Review of the year: Nuclear arms

Consensus that's gone critical
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Indy Politics

It was 2005 that was supposed to be the crucial year for nuclear non-proliferation. The fear was that the five-yearly conference to review the operation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would founder amid recriminations, and that the 35-year-old treaty regime would, in effect, be dead. In the event, the review at the UN came and went. It achieved little, but did not collapse. A year that promised drama ended peacefully.

The same can't be said of 2006, when an event long feared happened: on 9 October, North Korea exploded a nuclear device. The precise force has not been established. Nor is North Korea yet capable, most experts believe, of making and firing a missile to deliver a warhead with any accuracy.

Iran spent the year fending off threats and inducements to abandon its uranium enrichment programme. Whether the purpose of Iran's programme is limited to the production of nuclear energy, or whether it is designed to give Iran at least the option of developing a weapon, remains unclear. But Iran feels demeaned by US-led efforts to curb its programme and is intent on exercising its rights to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Iran has exposed the difficulties of enforcing the NPT. Its one offence, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, is not to have been sufficiently transparent. Iran's view is that it is judged by a different standard from other NPT signatories because it is an Islamic state. It is threatened with UN sanctions, but such sanctions look likely to be weak.

The example of Iran highlights the inconsistencies in the way the non-proliferation regime is - or is not - enforced. The UN, under US influence, has required that it meet a higher standard of compliance to develop civilian nuclear power than others. North Korea left the NPT to pursue its ambitions unhindered, and Iran could threaten to follow. It can point to India and Pakistan; both remained outside the NPT regime and conducted their first nuclear tests in 1998.

This politicised confusion has been cited as proof that the NPT regime is out of date. Events near the end of the year reinforced this. Tony Blair announced that the Government intended to replace its four nuclear submarines as the first stage of updating its Trident missile system. Then the Israeli Prime Minister, in remarks he later retracted, seemed to reveal that Israel possesses a nuclear weapons capacity. Israel has not signed up to the NPT.

One consolation seemed to be that a nuclear weapons capability was still restricted to state actors. This came to grief with the death of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in a London hospital. Doctors gave the cause of death as poisoning by the radioactive element, polonium-210. The assumption was that this had somehow been obtained from Russia. It raised the long-feared spectre of nuclear material in the hands of non-state actors.

This has, then, been the year that exposed the inadequacies of the NPT. But that might be too pessimistic. North Korea agreed to return to talks almost immediately after its test. There is no evidence that Iran, for all its bombast, has embarked on a weapons programme, or intends to. So 2006 pushed the bounds of the NPT, but the treaty remained in place. Its robustness suggests that there is time to revise it to match the challenges that await.