Saturday, June 09, 2007

Nuclear Freeze: The Middle East and global arms control

A year ago the international Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, which I chaired, presented its unanimous report, “Weapons of Terror,” to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The report urged governments to wake up from what Annan has called their “sleepwalking” and revive arms control and disarmament. We often hear warnings that the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—the global instrument through which states committed themselves against the acquisition of nuclear weapons and for nuclear disarmament—now risks collapse. The good news is that the world is not replete with would-be violators. The overwhelming commitment to the treaty remains tremendously valuable: Libya and Iraq were both found to be in violation and brought back into observance. In two other cases—North Korea and Iran—the world is actively seeking solutions. For now, at least, there appear to be no other problematic cases.

Still, the dangers are real, and the treaty is under strain. The global process of arms control and disarmament has stagnated in the last decade; it needs to be revived and pursued in parallel with efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction to more states and to terrorist movements. Preventing further proliferation is essential, but it is not a recipe for success to preach to the rest of the world that it must stay away from the very weapons that nuclear states claim are indispensable for their own security. Perhaps it would be a little less difficult to persuade Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment program and accept far-reaching verification if the nuclear states negotiating with Iran were ready to do the same.

What means of persuasion are available to prevent further nuclear proliferation? New strategies must start from the sensible premise advanced by the late Swedish foreign minister Anna Lindh in early 2003: a skeptical attitude toward military action against violators is not enough; positive policies are required as well. Later that year she and her colleagues in the European Union declared that the best solution to the problem of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction was to ensure that countries no longer felt that they needed them; and that violators should be encouraged to walk back and rejoin the international community. Such efforts will require the United States and other nuclear-weapon states to take the lead in moving toward nuclear disarmament rather than developing new ones or new means of delivery. Arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation, along with broader issues of regional and global security, are pieces of a single puzzle.

Some might argue that global disarmament and arms-control is already taking place, pointing to the reduction in nuclear arsenals—from an estimated 50,000 weapons to 27,000, including a dramatic reduction in or withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons—under the 1991 Bush-Gorbachev Presidential Nuclear Initiative. Another reduction, though unverified, is expected by 2012 under the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty. While these reductions are very much welcome, they only concern what the states involved consider “surplus” weapons. What remains is more than sufficient to destroy our planet.

Moreover, many new developments are taking us in the wrong direction. Several nuclear-weapon states no longer give pledges against a first use of nuclear weapons. The United States is developing a missile shield, an effort that China and Russia perceive as a way for the United States to threaten them without repercussions. The U.S. government, with the support of influential American groups, wishes to develop new types of nuclear weapons. In the United Kingdom, the government has decided to renew its nuclear-weapon program, stretching it far beyond 2020. The United States is also considering space-based weapons; if it launched such a program, other states might follow, thus threatening the world’s peaceful uses of space and the enormous investments made in them. All of these developments are deeply worrisome because they increase the risk that nuclear weapons will be used.

The history of efforts to regulate weapons of mass destruction provides guidance for today. The international community’s early approach was simply to ban their use—as, for example, in the 1925 Geneva Protocol against bacteriological and chemical weapons. With the appearance of nuclear weapons and the horrendous effects of their use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, two new avenues were pursued. First, Article 2.4 of the UN Charter prohibited the threat or use of force—any force—against a state’s territorial integrity or political independence. The charter permitted two exceptions to the rule: Article 51 preserved a right to self-defense when an armed attack occurred, until the Security Council acted; and armed force was also permitted in situations constituting a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression.” While this category is broader than a response to an “armed attack,” the use of force in these cases is subject to decision by the Security Council.

A later approach was based on the idea that the best way to guarantee against a weapon’s use is to assure that it is not produced, or if it is produced that it is not acquired, or if it is produced and acquired that it is not stockpiled. Thus, in 1946 the General Assembly declared its determination to eliminate the production of “atomic weapons” and other weapons of mass destruction. But this approach faced problems of monitoring and enforcement: while violations of a ban on use would, in all likelihood, be visible, a violation of a ban on production and stocking could be hidden. To be reliable the new approach required inspection. The authors of the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 did take an important step beyond the 1925 Geneva Protocol and prohibit the production and stocking of biological weapons, but they were not able during the Cold War to agree on machinery for verification and inspection. The Soviet Union and Iraq were later able to violate the ban without being detected.

