When states assemble in New York on 27 April for a four-week-long quinquennial review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), there will be ample ground for discord. The recommendations for action that were agreed upon by consensus at the last review conference (RevCon) remain largely unfulfilled. There will be griping aplenty that the five states allowed nuclear weapons under the treaty have made few tangible steps towards disarmament in this period. Of most concern to Arab states, a conference that was to have been held in 2012 to further the goal of a zone in the Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction has not materialised.
Yet despite disharmony over the pace of disarmament, the context in which the RevCon will take place recently changed for the better. In the past six months, two of the country dyads that have occasioned some of the most antagonism in past meetings are on a newly positive footing. The US and Cuba are on their way to normalisation, and Iran and the major powers have reached a framework to overcome the long-term crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme.
As a diplomat who is critical of the disarmament pace told me last week, neither of these developments has anything directly to do with the matters under discussion at the RevCon. But she acknowledged that both will contribute to positive atmospherics.
The tentative Iran nuclear accord can be a game-changer in many ways. At a seminar in Algiers last week in preparation for the RevCon, I enumerated five of the ways it should give a boost to the proceedings.
Firstly, it shows that non-proliferation tools work. Iran’s multiple violations of safeguards required by the NPT are what sparked action by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors and then by the UN Security Council. The inspections, resolutions, sanctions, and diplomacy of the past dozen years all contributed to the 2 April framework for a comprehensive agreement. Had Iran gone further down the path of nuclear weapons, the NPT would have been weakened. Instead, the diplomatic process strengthened and underscored the importance of the treaty.
Secondly, the 2 April framework fortified two key pillars of the NPT. It reaffirmed the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy (while leaving unstated whether this right specifically applies to uranium enrichment) and it provided for stronger means of verifying that such activity is indeed strictly peaceful. The monitoring provisions in the tentative deal are more extensive and robust than those employed by the IAEA anywhere else in the world. This sets a good precedent for further evolution of the safeguards system.
Thirdly, the framework contributes to conditions for creating a Middle East WMD-free zone. Lack of trust is a core impediment to the zone goal. Among the reasons for this is that so many countries in the region have not upheld their NPT obligations. Iraq, Libya, Syria and Iran all violated IAEA safeguards in pursuit of nuclear-weapons capabilities. Rectifying Iran’s violations shows how the verification and enforcement provisions necessary for a zone can work. And if the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon is dissipated, it will remove one of Israel’s strongest arguments for not relaxing its nuclear guard.
Fourthly, the framework provides needed glue to the P-5, constituting a rare bright spot in the otherwise dismal relations between Russia and the West. Despite the political and commercial impulses that might have led it to play a spoiler role in the Iran talks, Russia maintained solidarity with the other powers. A key reason was that Moscow really does attach importance to non-proliferation. The priority that Russia gives to upholding the NPT should counterbalance what otherwise could be a disruptive role at the New York meeting over issues such as the broken negative assurances to Ukraine.
Fifthly, an Iran nuclear deal should help promote the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which has long been a top priority for arms-control advocates. Iran is one of the eight states that must ratify the treaty before it can enter into force. With the nuclear talks on the way to resolution, a logical next step for Tehran would be to ratify the treaty. Doing so would steal a jump on the United States, where the CTBT ratification push has been stalled since the end of the last century. Given Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons, Iran’s parliament (the Majles) should have no principled reason to object.
The atmosphere at the Algiers meeting last week itself was encouraging. This was partly due to Algeria’s congenial hosting and generous hospitality. (On a personal note, never have I been treated so well by a conference host.) With Algeria’s acclaimed former ambassador to the IAEA Taous Feroukhi named to preside over the RevCon, the nation has a deserved sense of pride along with a national stake in a positive outcome. The Algiers meeting also reflected a renewed spirit of forward movement engendered by the Iran deal.
In my presentation, I admitted that before the last RevCon, Obama’s Prague speech was also proclaimed as a game-changer. Indeed, his renewed commitment to a world free of nuclear-weapons and the New START arms-control agreement reached in March 2010 set a positive state for the Review Conference that year. Thereafter, however, Obama’s arms-control agenda stalled, due largely to uncompromising partners.
There is still time and scope for Obama to reclaim the disarmament quest. His success in changing US–Cuba dynamics and promoting resolution of the Iran deal show the power of the presidency in the hands of a visionary and determined leader. Good things often come in threes. In his remaining time in office, there are more ways Obama can leave a positive nuclear legacy. Participants at the NPT RevCon will surely have no shortage of suggestions for him.
Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme.