Nuclear non-proliferation

To prevent the spread of nuclear arms, our international institutions must be reformed

Ben Hartley, ArtSci ’10
Ben Hartley, ArtSci ’10
US President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington to discuss issues of nuclear security.
US President Barack Obama meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington to discuss issues of nuclear security.

Barack Obama was elected on a platform of change, promising an ‘open hand’ to the Iranian regime. Progress, he stated, “cannot be solely America’s endeavour.”

In a 2009 speech in Prague, Obama’s approach to international law was clear: “rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons.”

But despite this new American multilateralism, the actions of the international institutions of the non-proliferation regime have not had an abating effect on Iranian proliferation.

American multilateralism has not deterred Iran because consensus-based decision making and diverging threat perceptions amongst declining great powers have prevented international institutions of non-proliferation from effectively taking action.

In turn, this gives greater agency to national governments of rising powers in preventing nuclear weaponization.

At the United Nations, new sanctions aimed at Iran have exposed cleavages in the UN Security Council (P5) over the definition of acceptable risk that dilute the usefulness of collective multilateral action.

Specifically, they disagree over the calculus of where the ‘Red Line’ of unacceptable Iranian capability actually is, exposing diverging threat perceptions.

Britain and France continue to assert their dominance vis-à-vis aggressive postures as a way of retaining moral authority, and Russia and China have expressed a “zero tolerance” attitude towards only the verifiable existence of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The United States by contrast still views any Iranian enrichment with suspicion and draws the line at “breakout capability” while Israel continues to view an Iranian bomb as an existential threat that would necessitate pre-emptive military action.

The differing threat perception within the permanent members of the Security Council reduces the eventual value of sanctions and ultimately prevents an abating effect on Iranian nuclear demands.

New sanctions have been biting for Iran, but the continued gambit of provocation in the context of asserting their “right to enrich,” guaranteed in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is evidence that they have not had the intended effect.

But at the 2010 NPT Review Conference at the UN, it was these same powers; the US, France, Great Britain and Russia, who prevented timelines and binding mechanisms from being in the final document: principles that, if universally applied, would undoubtedly assist their position on the Iranian file.

The stance of these states was that binding mechanisms would weaken international treaties because they would not be adhered to.

Despite support from the 118 members of the Non-Aligned Movement—which includes Iran—for binding language, the final document was deliberately vague: that non-proliferation should be “pursued within an agreed legal framework, which a majority of States parties believe should include specified timelines.”

The value of the NPT is its political and moral suasion. But exceptions to its terms and a lack of commitment to verifiable mechanisms dilute the NPT’s moral authority and capacity for non-proliferation in the international system.

Nonetheless, some European ‘have-nots’ within NATO—led by Germany’s foreign minister Guido Westerwelle—have publicly supported policies of European disarmament and further nuclear cooperation.

Westerwelle argues that nuclear weapons “no longer have a military purpose” not already served by US- based ICBM’s, and thus should be removed from European soil.

That the American Nuclear Posture Review doesn’t address NATO’s political reliance on a ground based deterrent however, implies American tacit approval of a sustained European arsenal, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s support for expansion of missile defence capabilities also corroborates a NATO policy that instead favours the nuclear status quo in NATO’s new Strategic Concept.

The conflict between these two interests in a collective defence alliance invariably requires a consensus policy heavily influenced by dominant national actors, like the US.

In the Middle East, Iran is well aware that any regional hegemony provided by weaponization will be short lived, as American failure to prevent an Iranian weapon will constitute adequate grounds for a cascade of defensive proliferation in states such as Saudi Arabia and NATO member state Turkey.

Here, a US failure to provide security as a public good would precipitate a nuclear cascade in the region and would be seen as not only a blow to American power, but to the credibility of the institutions of the international non-proliferation regime that the US has attempted to empower.

The Turkey-Brazil deal is an effective example of how this power balance has changed, and why institutions of the non-proliferation regime are largely ineffective when compared to the agency of national governments.

While it may stand as a side-note in history, the deal proved that these international institutions failed, and that national actors won out.

While the US condemned the Turkey-Brazil deal in public, choosing to rebuff Iran from the multilateral 2010 Nuclear Security Summit held April 12 to 13, 2010, Obama sent a private letter to President Da Silva on April 20, 2010, only eight days later, asserting his implicit support for the pact.

The fact that rising powers like Turkey, Brazil and India have been able to bridge the gap between UN Security Council with Germany (P5+1) and Iran reflects a changing world order in which non-proliferation institutions remain ineffective while declining great power states continue to use their status to protect defensive nuclear postures.

As long as institutional design reflects realities that prevent effective cooperation, a universally acknowledged system to prevent the spread of nuclear arms, capable of preventing proliferation in a regime such as Iran, will remain a significant challenge.

Ben Hartley is Junior Researcher for the Proliferation Security Research Group at the Queen’s Centre for International Relations and AMS VP (operations).

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