What Nuclear Rights?

| Mon May 2, 2005 7:19 PM EDT

As a UN conference on nuclear weapons gets underway in New York, the Washington Post points out that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is far, far from perfect:

The treaty is considered one of the most successful arms-control agreements ever. But the basic bargain is often cited as its greatest flaw because countries can peacefully get a pathway to bomb-building [i.e. build reactors and make nuclear fuel] and then leave the NPT without penalty [in order to make bombs], as North Korea did two years ago.

Indeed, I've heard that criticism so often that I just assumed it was wholly true and the NPT really was an incredibly stupid idea. But today in the Wall Street Journal, two non-proliferation experts, Henry Skolski and George Perkovich, argue that the treaty malfunctions this way only because nations have allowed it to do so. They say it's a gross misreading for anyone to suggest that Iran has a "right" to its nuclear program under the NPT:

The NPT's history and common sense clarify why the right to peaceful nuclear energy is qualified. First, the NPT, to which Iran is a signatory, is a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, not a nuclear bartering tool… Second, if there are different ways to interpret a contract, the one that lends the greatest support to its provisions and prime intent is the one any sound lawyer or judge must back. Unfortunately, nuclear promoters and diplomats have disobeyed this sensible rule. When it comes to the NPT, they read the treaty's "inalienable right" to develop "peaceful nuclear energy" as being absolute. This is what leads them to conclude that a state has a right under the treaty to get everything up to but not including a complete nuclear weapon…

This reading of the treaty, besides making a hash of the NPT's intent to block bomb-makers, is simply wrong. Article IV of the NPT makes clear that non-nuclear weapons state members are free to exercise their right to develop peaceful nuclear energy, but only if they do so "in conformity" with the NPT's nonproliferation restrictions. Which restrictions are these? The first is the stipulation in Article II that nonweapons states are "not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons." The other is the requirement in Article III of the treaty that all nonweapons states must place all of their civil nuclear activities under International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear safeguards -- i.e., nuclear inspections geared "to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons."

Nuclear activities and materials that cannot be safeguarded, then, cannot count on being protected by the NPT.

That seems about right: The Non-Proliferation Treaty is only as powerful as the countries that enforce it, and the fiction that the NPT offers an "inalienable right" to nuclear power has crippled that enforcement effort. Good. Now three other things. First, in order to have any prayer of getting Iran to abide by this stronger reading of the NPT, a large number of NPT signatories are going to have to sign aboard. Good luck with that. Second, even if the whole world happened to declare Iran to be in violation of the intent of the NPT, that's certainly no guarantee Tehran would happily fork over its bomb-making materials and call it quits. Odds are the U.S. is going to have to wait until after the May Iranian elections, hope that a relative pragmatist like Akbar-Hashemi Rafsanjani comes to power, and then go full-out trying to negotiate various security assurances and other goodies in exchange for Iranian disarmament. What Kenneth Pollack calls the "Triple-Track Approach."

Oh, and third? Yes, well, just a note that enforcing a stricter reading of the NPT would be a whole lot easier if the United States wasn't so brazenly flouting the spirit of the treaty by developing new nuclear weapons and scuttling test-ban treaties left, right, and center. Wade Boese has more on this today in the American Prospect.