Nations to Open Nonproliferation Conference in "Shadow" of 2005 Failure

(Apr. 30) -Iran's foreign minister addresses delegates to the 2005 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference at U.N. headquarters in New York City. Participants in this year's NPT review meeting, set to begin Monday, face a raft of obstacles that could prevent a consensus statement on bolstering the global nonproliferation framework, according to experts (Chris Hondros/Getty Images).
(Apr. 30) -Iran's foreign minister addresses delegates to the 2005 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference at U.N. headquarters in New York City. Participants in this year's NPT review meeting, set to begin Monday, face a raft of obstacles that could prevent a consensus statement on bolstering the global nonproliferation framework, according to experts (Chris Hondros/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- Representatives of nearly 190 nations on Monday will open a monthlong formal review conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but experts say it could be challenging to step out of the "shadow" of an unsuccessful meeting held five years ago (see GSN, April 28).

In 2005, "we had a total rejection" of NPT implementation goals laid out during the prior 10 years, "and, predictably, 2005 was a failure," according to Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, formerly a senior U.N. official and president of the 1995 NPT Review Conference.

"We therefore meet this year in New York under the shadow of that failure with all three pillars of the NPT -- nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy -- greatly weakened," Dhanapala said Monday at a panel discussion sponsored by the Arms Control Association.

Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, yesterday sought to lower expectations for the May conference ending with a unanimous declaration on strategies for enhancing the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

"A final document, which can only be reached by consensus of all 189 nations -- and yes, that includes Iran -- can be valuable," she said in prepared remarks delivered at the Center for American Progress. However, she noted, "whether there is a consensus final document should not be the measuring stick to judge the success of the review conference. ... A final document can easily be blocked by the extreme agendas of a few."

During the 1995 event, NPT member states agreed to extend the accord indefinitely and to explore the feasibility of creating a "nuclear weapon-free zone" in the Middle East. In 2000, they laid out a watershed list of 13 "practical steps" to be taken to strengthen global nonproliferation regimes, including ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and negotiation of a "START III" pact for additional U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reductions.

By 2005, though, little progress had been made in achieving these steps and international schisms prevented consensus on key issues.

Despite a number of lingering challenges, some treaty proponents remain hopeful for a positive outcome from the impending conference. The strategic nuclear arms control agreement signed earlier this month by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev -- combined with new assurances that Washington will reduce the role of atomic arms in its national security strategy -- could put the upcoming conference on fairly positive footing, some analysts say (see GSN, April 27 and April 8).

At the kick-off of nearly a full month of NPT meetings, the outlines of a final conference document are not yet clear.

However, Dhanapala and other treaty experts have raised a number of issues they hope to see addressed. Those include hammering out a plan for ensuring that Iran, Syria and others comply with their treaty obligations -- even if specific nations are not identified by name -- and making progress on an effort to ban nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

During daily sessions at the United Nations, many of which are to be open to the public, participating states will review progress made in implementing the 1970 nonproliferation agreement and try to set new objectives for the coming years.

Following an opening statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday and by dozens of foreign ministers and diplomats from other NPT member nations throughout the week, conferees will embark on the task of building a final document by consensus. The conference is expected to conclude on May 28, regardless of whether a joint statement can be achieved.

Under the treaty, five nations declared as nuclear-weapon states -- China, France, Russia the United Kingdom and the United States -- have agreed to make progress toward eventually eliminating their stockpiles in exchange for a commitment by nonnuclear countries not to ever build or acquire atomic arms. Non-nuclear states in good standing under the accord can receive assistance with their peaceful nuclear programs, used for civil energy, research and medical needs.

Although the Nonproliferation Treaty is widely called the "cornerstone" of global nonproliferation efforts, its member nations were unable to agree on any final document during the last five-year review conference.

Leading up to the 2005 gathering, the Bush administration indicated it could not support several commitments made by the 1995 and 2000 NPT Review Conferences -- including support for the test ban treaty -- and Egypt led other so-called "nonaligned" states in a revolt (see GSN, May 26, 2005).

At the same time, Iran protested accusations that it had violated international nuclear safeguards regimes, and its rejection of any references to its nuclear program in a final document also hindered consensus at the 2005 meeting (see GSN, May 27, 2005).

History might well repeat itself in some fashion this time around, according to issue experts.

Iran

Iran almost certainly will seek to disrupt consensus at the conference, as Washington pushes the U.N. Security Council to adopt a new sanctions resolution over Tehran's disputed nuclear efforts, according to pundits (see GSN, April 27).

"The most obvious potential 'spoiler' for the upcoming Review Conference, of course, is Iran," said Christopher Ford, a former Bush administration State Department official and now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "Iran has played procedural games and caused considerable trouble at past meetings, and it certainly could do so again."

He spoke Wednesday at a panel discussion held by the Henry L. Stimson Center and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Ford sees considerable risk associated with Iran's ability to remain a party to the nonproliferation accord, even as it allegedly flouts its treaty commitments with a clandestine nuclear arms development program.

"A treaty violator that is permitted to keep coming to meetings as if it were a member in good standing of the regime community will exercise a malign influence in keeping those meetings from properly addressing the challenge it is itself creating," Ford said.

