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The 21st century has not been kind to the nuclear non-proliferation lobby. In the first decade itself, North Korea tested a nuclear device, India overcame four decades of ostracism and reached an accommodation with the international community over civilian nuclear trade, and Iran continues to shuffle its feet on the threshold of a nuclear test. As Western policy alternatives on Tehran’s thumbing its nose at the non-proliferation regime seem to oscillate between two equally unpalatable solutions – a nuclear Iran or a military strike – the one question few people are asking is, why is the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) repeatedly failing us?

The NPT, ten years in the making, was opened for signature in 1968 and has by now been ratified or acceded to by 190 entities (Taiwan is not a recognised state). Four states remain outside the purview of the NPT – India, Israel, and Pakistan who have never signed the treaty, and North Korea, who withdrew from it in 2003. To summarise the provisions of the eleven articles, the NPT

  • prohibits the transfer of nuclear weapons technology or material from nuclear weapons states (NWS) to non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS)
  • allows nuclear research and commerce in “equipment, materials and scientific and technological information” for peaceful purposes subject to an agreement with the IAEA on safeguards
  • declares that only countries that have detonated a nuclear device on or before January 01, 1967, shall be considered as nuclear weapons states.
  • encourages the accepted nuclear powers to commit to a process of nuclear disarmament

Despite the general acceptance of the treaty’s terms and conditions, there has been some dissatisfaction with the NPT, even among member states. The most oft-cited complaints have accused the treaty of creating a system of nuclear apartheid, allowing vertical proliferation despite banning horizontal proliferation, noted that the “good faith” in which the nuclear powers (P5) were supposed to pursue nuclear disarmament has been found wanting, discounting the strategic realities (or subordinating them to Great Power politics at least) of some of the countries, condemned the flagrant violation of the treaty by the P5 when it served their strategic needs, and expressed disappointment that the treaty was used merely as a legislative weapon by the P5 against states they were not favorably disposed towards. All these critiques over the past four decades have sympathetic ears in Tehran, no doubt. But a more central issue, especially given the little sway the treaty has had over states determined to acquire nuclear weapons, is the spirit in which the treaty was drafted.

It would be naive (and wrong) to think that the primary motivation of the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Conference (ENDC) that produced the NPT genuinely was nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. At the ENDC, there were four agenda, at some cross-purposes with each other, in play: 1. the United States wished to keep China from the bomb, 2. the British and French wished to ensure that Washington did not bargain away their arsenals to strike a deal with Moscow, 3. the Indians, Italians, and W. Germans wanted to protect their rights to nuclear technology, and 4. the USSR wanted to ensure that neither Germany ever got the bomb – in this, they had wide European support. Not in the spirit of non-proliferation, some aspects of NATO nuclear strategy were withheld by the United States – for example, the ENDC was not aware of the nuclear sharing arrangements between Britain, France, and the United States.

This is not to say that the ENDC countries did not support nuclear non-proliferation – they did, each with their own caveats. However, the intent of the main actors was to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Germanies and China – deemed an unacceptable security risk. At one point, the US Department of Defence had even debated whether India should be provided with a bomb to deflate Chinese communist propaganda. Ultimately, the United States was not able to prevent Beijing from acquiring nuclear weapons, and US non-proliferation policy in the aftermath of the Gilpatric Report began to subscribe to the nth country problem. The report highlighted the threat to US national security if more countries, even allies, were to possess nuclear weapons – the more NWSs, the greater the instability and unpredictability in a crisis, as US “diplomatic and military influence would wane.” The aim of the NPT was thus far less altruistic than has been read into it post facto. It was and is a treaty that furthered national security of a few, not the aims of global nuclear disarmament, except perhaps incidentally. Thinking about national security is not wrong, but in this case, it has led policymakers to be more dogmatic and rigid on non-proliferation.

The number of gate-crashers the NPT has faced suggests that a reorientation of policy is in order. History shows us that collective security can provide stability and is safer than nuclear deterrence. One of the best examples of shared security in modern times remains the Concert of Europe. After the defeat of Napoleon, rather than punish France for two decades of war, Metternich integrated the defeated state into a continental system of collective security in a manner that gave Europe a century of relative peace. In the long run, the only real solution to the Iranian standoff is engagement and integration into the regional system, especially when experts warn that even a successful military strike would slow Iran’s nuclear programme by merely 3-5 years; doing so would give Tehran a stake in maintaining stability, whereas it has little to lose now – the Middle Eastern country finds itself increasingly isolated in world affairs, has watched with alarm as the United States invaded two states bordering Iran and tried to set up friendly regimes, has spent sleepless nights over Israel’s opaque nuclear deterrent, and is worried about US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and to a lesser extent, NATO member Turkey. Western leaders focus on Iran’s support of Hezbollah, its human rights record, and the outrageous statements the Islamic Republic’s leaders delight in making, all serious problems indeed, but do not consider the sources of Iran’s discontent with the West. Imperialism, the Mossadegh coup, support of the Shah and SAVAK, sanctions, military aid to Iran’s enemies, ignoring Iraq’s use of chemical weapons on Iran, and double standards on terrorism and non-proliferation have bred little goodwill in Tehran towards the US and its allies.

Iran fears being isolated on the international stage, particularly in the Middle East. A prickly self-esteem that seems attendant to most ancient civilisations, the country sees itself as the rightful regional power in West Asia. While the international community need not pander to this worldview, it can certainly acknowledge that size and resources make Iran a natural contender for the job. Opening full negotiations with Iran, bringing it into the discussion on the Middle East and Central Asia, and maintaining or at least not disturbing the balance of military power in the region will go some way in calming a skittish leadership. By giving Iran a seat at the table, there is a likely chance that like South Africa, Brazil, or Argentina, Iran too will gradually turn away from nuclear weapons. The South Asian example needs to be underscored for Tehran’s benefit – India was accepted, albeit de facto,  into the nuclear club because it did not have ties to groups with dubious repute or attempt to sell its technology on the black market, while Pakistan teeters on the brink of failure because of its questionable associations and activities.

The Iranian leadership has left a face-saving door open with their fatwa banning weapons of mass destruction and have expressed willingness ‘to play ball’ on full spectrum negotiations for the past two decades (but were snubbed by Washington). There has even been small signs signalling an intent for rapprochement, for example the no-longer-secret assistance Tehran extended the Bush White House early in their hunt for the Taliban, the offer to assist in rebuilding Afghanistan, and the recent Iranian rescue of an American vessel from pirates. These small gestures should be capitalised on; otherwise, the deteriorating security situation will urge Tehran towards the bomb. As Roger Sessions said, “communication is two-sided – vital and profound communication makes demands also on those who are to receive it…demands in the sense of concentration, of genuine effort to receive what is being communicated.”

Fundamentally, technology denial regimes (such as the NPT) are bound to fail because they institutionalise inequality; there is hope that economic inequalities can be overcome, geographic inequalities conquered, but legal inequalities are bound to sting. The standoff with Iran is only superficially about non-proliferation but really about decades of Iranian resentment at being mistreated by the West. By making it about the NPT, the P5+1 are unwittingly raising the stakes to a point where the result can only be instability or war. It is essential that the scope of negotiations with Iran be broadened and nuclear non-proliferation not be the only locus around which the West engages Iran.