Third World challenge to nuclear treaty

When the Non-Proliferation Treaty expires in May, extension will be far from automatic, writes Michael Sheridan in Geneva

The future of the world's nuclear "insurance policy" - the Non- Proliferation Treaty - is hanging in the balance because negotiations over its renewal have turned into a complex diplomatic battle with enormous national interests at stake.

The tension was underlined at the weekend as the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown, said he had been told of US plans to press Britain to put its Trident nuclear system on the NPT negotiating-table.

"The NPT has never been more important than it is now, with access to technology waxing, Cold War disciplines waning and rogue states hungering for nuclear arms," maintains John Holum, director of the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. "But we are engaged in a real struggle.''

The NPT came into force 25 years ago, to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the five acknowledged "weapons states" - Britain, the US, Russia, France and China. Its supporters claim it has given the world insurance against disaster by compelling signatory nations to submit to inspections and refrain from producing nuclear weapons. The NPT provided the international legal basis for action to curb the nuclear aspirations of Iraq and North Korea.

There are now 170 signatories out of 185 members of the United Nations. But the treaty's term is up. It must be renewed at a conference opening in April, with a vote by mid-May. Britain, the US, Russia and France need to win a simple majority - 86 national votes - to extend it indefinitely. But that is proving far from simple.

"A number of countries are attracted to the self-defeating idea that the NPT should be held hostage," Mr Holum said. They want to make its extension conditional on a new test-ban treaty - which may be agreed within a year or so - or upon guaranteed progress towards disarmament.

But objections to automatic renewal do not stop there, as Mr Holum acknowledges. "Others, like Iran, think it should be amended to make access to nuclear technology an automatic right of parties - as if we had no memory of what happened in Iraq - and, indeed, no clue about Iran itself," he said.

Iran has emerged as the standard-bearer for a host of Third World objections to the dominance of the weapons states and their right to dictate what weapons systems should be available to governments.

The struggle is going on at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, where diplomats are engaged in negotiating a new comprehensive test-ban treaty, while lobbying behind the scenes for votes at the NPT showdown in April. Iran's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Sirous Nasseri, has waged a skilful campaign to promote causes vital to Tehran.

President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani recently pronounced that "destructive and anti-human nuclear weapons are against our culture, ideology and political viewpoint". Mr Rafsanjani complained that "America, in order to cover up the nuclear capability of the Jerusalem-occupying regime [Israel], which boldly refuses to sign the NPT, accuses Iran, which does not need nuclear weapons, of trying to gain access to such weapons."

Despite Mr Rafsanjani's protestations, Western intelligence services and foreign ministries have concluded that Iran does have a clandestine nuclear-weapons programme, but it is still far away from acquiring a nuclear device. Recent statements suggesting the contrary by the US Defense Secretary, William Perry, and the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, were intended to step up the pressure on Tehran in response to Mr Nasseri's manoeuvring in Geneva.Iran has thus succeeded in defining the broader political weakness of the NPT with disturbing clarity.

Arab countries led by Syria and Egypt are now arguing they should not sign on for renewal while Israel is not a signatory at all. Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, responded this week that Israel would not give in to Iranian threats.

The stand-off in the Middle East mirrors a series of potentially flash- points elsewhere. Among other important countries that have not signed the NPT are India and Pakistan, which are both believed to be capable of waging limited nuclear war. The agreement between North Korea and the US to restrict Pyongyang's nuclear plans is riddled with uncertainty.

Western nations remain concerned about weapons and nuclear-material stockpiles in the fragmented states of the former Soviet Union. Only in South America is there real progress, with a guarantee by Argentina to accede to the treaty.

Diplomats are working on ways to win confidence and votes for an indefinite extension. The weapons powers are ready to assure non-nuclear nations against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.

Britain's chief negotiator in Geneva, Sir Michael Weston, has told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that he believes support for an indefinite NPT extension can be won by "an overwhelming majority." But as diplomats calculated the arithmetic in Geneva last week, the best bet was for 60 firm votes in favour of indefinite extension, with 15 or 20 waverers. And if only 86 out of 170 signatories renew the treaty, it would be a pretty tattered document.

Leading article, page 14

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Recruitment Genius: Front End Developer / Web Designer

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leader in the e-cigarette ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leader in the e-cigarette ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future