The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whose future will be discussed at a 189-country conference for the rest of this month at the United Nations in New York, is commonly hailed as the cornerstone of international efforts to curb nuclear weapons.
Supporters point out that since the NPT came into force in 1970 – and contrary to widespread fears at the time – only four states have joined the five original members of the nuclear club. For this relative success, the Treaty is given much credit. But is this true? And if it is not, what purpose does this five yearly, and usually acrimonious, exercise in multinational diplomacy any longer serve?
The first question is whether the NPT has prevented a country that wanted to acquire nuclear weapons from doing so. The answer is: no. States that have given up weapons programmes – Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and most recently Libya – have acted on the basis of a calculation of national interest, concluding in each case that the project was more trouble than it was worth. Two dozen or more other countries which have the technology to build nuclear weapons have long since decided likewise.
The four post-1970 entrants to the nuclear club either never were NPT signatories (India, Pakistan, and Israel) or withdrew, as North Korea did in 2003. Each concluded, after its own hard-nosed calculation of national interest, that it was indeed worth going nuclear. None has paid any meaningful price for their choice, under any provision of the treaty.
The same story seems set to repeat itself over Iran and its advancing uranium enrichment programme. Maybe Tehran is actually seeking to build a nuclear weapon, as many of its actions suggest. Maybe it just wants to put itself in a position to be able to build one at short notice – a position that would yield many of the same perceived benefits as actually possessing a bomb.
Either way, one thing though is certain. The NPT conference per se will have little bearing on the resolution of the crisis. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may make headlines with their rhetorical battles, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon may publicly scold Tehran, and there will be much intricate manoeuvring over the notion of declaring the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.
But the reality is that Iran, like North Korea, has been able to act with impunity, and any sanctions that emerge from the UN Security Council will almost certainly make scant difference. Like it or not, the outcome of the confrontation will be determined by power politics, in practice almost exclusively by decisions taken by the US, Iran, and Israel – as always on the basis of perceived national self-interest.
The NPT is a relic from the Cold War. If it has a function today, it is to strengthen the security of existing nuclear materials, by tightening the inspection regimes imposed upon on its members.
Today, the most determined and dangerous would-be proliferators are not sovereign states like Iran but al-Q'aida and other terrorist groups, for whom the niceties of the NPT are never going to stand in the way of their ambition to get hold of weapons-grade uranium. Anyone who doubts that proposition should consider what might have happened if the car parked the other night in Times Square (just a dozen blocks from the UN headquarters) had contained not fireworks, propane and fertilizers, but a device using stolen, uncounted nuclear material.
Seen from that perspective, kicking Iran out of the NPT, as some advocate, would be self-defeating. Iran's defiance, and its refusal to submit itself to more intrusive inspection, may infuriate. But the inspections it does undergo are far better than none. Strengthening them should now be the main goal of a post-Cold War NPT.