We have not been able to achieve a convention specifically banning the production, stocking, and use of nuclear weapons. Nor did the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in 1996 completely outlaw their use. But a fragmentary approach has achieved important results, including a ban on deployment in various environments (the Antarctic, the sea bed, and outer space); treaty bans on testing; limits on possession through the Non-Proliferation Treaty and treaties establishing nuclear-weapon-free zones; mandatory good-faith negotiations on nuclear disarmament for the nuclear-weapon states that are parties to the NPT; and conditional guarantees that nuclear weapons will not be used against states that forego developing their own.

When considering the current threat of nuclear weapons, it is important to remember both basic approaches that the world has taken—a general prohibition on the use of force and the elimination of the weapons. The two are related. In most cases of nonadherence to and noncompliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the report of the WMDC observes, “perceived threats to security have been the incentive for the acquisition of nuclear weapons and security guarantees of various kinds have offered disincentives.” I would add that convincing states that they do not need weapons of mass destruction would be significantly easier if all UN members practiced genuine respect for the existing restraints on the threat and use of force.

In all cases of noncompliance the WMDC stressed the need to understand why states seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction and work to remove the incentives. Among the motivations, demands for recognition seem important, in addition to perceived security needs. Recognition and status may be important to governments that, for various reasons, have been isolated: for example, Libya, North Korea, and Iran. Libya divested itself of its nuclear program following negotiations that led to enhanced official recognition and the lifting of UN sanctions. In the case of North Korea, President Jimmy Carter’s visit to President Kim Il Sung in 1994 opened the door to an agreement, and a current offer of normalization of relations with the United States and Japan may be an incentive helping to finalize it. In the case of Iran, diplomatic relations exist with all the negotiating parties except the United States. Although an American offer to normalize relations could carry great weight, no such offer has been extended.

What will convince a state that its security will be served by a credible renunciation of nuclear weapons? One approach taken by the Bush administration (with both North Korea and Iran) has been to convey the message that moving toward nuclear weapons will actually jeopardize security—that it will result in increased isolation and vulnerability and may trigger preventive counterproliferation action or Security Council intervention.

One difficulty with this approach is that recipients may seek to move faster to nuclear weapons in the belief that this will help to deter counterproliferation. Another lies in the field of legality and legitimacy: a state’s technological progress toward nuclear-weapon capability does not constitute an “armed attack” that justifies the use of armed force under the UN Charter. The Security Council, although entitled to authorize military action against a “threat to the peace,” seems unlikely to go that far to eradicate alleged or apparent WMD programs that are not actively used as threats. Hence, especially in the wake of the horrendous consequences of military action in Iraq, both the council and member states are likely to avoid military action in favor of political, diplomatic, and economic measures.

If military action is ruled out, can the opposite—positive guarantees about security—be persuasive as an incentive to stop or forego nuclear programs? In the case of North Korea, the Bush administration seems to think so. As a part of a deal, and perhaps to meet North Korea’s stated concern about the “hostile attitude” of the United States, guarantees against attack from the outside appear to be offered. For Iran, however, security guarantees have not been on the table, although it is hard to believe that such guarantees would have no useful effect, given U.S. military presence in the region and the Bush administration’s policies of regime change.

Security is of central importance to all Middle Eastern states. Thus, attempts to verify the claim that Iran’s enrichment program aims only to produce fuel are pointless. Aims can change over time, and the cold fact is that the very existence of an industrial-scale enrichment plant in Iran that could potentially produce weapon-grade uranium would likely increase tension in the region. Practically all would want to see a negotiated agreement under which Iran suspended the enrichment program and was ensured inter alia of support for its program to use nuclear power.

However, the UN Security Council’s current demand that Iran suspend its enrichment program as a precondition to talks is humiliating, and it is not a surprise that Iran has rejected it. Failure in the case of Iran could create serious risks of escalation and long-term domino effects. Can new approaches be taken?

Several options are available.

A zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, first proposed by Egypt and Iran in 1974, has universal support in the region. But while such a zone may well be an indispensable part of a broader peace settlement, it is not realistic in the present political and security climate.

Arrangements to limit the number of enrichment and reprocessing plants in particularly sensitive areas might be an alternative option. In the denuclearization declaration of 1992 the two Korean states agreed between themselves that neither would have enrichment or reprocessing plants on its territory. Any new nuclear arrangement for the peninsula is expected to include this feature.

