If United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo follows through with his threat to impose “the strongest sanctions in history” on Iran, the United States should be prepared for Iran to retaliate by withdrawing from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Last month, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, pre-emptively raised the possibility of his country walking away from the NPT, as it is known, as President Trump reimposes sanctions in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal.
Right now, though, America is diplomatically preoccupied with the only country that has followed through with its threat to leave the NPT: North Korea, having done so in 2003.
If Iran were to join North Korea in taking such a giant step away from the NPT, the United Nations Security Council would be given three months’ notice before the decision takes effect.
If during this time the European Union and others can muster enough political and trade incentives to persuade Iran to persevere with the nuclear deal and remain in the NPT, that could help obviate a major international conflict erupting in the Middle East. If not, Israel — nuclear armed and not a party to the NPT — may argue that Iran cannot be left unchecked to resume a nuclear weapons program.
Even if these risks can be averted, the nonproliferation regime is still in jeopardy.
Earlier this year, through proposals for new, low-yield nuclear weapons and expanded circumstances for a possible nuclear strike, the US administration upped the ante. President Vladimir Putin of Russia responded with plans for new weapons aimed at the US homeland that would render missile defenses “useless.”
By provoking Russia and by increasing the role of nuclear weapons in its military doctrines, the US is reversing a trend that dates to the 1990s. Clearly, the US is also breaking its obligations under the NPT, where the vast majority of states parties want progress on disarmament, consistent with the bargain at the heart of the treaty: that non-nuclear states parties will not develop nuclear weapons and in return the five declared nuclear weapons states — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — commit to nuclear disarmament.
Instead, these countries are modernizing, and in some cases, broadening, their arsenals. And then there is the handful of nuclear powers not party to the treaty — India, Israel and Pakistan — that avoid the scrutiny that the NPT provides. These three seem to catch no trouble from Washington, which has a triple standard on the possession of nuclear weapons: one for the US, another for the non-NPT nations that the US tolerates (however dangerous) and a third for countries that the US doesn’t like.
The build-up of arsenals led to 122 states parties to the NPT, almost two-thirds of all nations, to negotiate a new agreement last year to ban nuclear weapons.
The endurance of the nonproliferation regime, in force since 1970, needs sufficient faith in multilateralism to instill a belief that countries, particularly the big players, will honor the rules at least some of the time.
But the unreliability of the US under President Trump is badly chipping away at this faith, as is the general absence of action on disarmament. The stakes are high when looking at situations like North Korea, where US success in brokering a denuclearization deal depends on building trust to reinitiate the failed prospect of talks and convince that country to become party to agreements like the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, which the US itself has not ratified, although complies with it de facto.
Hope persists. The NPT bargain could be kept alive and the regime preserved if tangible actions could be demonstrated by countries like Britain, which has made little progress on its own disarmament obligations since 2010. By reducing the prominence of nuclear weapons in its military doctrines, including by adopting an unambiguous policy of no first use and by strengthening negative security assurances, Britain could distance itself from America’s current controversial trajectory and improve relations with countries that do not have nuclear weapons.
Such measures are compatible with the manifestos of all British political parties and would signal to the international community that the direction of the world on disarmament is not solely one way. Pragmatically, British steps on disarmament could improve bilateral relations with countries with which it wants to negotiate new trade deals, post-Brexit.
As UN Secretary-General António Guterres asserted in his new global disarmament agenda, unveiled on May 24 in Geneva: our world is going backwards. The agenda puts responsibility for preserving the nonproliferation regime firmly with those who possess nuclear weapons and calls on them to reduce the danger of nuclear war. The agenda focuses on three priorities: weapons of mass destruction, conventional weapons and new battlefield technologies.
Countries with nuclear weapons need to change course or accept a new nuclear arms race and deteriorating world security through a broken system of arms control. The health of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is like a coal-mine canary for nuclear risk. Right now, the canary is getting sicker. New life could be breathed into the regime if countries like Britain could follow Guterres’s advice and show radical new leadership on disarmament.