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Revitalizing International Cooperation on Nuclear Nonproliferation

Despite predictions of a world with many nuclear-armed states, the record of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime has been impressive.
October 2021
Mehdi Zadehali

Despite predictions of a world with many nuclear-armed states, the record of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime has been impressive. Since North Korea acquired nuclear weapons, no additional country has done so. Also, fortunately, there has been no use of nuclear weapons in warfare since 1945 and the great majority of members of the international community have not felt the need to develop nuclear weapon programs of their own. Although almost all countries—including the 191 states that are parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—support the goal of complete nuclear disarmament, many disagree on the best way to achieve it.

In this context, two positions have emerged from the five nuclear weapons states of the NPT and their allies on one side, and supporters of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on the other side. The nuclear weapons states and their partners promote a gradual approach to disarmament and emphasize the continued importance of nuclear deterrence for their security. Supporters of the TPNW believe that the nuclear weapons states have not made any progress in eliminating their nuclear weapons and worse that, the role of nuclear weapons in security policies of the Nuclear-Weapon-States has not diminished.

The broader increase of tensions between major powers and recent actions by some nuclear weapons states have made a number of observers skeptical regarding the prospects of nuclear disarmament. The United States destructive policy during the Trump Administration presented several challenges in this case: its action to collapse Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and creating ambiguity about the future of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) has undercut global non-proliferation efforts and has undermined the value of multilateral diplomacy. The United Kingdom’s decision to increase the cap on its nuclear warheads, and Russia’s activity to develop new nuclear weapons technology, North Korea’s advanced nuclear weapons program should be considered alongside US actions.

Under such circumstances, the future of nonproliferation regime seems quite foggy. Although, a climate of mistrust will complicate the reduction of nuclear stockpiles, damage efforts to reduce nuclear risks, and impede a collective international response, however, a complete breakdown of the nonproliferation regime is unlikely. The disarmament and non-proliferation regime will still be at the heart of the collective security system and it has to adhere to its fundamental goals. Some hopes to boost this regime still remains:

- The NPT Review Conference is ahead; it is a mechanism of five-year cycle of meetings during which states-parties review implementation and compliance with the treaty and seek agreement on action steps to overcome new nonproliferation challenges and to fulfill core goals and objectives. Despite the fact that it was postponed twice because of COVID-19 virus still posing a public health threat in many parts of the world but after the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force, producing a successful outcome for the 2022 Review Conference has taken a considerable symbolic importance.

- U.S.-Russia New START has been extended for next five years. This major step shows the nonproliferation and arms control regimes could provide mutually beneficial, predictable and verifiable security gains for all members of the international community. The extension of New START gave a huge boost to review conference prospects and it could link to the opening of bilateral strategic talks that would consider how New START or a follow-on agreement could address systems not yet covered that are of concern to either side or both of them (including non-strategic nuclear weapons, long-range conventional strike missiles, and hypersonic systems).

In spite of such positive trends that show the possibility that the world goes back on the right track, but to overcome the growing challenges that the global nuclear nonproliferation regime will face in the coming years, nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states should pursue a common understanding on the following issues:

  1. The existing multilateral disarmament and non-proliferation institutions, regulation and mechanism should be protected by the international community. All NPT parties should recommit to the treaty’s goals. A high-level commitment to the goals of the NPT would benefit the regime itself and the upcoming review conference.

Given the disagreements over the relative importance of specific pillars (with some countries calling for concentrating on preventing nuclear proliferation and others on disarmament), NPT parties should focus their attention on areas of agreement that include the basic rationale underpinning the treaty (namely, avoiding the danger of nuclear war), but its objectives and language needs to be rejuvenated in order to adapt to technological developments and contribute to human, national and collective security in the 21st Century.

  1. The international community should uphold the concepts of multilateralism and win-win approach as an inseparable core of arms control and non-proliferation diplomacy. Every unilateral approach and double standards in this case would take on a destructive edge, far from the concept of collective security.
  2. “With great powers, come great responsibilities” and it is the prior responsibility of the international powers to develop peace and security through diplomacy. The broader increase of tensions between major powers and recent actions by some nuclear weapons states have made a number of observers skeptical regarding the prospects of nuclear disarmament. To overcome this challenge, it requires channels of dialogue and communication, also requires a measure of domestic support for deep engagement. The P5 should announce new nuclear risk reduction measures. Over the past few years, the five NPT nuclear weapons states have declared interest in nuclear risk reduction measures, but they have taken limited actions.
  3. Technological developments present new challenges to the established arms control regimes in the twenty-first century. Every step forward change in the sciences will open a space to raise a new generation of weapons and renew terrifying methods of war and killing and in turn, make it more urgent that these weapons and methods be subject to international control.

To conclude, it should be clear that every country and international actors must contribute actively to defining the new world order and enhance international governance founded upon the rule of law. The current regime will not survive if it is seen as a vehicle to protect the nuclear status quo for a few nuclear weapons states that only pay lip service to disarmament. Arms control requires transparent rules and sustained commitment to them and international community must also be prepared to enforce them collectively and this will never be an easy task.

Mahdi  ZADEHALI, Study Representative of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Beijing

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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