When dueling narratives clash and the subject is nuclear weapons, the sparks that fly could make flashing sabers seem dim in comparison. According to conventional thinking in the West, Iran is not abiding by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and restraining itself from all nuclear weapons activities. Thus, it should be denied its right to enrich uranium. But in the view of much of the rest of the world, the West is making little more than cosmetic efforts to roll back its nuclear arsenals. Therefore, it has no business denying Iran nuclear energy - not to mention nuclear weapons (but that's another story).
In other words, the side that committed to disarming thinks that the side that promised not to proliferate continues to proliferate. And the side that promised not to proliferate thinks that the side that committed to disarming is not disarming.
In truth, abundant evidence exists that any nuclear weapons work Iran has done since 2003 is conceptual - if that - work which is not expressly forbidden by the NPT. The uranium Iran enriches to the higher levels that worry the West seems to be for medical isotopes, which are used for radiation therapy, as well as diagnosis. Combined with enrichment at lower levels for nuclear energy, it serves as a bargaining chip in negotiations.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Imperfect Arbiter
The drafters of the NPT, as with any treaty, sought to balance the needs of different parties. In this case, it was between Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) and non-NWS. Signatories among the latter forfeited their rights to develop or acquire nuclear weapons; the former, meanwhile, promised to roll back the numbers of their weapons with an eye toward total disarmament. In addition, they would assist non-NWS to establish their nuclear energy programs and use their own possession of nuclear weapons to extend an umbrella of deterrence to certain non-NWS.
Ideally, the NPT bestows equal benefits on all parties, but, like many treaties, it's riddled with loopholes and gray areas. For example, Article 6 - debated nigh unto death - is chock full of them. It reads: "Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."
Where there should be key words are noncommittal terms. For example, preceding "to pursue" with "undertakes" adds a preliminary step that almost seems designed to allow parties with nuclear weapons to stall. "Good faith" may be inherent to contracts, but in the context of a nuclear treaty, it sounds Pollyanna-ish. "Effective measures" and "early date" are much too open to interpretation.
With regards to disarmament, a recent report that the Obama administration may be considering reducing the total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to as low as 300 generated a flurry of excitement - and a blizzard of overwrought reactions from conservatives. Whether or not the leaked news was just red meat for conservatives, no weapon reductions will be enacted until after the election.
In fact, even though President Obama assumed office with an apparent personal investment in disarmament, his administration seems to have suffered few qualms about letting it, if not exactly die, then wither on the vine. When push came to shove over the New Strategic Arms Reduction (START) treaty, it bet the farm to secure Republican ratification of a treaty that guaranteed little more than verification and confidence building. The administration proposed to increase funding for nuclear-weapon modernization to $88 billion during the next decade - 20 percent more than the Bush administration sought. Even the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee balked at such exorbitance in the current economic climate and allocated $500 million less than the administration's $7.6 billion request for fiscal year 2013.
As Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine: "Obama has let the bureaucracy suffocate his plan to move step by step toward, as he said in Prague, 'the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.'" Cirincione explained that, "there are far more entrenched officials and contractors that benefit from the sprawling nuclear complex than officials who believe in the president's stated vision."
The apparent intention on the part of the United States to fund its own program into perpetuity at however fluctuating levels likely isn't lost on non-NWS. This realization has finally begun to rear its head in established media such as the London Review of Books. In the February issue, national-security specialists Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka write of the vast sums that the Obama administration committed to nuclear-weapon modernization.
What clearer demonstration could there be that the US government is not serious about reducing its stockpiles? Central to the idea of nonproliferation is the presumption that if smaller states are to be discouraged from acquiring a bomb, nuclear states will need to take real steps towards disarmament. Otherwise, non-nuclear states will regard their demands as self-serving and hypocritical - reason enough to think about creating an arsenal of their own.
Extending this line of thinking one step further, New START may not only seem perfunctory to non-NWS, but might also look like a smokescreen for continued nuclear-weapons funding.
Disarmament and Nonproliferation: No Longer Two Sides of the Same Coin
According to conservatives and many realists, it's not the enduring nature of our nuclear-weapons infrastructure that's lost on non-NWS. It's those disarmament measures themselves, which, by their reckoning, are much more substantial than they appear to non-NWS. They believe that disarmament "leadership" by NWS does little to discourage non-NWS from proliferating. If anything, disarmament creates a national-security vacuum into which non-NWS can't wait to insert themselves.
In a briefing for the Hudson Institute, where he's a senior fellow, Christopher Ford, who served as US special representative for nuclear nonproliferation for the George W. Bush administration, describes the argument that NWS have failed to demonstrate the requisite disarmament leadership to non-NWS. "First," writes Ford, "it explicitly assumes that the commitment of the NWS [nuclear weapons states] to the ideal of disarmament lacks credibility, and implicitly assumes that the United States is both the most important locus of the problem and the key to its resolution."
This point of view was illustrated by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini in a 2011 speech during which he said, "The greatest violators of the NPT are the powers that have reneged on their obligation to dispose of nuclear weapons mentioned in Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty." Credibility may also be undermined by NWS toleration for Israel's nuclear-weapons "ambiguity." Another likely sticking point for non-NWS is the 123 Agreement that the United States signed with India, which, like Israel, is not party to the NPT. Notable for its lack of a call for disarmament on India's part, it provided for full cooperation on nuclear energy between India and the United States.
