The world's five nuclear powers announced on Tuesday they had agreed to never use their atomic arms against five Central Asian countries.
"They commit not to attack them with nuclear weapons or to threaten them with nuclear weapons and also respect the other [treaty] provisions" banning the deployment or testing of atomic arms in Central Asia, said nonproliferation expert Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, who is attending the Preparatory Committee meeting in New York City where the announcement was made by the five powers.
The Central Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone commits its signatories -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- to refrain from developing, acquiring or possessing nuclear weapons. The treaty entered into force in 2009 without the world's formally recognized nuclear-armed countries -- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States -- agreeing to abide by its limits.
Under the forthcoming protocol, the nuclear powers affirm that they also would keep these weapons out of the covered zone. The five powers previously signed similar protocols promising to respect the strictures of other nuclear weapon-free zones that cover Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and the South Pacific.
It took five years of "intensive consultations" for the five powers to agree to sign a protocol to the Central Asian treaty, according to Mukhatzhanova, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
"It's certainly one of the bigger news [items] so far" to come out of the Preparatory Committee meeting, Mukhatzhanova said in a Tuesday phone interview. The so-called "PrepCom" gathering is being held in advance of next year's Review Conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Peter Jones, director of defense and international security at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in a statement to the meeting said the United Kingdom was "delighted" to demonstrate its "commitment to legally binding negative security assurances by signing a protocol" to the treaty.
Mukhatzhanova said she believed any signing ceremony at the meeting would take place in private, with the five powers submitting the treaty to their respective legislative bodies for ratification at a later date.
An agreement by the five powers to sign the pact had been held up for years, due to problems that London, France and particularly Washington had with some of the accord's language, she said. The specific point of contention dealt with Article 12, which states that the agreement "does not affect the rights and obligations of the parties under other [pre-existing] international treaties."
This wording caused the George W. Bush administration concern because four of the five signatories of the nuclear-free zone pact -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- at the time were also members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization with Russia, she said. Uzbekistan exited the Russian-led security group in 2012.
The Bush administration interpreted that to mean Moscow could potentially "invoke the right" to field nuclear arms in Central Asia should the need arise, said Mukhatzhanova, who served as an expert in Kazakhstan's delegation to the 2010 NPT review conference.
The nuclear researcher said the issue had seemed "completely intractable." However, after President Obama was elected, there was a "change in the political will" in Washington, and the five permanent member states of the U.N. Security Council were able to eventually work out an agreement, she said.
"From what I understand, the agreement is that the five nuclear powers [will] attach interpretive statements to their signatures," Mukhatzhanova said.
Those interpretive statements may include some caveats whereby countries would spell out conditions for when they would not consider themselves bound to respect the nuclear-free-zone in Central Asia, she said.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect Uzbekistan's current status regarding the Collective Security Treaty Organization.