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Could the world be on the path to a new nuclear crisis? The seventh review conference of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) opened at the United Nations on Monday amid a mood of deepening pessimism and crisis.
The NPT, signed in 1968, is designed to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In essence it is a grand bargain. On the one hand, the five nuclear weapons states (US, Soviet Union, France, Britain, and China) agreed to make progress towards nuclear disarmament. On the other, states that lacked nuclear weapons when the treaty was being negotiated agreed not to acquire them in exchange for access to the benefits of civilian nuclear energy.
The NPT was an Irish idea, originally conceived by Frank Aiken, the minister for foreign affairs in 1958. When the treaty came into force 10 years later, Ireland's unique role was recognised with an invitation to be the first signatory.
Since then Ireland has been centrally involved with nuclear disarmament, most recently as a member of the seven state New Agenda Coalition that proved so important in achieving agreement at the last NPT review conference in 2000. This week Irish diplomats are again in the thick of the action. The Government often makes the claim, but the NPT is truly one area where Ireland punches well above its weight.
In many ways, the NPT has been a resounding success with 189 countries having signed.
Israel, Pakistan, and India were the only exceptions. In the 1960s it was expected that tens of countries might acquire nuclear weapons but since the NPT, several states that started down that path (Brazil, South Africa, and Libya) renounced nuclear weapons and dismantled their programmes.
However, since the last review in 2000 North Korea has withdrawn from the treaty and declared it has nuclear weapons. There are concerns that Iran may do the same thing.
As the month-long review conference gets under way, it is clear that the treaty is in real trouble. There are two major crisis points.
The first concerns what the five nuclear weapons states are doing to live up to their own obligations under the NPT.
Article VI requires the nuclear haves to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race . . . and to nuclear disarmament".
This language is quite ambiguous, so in 2000 the member states agreed unanimously to translate this into 13 concrete disarmament steps, which would act as a touchstone or benchmark to measure progress towards the goal.
Critics argue that the United States has violated over half of the 13 steps including the adoption of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the strengthening of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and progress towards a fissile material cut-off treaty. The Bush administration is on record as saying it considers many of the steps to be a "product of their time" and does not intend to pursue them.
It points instead to unilateral cuts in the US nuclear arsenal, a continuing moratorium on testing and other policies as evidence of good faith.
However, for much of the rest of the world this is a fundamental break with the bargain underpinning the original treaty.
In addition to the 13 steps, the nuclear have-nots are particularly perturbed by the 2002 US nuclear posture review which provides for the development of new, more usable, bunker-busting nuclear weapons.
Hardly a sign, they say, of a commitment to disarmament.
The Americans respond, however, that nothing in the NPT has ever prohibited the modernisation of arsenals - just look at the cold war - and this is necessary to deter rogue regimes with nuclear weapons. Tedious, but you see the difficulty.
And, it is not just a difference over details. There is a real divergence on how different states diagnose the problem.
One side sees the danger as the existence of nuclear weapons, period. The other says, in the words of President George W Bush, that "the gravest danger facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons".
Spot the difference? The threat is no longer nuclear weapons, but nuclear weapons in the hands of certain regimes.
For the US, France and others the world is largely wasting its time obsessing about article VI obligations. To be sure, some progress is necessary to ensure stability and safety of the arsenals but the real danger lies elsewhere.
This brings us to the second major crisis point in the review conference, which may be even more intractable than the first. Article IV of the NPT gives all member states an "inalienable right" to acquire nuclear power for peaceful civilian purposes even if this includes "dual use" technologies.
Iran argues that article IV means it is entitled to develop a nuclear capacity as long as it is only for the purpose of producing enough energy to fuel its economy. In the Iranian view, the NPT entitles it to acquire all nuclear technology right up to, but not including, nuclear weapons.
The US counters that article IV is a dangerous loophole that allows rogue regimes to use their right to develop nuclear energy as a Trojan horse for acquiring the bomb. An advanced civilian nuclear infrastructure can be quickly converted into a military capability. Any party can withdraw from the NPT with 90 days' notice. Indeed North Korea has already done so.
What is to stop Iran from getting the benefits of the NPT bargain and then doing the same thing?
There are a number of ways in which Iran could be allowed to develop civilian nuclear power but be denied the bomb.
Most hinge on limiting its centrifuge enrichment of uranium but Iran has steadfastly refused to countenance any such steps.
It has proclaimed the need to have an independent nuclear capacity so openly that it is unlikely to back down. All the more so given that elections will be held in Iran in June and supporting nuclear power is a very popular position to hold.
Why, it is fair to ask, was article IV ever included if it can be used to develop weapons as well? At the time the NPT was originally signed, centrifuge enrichment was extremely difficult.
Now, thanks to improving technology and the likes of A Q Kahn, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who sold his secrets to rogue states, many more countries are capable of taking this step.
Moreover, an attachment to article IV is not confined to Iran. Other non-nuclear weapon states may also resist any curbs on their rights, particularly if the nuclear "haves" are showing no real sign of complying with their own commitments.
Diplomats involved in the negotiations say that little progress has been made in the first week. The deadlock is such that there has not even been agreement on an agenda. That hurdle may be surmounted, but few are predicting overall success. Meanwhile, rumours are rife that North Korea may be planning a nuclear test. It will be a tense few weeks.
Tom Wright is a Research Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government.