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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Decatur Daily May 26, 2005

Nonproliferation treaty at risk

By Eric Fleischauer

While senators fold their cots and congratulate themselves on narrowly averting the much-feared "nuclear option," representatives from countries around the world are in New York hoping to avert the real thing.

Every five years, officials from 188 countries meet to review the effectiveness of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The 2005 treaty review began May 2 and will end Friday.

Rarely in the treaty's 35-year history has so much been at stake.

North Korea, which signed the treaty in 1985, now claims to be free of its NPT obligations. U.S. officials believe the country's dictator has at least two bombs with more on the way. GlobalSecurity.org estimates the number is closer to 13, each with about 30 kilotons of explosive force.

The U.S. bomb that hit Hiroshima during World War II had an explosive force of 12.5 kilotons.

This isn't many compared to the United States' arsenal, but it's enough to devastate any country with the ill fortune to be in the nuclear crosshairs.

Severe blast damage

If detonated, each 10-kiloton bomb would destroy everything on the earth's surface within one-half mile of the detonation site and would cause severe blast damage for miles around, according to a report by the White House Homeland Security Council.

Most deaths, however, would come from the radioactive plume. If such a bomb detonated in Washington, D.C., the HSC estimated, the plume would kill between 99,000 and 300,000 people.

Most do not believe North Korea's missiles could reach the capital, but they could reach the more heavily populated Los Angeles.

While North Korea claims to already have nuclear weapons, experts believe Iran is close to developing them.

With the possibility of harsh sanctions for violating the NPT, why are countries developing them? And why are they telling anyone about it?

That's easy, says a professor of international relations in the political science department of The University of Alabama. They are scared of the United States. That's a new development for Iran, which historically worried more about an attack from Israel.

"If I was Iran, I'd be much more worried about the United States than I would be about the Israelis. Not that we are going to nuke them, but they do worry about us taking military action against them," Donald Snow, an expert in international relations, said.

"They may conclude we would be much more reluctant to attack if we knew they had nuclear weapons."

Stated differently, what Iran and North Korea have in common is they both made it on President Bush's "axis of evil" list. The third on the list of evildoers: Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

"It's difficult for us to conceptualize that people would feel the need to deter us, but that's what it's about," Snow said. "Iraq, of course, is the great case in point. We did invade them."

Secret stash no good

A secret stash of nuclear weapons is useless as a deterrent if the enemy does not know about it. So Iran and North Korea are doing the international equivalent of billboards to advertise their arsenal, be it real or pretend.

Not only are North Korea and Iran scared, they and other small countries who signed the treaty are angry that the United States, China and other nuclear powers are demanding that they comply with the treaty while ignoring it themselves.

The NPT, adopted in 1970, created two categories: states with nuclear weapons and states without. Under the treaty, the five states with nuclear weapons — China, Britain, France, Russia (then the Soviet Union) and the United States — promised to pursue complete disarmament, while those without the weapons agreed to forgo developing or acquiring them.

During the treaty review that took place in 2000, the five declared nuclear powers agreed to a 13-point program of disarmament. The agreement was vague, but the Nuclear 5 have violated its few specifics.

The nuclear-weapon states committed to pursuing an agreement that would ban the production of radioactive materials needed in the production of nuclear weapons. The efforts stalled because China refused to enter such an agreement unless the United States agreed to work toward a ban on nuclear weapons in outer space.

The nuclear states also agreed to pursue the principle of irreversible arms reduction. In essence, this would mean that the nuclear states must not replace the nuclear weapons taken out of service, and must not maintain component parts of the eliminated weapons.

President Bush, however, announced his intention to store the warheads of any eliminated weapons for at least three years.

Another point agreed upon by the declared-nuclear powers was to undertake a program aimed at "the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals." The promise left the nuclear states with plenty of fudge room, but China and the United States failed it anyway.

Both nations are modernizing their nuclear weapons. Indeed, China is quintupling its stash of long-range nuclear missiles, according to U.S. intelligence.

In its most recent nuclear posture review, the Bush administration contemplated indefinite availability of its nuclear arsenal and stressed the arsenal's deterrent value, its value in protecting the United States and its value in protecting U.S. allies.

Not the words of a nation aiming for complete nuclear disarmament.

'Bunker buster' bombs

James Ray, a professor of international relations in Vanderbilt University's political science department, said the ongoing U.S. development of nuclear "bunker buster" bombs — bombs designed to prevent terrorists from finding sanctuary in caves or deep bunkers — is problematic under the 13-point agreement.

"Understandably, some states without nuclear weapons find it hypocritical for states like the United States to develop new and better nuclear weapons while insisting that other states do without them altogether," Ray said.

One of the most obvious departures from the 2000 review involved the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty between the United States and Russia. The countries committed to the goal of strengthening the treaty, calling it a cornerstone of strategic stability.

The United States withdrew from the treaty in 2002.

An issue that is getting much play at United Nations headquarters this month is what steps a country must take to effectively withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty. North Korea's brinkmanship underscores the importance of the issue. If the country successfully withdrew from the treaty, it cannot be in violation. If it is not in violation, the United States loses its strongest argument for imposing sanctions.

As Snow puts it, "Then we're back to the carrot-and-stick proposition, where we argue sticks and everybody else argues carrots."

Worse, U.S. officials fear that if North Korea and Iran avoid sanctions, other countries — especially Japan, South Korea, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — will feel compelled to develop nuclear arsenals.

So what do experts on treaty withdrawals say? Yes, there really is one. Meet Laurence Helfer, an expert in international law who is finalizing a publication on that precise issue.

Helfer said the 2005 review needs to result in a consensus on what countries like North Korea must do to exit from the treaty. One defect in the treaty is that it does not thoroughly address the issue of how to calculate the advance notice a country must give before its withdrawal.

The other deficiency, according to Helfer, is that the treaty says a country can only withdraw in the event of an "extraordinary threat" to its security, but it does not say who decides whether the threat is extraordinary.

North Korea — no surprise here — says North Korea makes that call. The Nuclear 5 think the U.N. Security Council gets the final word.

Helfer said neither argument is wrong. What it comes down to is that the treaty does not address the issue.

There was a time when the non-nuclear treaty members worried about whether the United States was strong enough to protect them from a nuclear attack by a rogue state. Snow said those times are gone.

"I don't think anybody looks at it that way. They worry about us as a coercive force against countries that may have the capability," Snow said.

"They worry more about the Texan strapping on the six-guns and going after people who may be proliferators than they worry about the proliferators attacking them."

Part of the reason Ray worries about the development of a nuclear bunker blaster is that the made-for-Osama weapon links nuclear armament to the war on terror. And that, he said, erodes our willingness to comply with the NPT.

"Should we do better? Yes, I think we should do better," Ray said, "but as long as the current nuclear weapons development program is portrayed as potentially vital to the war on terror, I doubt the political will to do better will materialize."

Copyright 2005, The Decatur Daily