Could the Korean model be followed by the states of the Middle East? In the past year several have voiced interest in developing nuclear power, and some fear that sensitive nuclear-fuel-cycle facilities may also be contemplated. Such facilities would surely increase tension. Security Council Resolution 687 (1991) characterized the elimination of Iraq’s capability to enrich uranium as a step toward a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. Perhaps commitments could be made by all states in the region to forego the enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of plutonium for a prolonged period of time in exchange for being guaranteed fuel-cycle services from elsewhere. Such an agreement would not touch existing quantities of enriched uranium or plutonium, whether in laboratories, stores, or Israeli weapons. But if such an agreement were subject to effective international inspection, it might constitute a practical and confidence-building first step on the long and difficult road to a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

Negotiations with Iran will not be easy under any circumstances, but I suspect that they might be somewhat less difficult if the nuclear-weapon states could show that they were leading the world toward nuclear disarmament by moving toward it themselves. While the WMDC pleaded for a convention “outlawing” nuclear weapons similar to the conventions outlawing biological and chemical weapons, there are many more modest steps that could and should be taken without much delay.

What would a broad program of global disarmament look like? Let me sketch some of the recommendations of the WMDC, starting with three system-level measures.

The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the principal international forum for negotiation on issues related to WMDs, has been unable to adopt an agenda for almost a decade. As a result, during this time no substantive issues have been discussed or negotiated in the conference. This is the unsatisfactory result of a consensus requirement that has its roots in Cold War practices. The conference should be able to make administrative and procedural decisions, including the adoption of a program of work by a qualified majority of two thirds of the membership present and voting.

Given the setbacks in arms control and disarmament at the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference and the UN summit in 2005, we need to set the stage for a credible multilateral disarmament and nonproliferation process. The General Assembly should convene a new World Summit on disarmament, nonproliferation, and the use of WMDs by terrorists. Because thorough preparations would be necessary, planning should start as soon as possible.

Alongside these system-level measures, the commission proposes many substantive measures to reduce the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons and the dangers of existing arsenals.

No measure could be more urgent—important in substance and as a signal that arms control and disarmament are again on the world agenda—than the signing and ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty by states that have not yet done so. If the treaty were seen to lapse, there would be an increased risk that some state might restart weapons tests. Demanding in negotiations with North Korea that the country should deposit its ratification of the treaty—which is necessary for the treaty to enter into force—would be easier if all the states participating in the six-power talks had themselves ratified the treaty.

Next-most urgent is to negotiate without further delay a treaty prohibiting the production of fissile material for weapons. A continued reduction in the number of existing nuclear weapons and a verified closing of the tap for more weapon-fissile material would gradually reduce the world inventory of bombs. A draft of a cutoff treaty has been presented in Geneva. It has crucial weaknesses—notably, the absence of a provision on international verification—but it should be welcomed as a draft and discussed.

In addition, steps taken by all nuclear-weapon states to reduce strategic nuclear arsenals would be significant as confidence-building measures. The United States and Russia, which have the most weapons, should take the lead. With increasing cooperation between Russia and the EU, Russian nuclear weapons should be withdrawn from forward deployment to central storage, and American nuclear weapons should be withdrawn to American territory.

All states that have nuclear weapons should commit themselves categorically to a policy of no first use, and the United States and Russia should reciprocally take their nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.

If reliance on nuclear power increases, as is expected, the need for a greater production of low-enriched uranium fuel and for the disposal of spent fuel can be anticipated. This must occur in a manner that does not increase the diversion of material and the risk of proliferation. Various proposals are on the table, and the possibilities should be explored for international arrangements to ensure the availability of nuclear fuel for civilian reactors while minimizing the risk of weapon proliferation. The International Atomic Energy Agency is the most suitable forum for such exploration. The production of highly enriched uranium should be phased out.

Regional approaches will also be needed, especially in sensitive areas. It would be desirable, as suggested above, to obtain commitments from the states on the Korean peninsula and in the Middle East (including Iran and Israel) to accept a verified suspension for a prolonged period of time of the production of enriched uranium and plutonium while obtaining international assurances of the supply of fuel for civilian nuclear power.

Lastly, international professional inspection, such as it has been practiced under the UN, the IAEA, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, is an important and effective tool for verification. Such inspection does not conflict at all with national means of verification. Rather, these two fact-finding methods supplement each other. Many states have no national means that they can use and should not have to be dependent upon the intelligence of other states. States that do operate such intelligence may, in one-way-traffic arrangements, provide information to the international verification systems. These reports offer governments a chance for a quality check on their national systems and corroboration of their conclusions.

In all of this, the United States has decisive leverage. If the United States takes the lead by bringing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty into force and by accepting a verified ban on the production of fissile material for weapons, the world is likely to follow. If it does not, the result could well be more nuclear testing and new nuclear arms races.

Hans Blix is the chairman of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. He served as the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1981 to 1997 and as the executive chairman of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission from March 2000 to June 2003.

Originally published in the May/June 2007 issue of Boston Review.

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