Speaking on the same panel, nonproliferation expert Lewis Dunn agreed that Iran could pose a huge challenge to the credibility of treaty regimes during the upcoming conference and beyond. The danger, he said, is that Tehran could remain an NPT non-nuclear state while secretly harboring an arsenal, and he urged treaty guardians during the conference to "confront" such a possible outcome.

"The Iranian goal, put starkly, is to acquire nuclear weapons clandestinely, to stay in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and to throw sand in the eyes of the world if anyone raises this, by in effect arguing, 'What, us? We don't want nuclear weapons.' Or a year or two from now, 'What, us? We don't have nuclear weapons. It's just a falsehood purveyed to you by the same countries that [told] you Iraq had a WMD program,'" said Dunn, senior vice president at Science Applications International Corp.

Michael Krepon, also speaking at the Stimson-James Martin Center event, dubbed both Iran and Venezuela "ruckus makers" that could be expected to attempt to disrupt the proceedings.

"But I don't think Iran and Venezuela can define the success or failure in this review conference," Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, said a day before Tauscher offered similar remarks. "If we allow the absence of consensus because Iran votes or Venezuela votes against consensus, then we're using the wrong yardstick for success or failure. But I think we're smart enough not to do that anymore."

"For those who wish to block consensus or evade accountability for their NPT violations, we can demonstrate that they stand in stark isolation from the rest of the international community," Tauscher said yesterday. "That will be a positive outcome by itself."

Egypt and the Nonaligned Movement

Meanwhile, Egypt's ambassador to the United Nations signaled Tuesday that resolving the Iranian nuclear issue would require NPT member nations to declare the Middle East a nuclear weapon-free zone (see GSN, April 28).

The 1995 NPT Review Conference issued a final statement calling for progress toward achieving such a zone, which could put Israel on the hot seat for its undeclared arsenal of an estimated 80 or more weapons. However, little progress has been achieved toward realizing this goal or on Middle East peace more generally.

Israel is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"The real potential spoiler, for me, at this conference is Egypt," Krepon said. "If Egypt serves as a ringleader in pulling together support for steps directed against a nonparty to the treaty -- Israel -- and holds the treaty regime hostage to the nonactions of a nonmember state, then this thing can end badly.

"And Egypt is in a position to exert considerable influence because it has a leadership position in the Nonaligned Movement, and that's a 100-plus-vote bloc," Krepon added. "Egypt is positioning itself to make this review conference a make-or-break effort with respect to the Middle East resolution."

The 118-member Nonaligned Movement of developing states, which Egypt currently chairs, has called for initiatives that would ban nuclear weapons from the Middle East, further reduce and ultimately eliminate existing atomic arsenals, and create a convention that forbids the use of nuclear arms, among other things.

Krepon noted that "the more the Iranian nuclear program gains momentum, the more the government of Egypt talks up the Israeli nuclear program," even though Jerusalem is believed to have had atomic arms for about three decades. "What is new are the efforts of other states around Egypt to position themselves to get nuclear weapons if they choose to do so," he said.

How Egypt might pursue such concerns remains unknown, Ford said.

"It is not clear whether Egypt will choose to obstruct the upcoming RevCon, what concession it might hope to be given in return for any forbearance, or even whether Cairo's objective is in fact really to obtain some concession at all," Ford said. "It is anybody's guess, at this point, how things will develop."

Regardless of particular states-party motives, progress in achieving a nuclear-weapon free zone in the region is a good idea, according to Dhanapala, who now serves as president of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

"Without a resolution on the Middle East, we would not have got the indefinite extension of the NPT" in 1995, he said. "And so we do need to have some practical steps agreed to, whether it's a special coordinator or a special committee, to conduct consultations on how we can move forward on the resolution."

U.S.-Indian Deal

Another recent turn of events could also affect the ability of NPT member nations to achieve consensus on a way forward for enforcing the treaty, according to some experts.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008 authorized the United States and other member nations to conduct trade in atomic materials and technology with India. That marked the first time such assistance was sanctioned for a nation that has neither signed the NPT agreement nor opened all of its facilities to comprehensive nuclear safeguards, which involve monitoring and inspections (see GSN, Sept. 8, 2008).

Krepon called India a "free rider" on NPT regimes, along with Pakistan and Israel, because they have no obligations as nonparties to the treaty but can benefit from its provisions. As a practical matter, the treaty has helped reduce or prevent nuclear arsenals that might otherwise threaten member states or nonmember states alike, experts say.

The precedent-making deal was followed recently by U.S. and Chinese discussions with Pakistan -- India's nuclear-armed military rival and also not an NPT signatory -- about receiving its own prospective nuclear cooperative agreements, and there are rumblings about the possibility of similar arrangements with Israel (see GSN, March 26 and March 25).

"I don't think it is sufficiently realized what a body blow, what a grievous injury has been caused to the NPT as a result" of the U.S.-Indian pact, which some Middle Eastern nations have protested, Dhanapala said. Nuclear benefits for Jerusalem could prompt NPT members Egypt, Saudi Arabia or others in the region to develop nuclear arms of their own, he suggested.

"If Israel in the future gets the same privileges as India, I think the NPT, at that stage, will be a part of history," Dhanapala said.

April 30, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- Representatives of nearly 190 nations on Monday will open a monthlong formal review conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but experts say it could be challenging to step out of the "shadow" of an unsuccessful meeting held five years ago (see GSN, April 28).