“If the world does not change course, we risk self-destruction.” So said Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in a New York Times op-ed on Thursday.
President Bush seems to be of the same mind. He took steps on Wednesday to lessen the risks of nuclear proliferation, when he proposed plans that would revamp the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The catalyst for increased panic over nukes was the recent revelation that a leading Pakistani scientist, A.Q. Khan, was at the center of a black market for nuclear know-how and technology involving Iran, North Korea, and Libya.
Bush spent the early part of his administration eviscerating international arms treaties, so his late conversion comes as a welcome change. But there is still skepticism over a glaring double-standard in U.S. policy, whereby the United States continues to expand its own nuclear arsenal by developing smaller weapons that could penetrate underground targets, while insisting that “rogue states” with nuclear ambitions are the key problem.
Bush called for a ban on all sales of civilian nuclear enrichment and reprocessing technologies to countries that do not already possess them, and proposed that nuclear fuel be provided only to countries that renounce nuclear enrichment and reprocessing. Under the NPT countries are allowed to import these technologies, a fact that North Korea and Iran have exploited.
“This step will prevent new states from developing the means to produce fissile material for nuclear bombs. Proliferators must not be allowed to cynically manipulate the NPT to acquire the material and infrastructure necessary for manufacturing illegal weapons.”
An alternative view was provided to the Washington Post by an unnamed diplomat: “I can envision a response from the nonnuclear states: What have you done for us in the last 34 years in terms of nuclear disarmament?”
The NPT hasn’t been very successfully enforced. Iran brokered a deal late last year under which it agreed to stop seeking nuclear weapons capability, but yesterday the country owned up to having plans for a much more advanced centrifuge (to enrich uranium) than it had disclosed to the IAEA.
Some think Bush is on the right track. The Wall Street Journal gives Bush a top rating on his handling of nuclear proliferation in an op-ed on Feb. 6:
“Pardon us for interrupting the Beltway brawl over Iraq intelligence, but has anyone else noticed the recent landmark progress against nuclear proliferation? The latest breakthrough came this week in Pakistan, where a scientist confessed on television to his nuclear weapons deals during the 1990s.
And in any case, let’s recall why everyone cared about Iraq’s WMD in the first place. The nightmare scenario, all too plausible after September 11, is that a dictator who trucks with terrorists will give them a nuclear weapon to explode on American soil.”
Critics say that the “nightmare scenario” the WSJ referred to certainly hasn’t been headed off; rather, it became all too real with the Pakistani scientist’s confession. A major concern is that the U.S. plays favorites when it comes to laying down the law on nuclear weapons. The Bush administration labels certain countries as rogue states, and tends to allow allies more nuclear room. The Sydney Morning Herald contends that it’s rather inconsistent of the U.S. not to characterize Pakistan as a “rogue,” or punish it in any way:
“In American usage, the problematic term “rogue state” usually means a nation which puts a high priority on subverting other nations by violence, including terrorism in all its forms.
Pakistan’s marketing of nuclear weapons technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea surely makes it a rogue state in US eyes. Yet Washington’s response to Pakistan’s utter disregard for the wider concerns shared by many countries, including Australia about nuclear weapons proliferation has been extraordinarily mild. No sanctions of any kind are proposed. Instead, Mr Bush has side-stepped the issue and called for a new commitment by the 40-nation “Nuclear Suppliers Group” to refuse to sell nuclear equipment to any country that does not have fully operating facilities to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel into plutonium.
That face-saving gesture leaves the US open to accusations of double standards. For example, the US condemns North Korea for exporting Scud missile technology, but forgives Pakistan for exporting nuclear weapons technology. Washington overthrew Saddam Hussein on suspicion of his capacity and intentions with regard to weapons of mass destruction, but lets pass Pakistan’s blatant breaches of nuclear non-proliferation protocols.”
Bush stopped short of calling for an end to all trade in fissionable material, saying his plan would only limit such shipments “to any state that does not already possess full-scale, functioning enrichment and reprocessing plants.”
This, of course, allows the U.S. to avoid further restrictions. ElBaradei commended Bush on his proposal as a good start, but warned that the U.S. (and other countries with nukes) should not exclude itself from tighter restrictions:
“Of course, a fundamental part of the nonproliferation bargain is the commitment of the five nuclear states recognized under the nonproliferation treaty — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — to move toward disarmament. Recent agreements between Russia and the United States are commendable, but they should be verifiable and irreversible. A clear road map for nuclear disarmament should be established — starting with a major reduction in the 30,000 nuclear warheads still in existence, and bringing into force the long-awaited Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.”