NPR logo 'Grand Bargains' of the Non-Proliferation Treaty

'Grand Bargains' of the Non-Proliferation Treaty

In an undated photo, technicians work inside the uncompleted core of a nuclear reactor in Brushehr, in southern Iran. Iran Atomic Organization hide caption

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Iran Atomic Organization

In an undated photo, technicians work inside the uncompleted core of a nuclear reactor in Brushehr, in southern Iran.

Iran Atomic Organization

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, left, and other members of the Iranian delegation at the May 2005 United Nation meeting to discuss the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Chip East/REUTERS hide caption

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Pakistanis with a model of a Pakistani Ghauri missile celebrate the announcement their country tested a nuclear weapon, May 30, 1998. Zahid Hussain/Reuters hide caption

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Zahid Hussain/Reuters

Diplomats and experts on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty can't figure out how to keep nations from breaking the treaty and acquiring nuclear weapons. They often talk about the "grand bargains" inherent in the treaty. But those bargains aren't as persuasive as they used to be.

The 188 nations that signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty met at the United Nations last month to try to strengthen it. These bargains were at the heart of their disagreements, paralyzing the discussion. The conference ended in failure.

The primary bargain is between the five "legitimate" nuclear states and all the rest. These five — the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China — were the only states that possessed nuclear weapons in 1968, when the treaty was being negotiated.

The treaty accepted that these nations had nuclear weapons and required all others who joined to foreswear them. In exchange, the nuclear states agreed that eventually they would give up nuclear weapons completely.

The second bargain pertained solely to the non-nuclear states. In exchange for their commitment to remain without nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty grants them the right to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful, civilian purposes.

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These deals functioned well for several decades after the treaty went into force in 1970. But they're now at odds with one another, undermining the universal principle of non-proliferation.

Many of the non-nuclear states at the U.N. conference focused their dissatisfaction on the United States. They blame the United States for not doing enough to reduce its nuclear arsenal, and insisting on the importance of nuclear weapons for its own defense.

And indeed, the Bush administration has in many ways reaffirmed the importance of nuclear weapons in America's defense doctrine.

At the same time, the United States spent most of its time at the conference criticizing what it sees as a "loophole" in the treaty that permits non-nuclear states to acquire civilian nuclear technology. That has permitted North Korea to obtain nuclear weapons capability. Iran may be next.

It is true that many of the non-nuclear states just don't seem willing to confront this particular problem, which represents a serious challenge to the future of the non-proliferation principle.

But there are other trade-offs, and potential reforms in this treaty, that states on all sides have ignored. They could help to solve the problem.

When the treaty was first proposed, many non-nuclear states were willing to give up all interest in nuclear weapons, because they knew their neighbors were committing themselves to do the same.

This was a major step forward in international security. It was the first time in human history that states had pledged not to develop weaponry that could threaten their neighbors and provoke an arms race.

At the moment the non-nuclear states don't seem to realize just how important a bargain this has been. But all they have to do is look at Iran and Iraq. Or at India and Pakistan. They are pairs of neighboring nations where war forced each to seek nuclear weapons.

What other states, including the US, seem to be missing is that it will take new bargains to strengthen the treaty.

I heard several good suggestions when I was reporting my series on nuclear weapons last month. Here's one.

The U.S. wants to prevent Iran from enriching uranium, a key element in the nuclear fuel that powers civilian reactors, but also the crucial component of a nuclear bomb.

Why not try to negotiate a moratorium on all states producing enriched uranium right now? If all states do it, Iran is more likely to go along.

In exchange for such a moratorium, the nuclear weapons states could reaffirm their commitment not to test nuclear weapons. That shouldn't be difficult. There have been no tests since 1996, and the U.S. has not tested since 1992.

Non-nuclear states might look more favorably on restricting their own rights to potentially threatening nuclear technology, if others states — especially the United States — accepted some additional restrictions on their freedom of action.

That just might begin to remove the obstacles to the effective functioning of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But it would require compromise and diplomacy, both of which appear to be in short supply, as the world contemplates its future and the future of nuclear weapons.