Deciding the nuclear haves and have-nots
By Shaza Elsheshtawy
Nuclear weapons are the single most powerful, devastating, and authoritative artillery a country can possess. In a word, they’re potent—both physically and politically. Only nine countries worldwide are in possession of nuclear weapons, which constructs a great imbalance of power between the haves and have-nots of this technology. For the have-nots, acquiring nukes is far from simple, especially in a world where a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and movement toward zero nukes are favored by major nuclear weapon states.
The nine countries currently in possession of nuclear arsenals are: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and—as it is widely believed—Israel. Out of these nine, only five have signed the NPT, which mushroomed into force in 1970, and was renewed in 1995.
Forty years after 1970, the U.S., the U.K., France, China, and Russia—the five NPT nuclear weapon state signatories—are facing the potential emergence of a new nuclear weapon state: Iran. Sanctions have been enforced against Iran for enriching uranium, and, in accordance with the treaty and this general movement toward zero worldwide, this is understandable. Iran is also one of the NPT signatories.
There are 187 non-proliferation signatories. Signed in light of Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the realities and possibilities of miscalculated, accidental and unauthorized use of nuclear weapons spawned fears for international security and safety. The notion was that a world with many nuclear weapon powers increases the likelihood that such conflict will happen. The NPT was born in order to prohibit the spread of nuclear arsenals, as well as to dismantle existing weapons.
There have been some wins for the non-proliferation movement. Paul Brannan, senior analyst at the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), points to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which entered into force in 1995 and was recently renegotiated on March 24, 2010. START commits the U.S. and Russia to reducing their deployed nuclear missiles over a seven-year period and is an example of NPT signatories taking measures to reduce their nuclear “stockpiles.”
Brannan highlighted how these agreements between states underline successes for non-proliferation, because they represent great collaboration and diplomacy.
“They are successful insofar as they represent a negotiated agreement that results in cuts of the number of nuclear weapons.” He explained. “Its also successful because it serves as a major example for other states and it gives the United States a much stronger negotiating position when it comes to convincing other states to [advocate non-proliferation] with potential nuclear weapon aspirations to abandon them.”
Despite these strides toward non-proliferation, the NPT fundamentally brings to light whether their movement toward stopping the spread of non-peaceful nuclear technology impedes on state sovereignty and states’ rights to develop and own what they want—which in this case are those potent nuclear missiles.
On the 40th anniversary of the NPT on March 5, 2010, President Barack Obama made a statement highlighting the U.S.’s role in non-proliferation and the basic strategy of the NPT.
“Today, the threat of global nuclear war has passed, but the danger of nuclear proliferation endures,” he said, “making the basic bargain of the NPT more important than ever: nations with nuclear weapons will move toward disarmament, nations without nuclear weapons will forsake them, and all nations have an ‘inalienable right’ to peaceful nuclear energy.”
President Obama calls peaceful nuclear energy an “inalienable right” for states; but possession of nuclear weaponry isn’t?
Peaceful nuclear energy is heat energy obtained from a chemical reaction called nuclear fission. The heat produced from the reaction is used to boil water to produce steam, which in turn whirls turbines attached to electrical generators that create useable and environmentally friendly power. Nuclear weapons, on the other hand, use nuclear fission reactions to generate a force strong enough to wipe out entire cities and populations, for example, by intense heat and radiation. Uranium enrichment is a critical component in both these processes.
Iran’s enrichment of uranium for peaceful energy is technically allowed under the NPT. Except the U.S. doesn’t buy it; they believe Iran is enriching uranium to create nuclear weapons. And why is this a problem?
It violates the NPT.
Ithaca College associate professor and politics department chair Chip Gagnon pointed to a discrepancy with non-proliferation. “Around 1995 when this treaty was being renewed, there was a big debate that countries like India, which were not in it, said ‘look. there’s no way that we should sign this because the other nuclear powers have done nothing to get rid of their nuclear weapons.’”
Gagnon says this points to a “double-standard.” If countries in possession of nuclear missiles argue that they’re necessary for their security, then why shouldn’t it be just as important for countries that do not have them? Plus, if signatories of the NPT do not dismantle their weapons then that, in a sense, decreases the validity of the treaty and makes non-nuclear powers more adamant to own nuclear weapons, driven by mistrust and insecurity.
Non-proliferation does have its upsides. In an article published in the Winter 2009/10 issue of the World Policy Journal, Jonathon Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute, asserted that “simply put, there is no greater threat to our security than that posed by the weapons themselves.” Their value to the nine states that have them eerily stands for possible deployment. The world is fundamentally vulnerable to diplomatic qualms, clever hackers that could gain access to weapons control systems, human error, and terrorists posing as state actors that could all launch these nine states’ missiles and—worst-case scenario—plunge the world into a bitter nuclear winter. This goes back to the rationale behind the birth of the NPT: miscalculated, accidental, and unauthorized use.
No useable nuclear weapons, no impending doom for humanity—and the argument is as simple as that.
There are also worries that nuclear proliferation could lead to unpredictable states, such as Iran, getting a hold of these weapons and placing them in the hands of non-state actors such as terrorists. As it is stated in the New York Times article “Debate Grows on Nuclear Containment of Iran” by David E. Sanger, “strategists worry more that Iran might slip a crude weapon or nuclear material to terrorists, betting it couldn’t be traced back to Tehran.”
While these points for ridding the world of all their nuclear arsenal in pursuit of a mushroom-cloudless future may appear rational, it is also somewhat idealistic, unrealistic, and anti-sovereign.
Unrealistic, Gagnon asserts, is the argument that Iran could give nuclear weapons to terrorist groups. “It’s so unlikely that any state would give nuclear weapons to terrorists,” he said, because if used by terrorists the weapons could instead be traced back to the country that gave it to them (even if it was done secretly), and it would be that country, and not the nuclear-clad terrorists, that would be at the receiving end of a heated nuclear retaliation. Realistically, no country would risk that. Gagnon further mentioned, “once you give nuclear weapons to terrorists, it’s out of your control and states don’t like that kind of uncertainty.”
That, interestingly, might even explain such a resolute pursuit to stop the spread of nuclear weaponry: uncertainty about a states intention for such potent artillery.
Furthermore, if Iran were to legally withdraw from the NPT, they would be, according to Gagnon, “within their rights to… develop nuclear weapons.” With this in mind, trying to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons even after they withdraw from the NPT legally, it seems, would go against Iran’s sovereign rights.
So where does that leave the non-proliferation movement and treaties like the NPT and START? Brannan stressed the importance of keeping non-proliferation efforts on track, because the perseverance and dedication to it by countries such as the U.S. and Russia can be undercut by another country developing a successful nuclear weapons program, causing a potential domino effect of proliferation.
“For example, if Iran were to succeed in making nuclear weapons, that could spur other states in the Middle East to start their own nuclear weapons programs—despite the example set by the U.S. and Russia.”
This points to the larger picture: keeping the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in check would require a worldwide effort toward zero, not just from NPT signatories and advocates. As Brannan underlined, the efforts of few countries can easily by undermined by the counter-efforts of others. Otherwise, the have-nots of nuclear arsenals will see non-proliferation as a threat not only to their national security, but also their sovereignty; if it’s so important for you to have nukes, then it’s important for us, too, and you shouldn’t be able to tell us whether we can own them or not.
Shaza Elsheshtawy is a freshman journalism major that dreams of riding a missile just like in Dr. Strangelove. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This piece has been updated since its original publication to reflect an error. The “World Policy Journal” was originally mistakenly referred to as the “Foreign Policy Journal.”