Should the Entire NAM Collectively Withdraw from the NPT?Posted: July 23, 2013
Since Hossein Mousavian wrote his powerful piece a few weeks ago on the choices Iran’s new leadership has in dealing with its dispute with the West over its nuclear problem, there’s been a good deal of discussion about one of the options he outlined in particular: withdrawal by Iran from the NPT. In my post about Mousavian’s article, I cited to some things I’ve written on this subject recently as well.
Others have, however, written very thoughtful pieces on whether it would be wise or productive for Iran to withdraw from the NPT, reaching mostly negative conclusions. See here and here in particular for quality pieces.
I think overall these commentators are correct to say that it would be imprudent for Iran to unilaterally withdraw from the NPT, for the reasons they discuss.
But I also think, and have said before, that the NPT is in serious need of replacement. The basic facts are these: the NPT was never intended to be the final agreement on the subject of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. It was understood at the time of its drafting to be a “halfway house” on the road to a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons outright. The concept of nuclear weapons haves and have nots as the legal status quo both was and still is understood not to be indefinitely sustainable. What utility there was in the NPT for decades has now been eclipsed by the problems the treaty causes as the cornerstone treaty governing nuclear energy in all of its applications. First, the NPT is woefully out of date and has become problematically anachronistic. The landscape of states that have nuclear weapons has changed drastically since 1968, and the treaty is incredible in not including these countries in some manner within its scope. This causes all sorts of problems – from civilian nuclear tech sharing with India, to the thorny problem of Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile in the Middle East. Second, the two primary obligations to which the nuclear weapon states committed themselves, in exchange for non-nuclear weapon states’ promises not to acquire nuclear weapons, have become so thoroughly undermined and marginalized as to now be almost farcical. I’m referring to Article IV and Article VI of the NPT. There is a strong, and well supported view, among the states of the NAM, that the NWS are in breach of their obligations pursuant to Article VI, and that the rights and obligations in Article IV have been so diluted and abused by supplier states through the NSG, that there really is very little left that the NPT accomplishes in this area. And this of course goes to the heart of the original grand bargain of the NPT.
Of course, NAM states still in general strongly support the nonproliferation aims of the NPT. For this reason, and for the cost reasons associated with unilateral withdrawal which the pieces noted above explain, no one NNWS (with the exception of NK) has so far been willing to go out on the limb of international opinion to unilaterally withdraw from the NPT on these principled grounds.
But what if the member states of the NAM, comprising about two-thirds of the NPT NNWS, collectively agreed that the NPT is no longer a viable paradigm for governing nuclear energy and nuclear nonproliferation, and decided to finally bring the issue to a head and withdraw from the treaty collectively, on a coordinated date? The benefits of such an approach would be several. First, no one state would bear the stigma of outlier in unilaterally withdrawing from the treaty, with the implication of “something shady” going on in their territory. This would be a collective action more persuasively based in mutually agreed principle. Second, it would in fact force the issue of producing a new treaty to take the place of the NPT. For all of the reasons mentioned above and more, the NPT has been perceived less and less credibly by NAM states for many years now. However, when you talk with officials about amending or replacing the NPT, they just roll their eyes at the enormity of the task, and the improbability of ever achieving consensus on a new treaty. The result has been that the NPT is simply left in place to limp along as it has for 45 years, becoming more and more problematic by the year. Surely this is not an acceptable long term approach to the issue. At some point the NPT will have to be replaced. If not, it will continue to slide into disdain and irrelevance among the states of the NAM, comprising by far the majority of states in the world, as it already has in large measure, because of the fundamental principled inequity of the treaty’s structure, along with the previously discussed failure of the NWS and supplier states collectively to maintain their obligations under it.
I have no delusion that this scenario is likely to be played out soon. But I think that it may be the only realistic way in which to bring the issue of the NPT’s essential unfitness for purpose to the fore, and to bring about the necessary conditions for serious work to be commenced on a replacement treaty.