Second, Ford writes, the thesis "assumes that if this disarmament 'credibility gap' is closed, it will be possible to meet today's proliferation threats much more effectively and with a much wider base of diplomatic support." But, he maintains, "few people seriously argue that countries such as Iran and North Korea seek nuclear weapons simply because the United States or other NWS possess such devices themselves, and that proliferators' interest in such devices would accordingly diminish if only the United States reduced its arsenal further."
We decided to ask authorities on arms control and/or disarmament this two-part question implied by Ford's summary of the credibility thesis:
One: "Do you agree that nuclear-weapons states, especially the United States, have yet to show non-nuclear-weapons states enough in the way of disarmament to convince them that the nonproliferation waters are safe?" Two: "Do you think that, were the disarmament measures of NWS sufficient, some non-NWS would still seek nuclear weapons? If so, what then is the best route to nonproliferation?"
Michael Krepon, co-founder of The Stimson Center and regular contributor to the respected blog Arms Control Wonk rejects the premise of the first question. "The United States and Russia," he replies, "have reduced their nuclear stockpiles by 70%. Is this not 'substantive disarmament'?"
Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the founder of Arms Control Wonk also does not "agree that the United States has done too little to convince NPT signatories that the nonproliferation waters are safe." In fact, he thinks that the "frame that you've chosen is a straw-person that right-wing opponents impute to those of us who would seek a world where the growing obsolescence of nuclear weapons is reinforced by the legally binding agreements."
Besides, he reminds us, the NPT is not "a bargain between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' - it is a commitment by the 'have nots' to one another to remain that way. Whom do North Korea's nuclear weapons threaten most? The United States? Or non-nuclear Japan and South Korea?"
"The agreement among the non-nuclear weapons states to remain that way," said Lewis, "is either forgotten or obscured in many of these debates."
However, Lewis does believe "that the United States can, and should, do more to demonstrate its commitment to Article 6. In particular, the United States should ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty [CTBT]."
Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow of the Arms Control Association. First, he states that my characterization of the New START treaty as "'little more than verification and confidence building" does not do it justice. Then, he writes: "Although I would have preferred deeper cuts, restoring and improving on a verification regime for the two parties' strategic forces was a critical prerequisite for any subsequent steps." He also relates a little-known story about New START that casts the president in a more resolute light: "What I find especially impressive about Obama's determination was his rejection of his political advisers' advice in late November 2010 (according to Rahm Emanuel) that he postpone New START ratification in the lame duck session because it was too difficult and jeopardized other political objectives. Had he done so, I believe the treaty would never have been ratified."
Whether non-NWS would be as quick to credit the president is another matter. Continuing with question one, Thielmann states that the Obama administration has "demonstrated its NPT Article 6 bona fides during the last three years." Its "positions and efforts on shrinking the role of nuclear weapons, on endorsing CTBT ratification, and on leading an international campaign to achieve nuclear security improvements put it at the forefront of the nuclear weapons states on disarmament."
Thielmann concedes that non-NWS "want to see more done to reduce nuclear arsenals by the US, Russia, China, the UK, and France - as do I." He's also willing to answer the question of whether some non-NWS would still seek nuclear weapons even if they deemed NWS disarmament measures sufficient. While, he writes, the disarmament "thus far is significant ... in and of itself, [it] will not be sufficient to satisfy those states, which see their own nuclear weapons development as necessary for security or desirable to enhance influence."
Taking up where Thielmann left off, Ward Wilson, who directs the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons Project at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, notes that "nuclear weapons have become a currency of power in international relations. Irrespective of their actual utility, they are perceived as the key to great power status. Before proliferation can be definitively halted, not only do nuclear-armed states have to do better at disarming, but the belief that nuclear weapons are the sine qua non of international status has to be broken."
Wilson concludes: "Disarmament progress was nil during the first 20 years of the NPT, but since then there has been real, if painfully slow, progress. Even if disarmament progress were faster, however, some states would still want to proliferate. Disarmament by nuclear-armed states is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to halt proliferation."
We All Just Want to Be Safe
Ultimately, national security is as foremost in the minds of those who believe that disarmament leadership acts as an incentive to keep non-NWS from proliferating as it is in the minds of those who think it's immaterial. The latter are apprehensive about a national-security gap opening when non-NWS ignore NWS disarmament measures and proceed to proliferate. Disarmament advocates are at least as concerned with the existing national-security gap created by nuclear risk. They believe that the deterrence crowd underestimates the chance of nuclear war breaking out as a result of an accident, miscommunication or that relic of the cold war - the launch-on-warning setting to which many nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are still dialed.
Due to the staggering number of variables that come into play, comparing the threat of steeply reducing the number of nuclear weapons with that posed by their very existence would likely be an exercise in futility.
There's no guarantee that a steep rollback in the number of nuclear weapons won't result in the opening of a national-security gap. Whether one does or not, it can't be denied that negotiating the span to a nuclear-weapons-free future requires a leap of faith. But launching ourselves into an era of disarmament, however frightening, certainly beats waiting for nuclear weapons - our own or another's - to launch.