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?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk