The nonproliferation regime is tottering

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Pantelis Ikonomou, a former IAEA inspector, writes:  November 6, 2019  

Turkish President Erdogan plainly stated on September 24 at the UNGA: “Nuclear power should be either free for all or banned.” He had already declared in Turkey that he “cannot accept” that a few powerful states have nuclear weapons on missiles while the rest of the world is denied the right to have them.

Erdogan’s words raised worries internationally. But to assess the fate of such statements two sets of facts need to be taken into account. First, the NPT’s limitations and secondly, political defects in the nonproliferation regime.

As for the NPT limitations, they are:

  • Breakout: any peaceful nuclear program with advanced fuel cycle facilities automatically includes a possible military dimension. It would only take a decision to “breakout,” as done by North Korea in 2003, to turn a peaceful program into a military one. Turkey does have an ambitious nuclear plan, yet the country is far away from having the critical nuclear installations and their peripherals, specifically uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities, which would make meaningful a ‘‘breakout.’’
  •  Sneaking out: an NPT signatory could attempt to develop nuclear technology clandestinely. The IAEA inspectors have intrusive means of monitoring and verifying such equipment.
  • Buying the bomb: a nuclear weapons state could conceivably sell nuclear weapons, not only to Turkey but conceivably also to other states in the region. Turkey has reputedly already bought nuclear technology through the A.Q. Khan network.

The political defects that could inspire Erdogan include:

  • The international community failure to terminate the North Korean nuclear program, which demonstrates serious weakness.
  • The reactivation of Iran’s nuclear program, precipitated by US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action without any peaceful planning.
  • The risky call of President Trump to allied countries to develop their own nuclear deterrents, which jeopardizes the NPT regimae and the IAEA’s mandate.
  • The existing legal and political disparity that derives from non-universal adherence to the NPT. As long as some countries manage to stay outside the NPT and yet possess nuclear weapons, as India, Pakistan, and allegedly Israel have done, others might use the logical/ethical excuse to develop their own nuclear weapon programs.
  • The continuing failure of the five nuclear powers inside the NPT to fulfill their commitment towards nuclear disarmament expands the gap of confidence between the few nuclear “haves” and the many “non-haves”. This gap provides support to future “nuclear weapon dreamers”.
  • The possibility that the US might remove from Turkey the nuclear weapons stationed there for over six decades in Turkey.

All the above limitations and defects in the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture have shaped a fertile global climate for growing proliferation ambitions. Erdogan is not alone. There are others in the Middle East and Northeast Asia who would like to join the nuclear club.

The nonproliferation regime is tottering



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