkable to have a nuclear war. And as you rightly ask – well, why do you have these weapons then? What is it really deterring? The answer is – it deters a conventional attack. That is the underlying doctrine for having nuclear weapons – it keeps off a conventional attack from us.
It holds true to a degree, I agree. But it is not a very good solution to have the capability to destroy the humanity many times over, in case somebody attacks you with an aircraft or a tank. It is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. That’s not the way to live in the 21st century.
Absolutely! And all the more so that now there is a new concept, saying that a limited nuclear war could actually take place, which means that nuclear arsenals are not deterring a conventional war and, moreover, they are likely to be used in a so-called limited regime, which, as we know, is awful. I mean, we’ve seen those dirty bombs being used in several locations in the ME and it is absolutely inhumane.
Prof. Anoush Ehteshami: I couldn’t agree more! The problem is that military planners talk about tactical nuclear weapons, which are the ones that you can deploy in the field. The technology that the big powers now have, China less, but certainly the other four countries have, means that they can have battlefield-size nuclear weapons.
And if you think about it, if you can actually fit a nuclear warhead in a mortar shell, for example, then you are already assuming your ability to use it in a battlefield. And all your potential adversaries will act upon that assumption, and will develop the similar countermeasures – either similar weapons, or the ways of deterring you from using it.
And then you get yourself down the same cycle of proliferation and utter madness, as it comes down to it, because there is no such a thing as a safe battlefield nuclear weapon. You cannot control the fallout from a nuclear device once it’s been fired. You can harm that particular environment for hundreds of years. You can destroy the neighborhood outside of the battlefield for hundreds of years. What could possibly justify a military planner to even think about having nuclear weapons in battle?
It is totally, as you said, inhumane. And yet that conversation is being heard through the defense ministries, and it is really dangerous. And the nonnuclear weapon states, in particular, become really worried about it, because how do they know that those nuclear countries which have battlefield weapons will not use them against them. What defense do they have? Absolutely nothing! And this is the world of the 18-19th centuries, not the world of the 21st century.