Nonproliferation Politics

Nonproliferation Politics

Nonproliferation–the global campaign to prevent the further spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons–must be applied in a nondiscriminatory fashion to be effective.


Nonproliferation–the global campaign to prevent the further spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons–must be applied in a nondiscriminatory fashion to be effective. But the Bush Administration has been using nonproliferation policy to demonize foreign governments it doesn’t like and to manipulate US public opinion. The most egregious example was the totally discredited claim that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of manufacturing nuclear weapons–a claim used to manufacture support for the US invasion of Iraq.

Another example is the charge, made in 2002 by John Bolton, Under Secretary of State for nonproliferation, that Cuba had an offensive biological-warfare program. Many analysts viewed this claim as a thinly veiled effort to attract support among anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in the pivotal state of Florida. On September 17 the White House circulated a new intelligence estimate indicating that Cuba possesses a limited capacity to manufacture biological warfare munitions but is not known to be currently doing so.

It is against this backdrop of highly politicized nonproliferation policies that we must judge recent US moves regarding Iran, India and the two Koreas.

The crisis over Iran’s nuclear activities has been gaining steam since last fall, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had undertaken a previously undisclosed effort to “enrich” natural uranium–that is, increase the proportion of the fissionable U-235 isotope in its total content. The Iranians insisted that these efforts were intended to manufacture fuel for civilian power reactors, but US officials, led by Bolton, claimed they were part of a covert Iranian bomb project. Washington immediately sought to punish Iran by bringing the matter before the United Nations Security Council, which is empowered under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to impose sanctions on signatory states (Iran signed in 1968) that violate its provisions. But the major European powers, led by France, Britain and Germany, prevailed on the IAEA’s board of governors to engage in negotiations with Tehran aimed at averting a crisis. In October 2003 Iran agreed to suspend its enrichment activities in return for a European pledge to provide advanced technology for its civilian nuclear-power program.

Since then, Iran has shown itself more amenable to IAEA requests for intrusive inspections but continued to prepare the groundwork for a stepped-up enrichment program by manufacturing high-speed centrifuges and announcing plans to convert uranium ore into a gas suitable for use in such devices. This, in turn, has allowed Washington to reiterate its claims of a covert Iranian bomb project and to call for tougher action by the IAEA. On September 18, under enormous US pressure, the IAEA delivered an ultimatum to Tehran: Halt all suspect nuclear activities by November 25–the date of its next board meeting–or face the prospect of UN-imposed economic sanctions. Iran responded that if the IAEA proceeded down this path it would lift its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear enrichment activities and consider withdrawing from the NPT. On September 21, Iran announced it would indeed recommence its enrichment program.

If Iran goes further and carries out its threat to withdraw from the NPT, the global nonproliferation effort will be substantially undermined and the tempo of illicit weapons activities in the Middle East will surely accelerate. If George W. Bush wins in November, he is certain to step up Washington’s drive for “regime change” in Tehran, possibly conducting pre-emptive raids on Iranian nuclear facilities, or giving Israel a green light to do so (a move hinted at by senior Administration officials), or unleashing antigovernment Iranian militias based in Iraq to conduct armed attacks inside Iran, a course neocons favor. Such actions would strengthen the hand of reactionary clerics in Iran and provoke stepped-up Iranian support for Shiite militias in Iraq. These actions would also undermine any effort to adopt a nuclear-weapons ban in the Middle East that would include Israel–the only sure way to foster nonproliferation in the region.

Rebuffing the IAEA’s September 18 ultimatum, Iranian authorities insisted that their enrichment activities are permitted under the NPT for nonmilitary purposes. They note that other countries engage in uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes without being subjected to the same punitive treatment.

To be sure, the NPT has its flaws–it allows nations like Iran to develop nuclear capabilities up to the point of manufacturing weapons, and it doesn’t adequately address the difficulty of distinguishing between peaceful and military applications of such technology. Modifications of the treaty are surely needed to better detect and prevent illicit uses, but such improvements will be difficult to achieve as long as the treaty is applied in a discriminatory fashion and regional powers like India, Israel and Pakistan remain outside it.

The widespread perception that the United States and its allies often engage in discriminatory nonproliferation practices– whereby some states are exposed to harsh punishment for NPT infractions while others get by with a slap on the wrist–is given added credibility by recent disclosures concerning South Korea and India. On September 2, Chang In Soon, the head of South Korea’s Atomic Energy Research Institute, admitted that scientists under his command had conducted several experiments in 2000 aimed at enriching uranium using advanced laser technologies. Despite his assertion that the experiments were insignificant and quickly terminated, Chang’s admission led to speculation that South Korea had engaged in a more elaborate effort to acquire nuclear-weapons technology.

Washington’s failure to vigorously condemn the South Korean experiments after Chang’s admission is surely viewed by Iranian and North Korean officials as evidence of a double standard–an assessment that can only lead to greater intransigence on their part. “It has become difficult to prevent expansion of a nuclear arms race because of South Korea’s test,” declared a senior North Korean official on September 9.

Pervasive suspicions of a US double standard on nonproliferation were fueled by another recent disclosure: that the White House has decided to relax its restrictions on the transfer of sophisticated nuclear and space technology to India, a member of the nuclear club and a burgeoning missile power. The restrictions were imposed decades ago in an effort to hobble India’s nuclear arms and ballistic missile programs and were tightened following the Indian nuclear weapons tests of May 1998. But now US firms will be able to sell the sophisticated equipment to India’s civilian nuclear power plants and commercial space program–equipment that could be used to expand and enhance India’s nuclear-armed ballistic missile force, which is already capable of striking Iran and China. The easing of restrictions will surely be read in Tehran and Beijing as tacit approval of such efforts and lead to deeper resistance to American calls for tougher nonproliferation measures.

If Washington truly wants to make substantial progress on this critical issue, it must repudiate its flawed policies and adopt a more consistent, nondiscriminatory stance. In the case of Iran, that means postponing any talk of sanctions as long as there is any possibility of persuading Tehran to halt all weapons-related activities permanently under rigorous IAEA inspection–an approach that can succeed only if the Iranians are not barred from conducting peaceful nuclear activities allowed to other NPT signatories. Likewise, the United States must demand full disclosure from South Korea of its nuclear experiments and insist that America will not condone weapons-related activities by any aspiring power, including those friendly to this country. Finally, regarding North Korea, Washington must agree to one-on-one, face-to-face talks with the North Korean leadership and offer Pyongyang the same sort of economic rewards recently given Libya in return for its decision to halt all WMD activities.

Such a measured, evenhanded approach cannot be carried out by those who view nonproliferation as political warfare by other means. Arms-control advocates must demand the resignation of Under Secretary Bolton. His misuse of intelligence data on Cuba for political purposes renders him unfit to represent the United States in international forums designed to reduce the risk of global catastrophe.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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