Technology Review -- Forum, May 1996

"Policymakers must act regionally to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era."

The indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by representatives from more than 180 participating nations meeting in Geneva last spring marked a major achievement. Without rancorous divisions, they agreed to extend the treaty indefinitely. The international norms, inspection system for nuclear facilities, and export controls established by the NPT have persuaded the l eaders of many states to reject the option to produce nuclear weapons.

Instead of the 15 to 20 nuclear powers forecast by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the number still stands at less than 10. Yet the future of the nonproliferation regime remains clouded. Two states that signed the NPT--Iraq and North Korea--have violated their obligations and pursued extensive programs to develop nuclear weapons, while Iran, another NPT signatory, has embarked on a similar effort. Meanwhile, three other states that never signed the NPT--India, Pakistan, and Israel--are "threshold" states with at least the capability of developing such weapons. The prospects for bringing these holdouts into the existing NPT reg ime in the foreseeable future are slim.

Beyond the NPT, the participants at the extension conference emphasized two major initiatives: a global ban on all nuclear testing, and a ban on producing the plutonium and enriched uranium used to make nuclear weapons. Participants pledged to reach agreement on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996 and a fissile-material cutoff at an unspecified later date.

The CTBT effort is well under way. Backers have long championed a nuclear test ban as a means of limiting vertical proliferation (the growth of the nuclear arsenals of the five "nuclear haves") and as an added barrier to entry for would-be nuclear nations. Now that the Clinton administration has decided to support a complete ban, and France has finished its testing in the South Pacific, a CTBT seems possible. A number of obstacles still remain, including the hesitations of the Chinese government, and conflicts on verification and inspection procedures and organizations, but these can be solved by the end of the year.

For over thirty years, a fissile production cutoff has been seen as another means of rolling back the nuclear arms race. In the past, the ideas was that without additional fissile material, the five nuclear weapons states would not be able to produce new weapons. Now, as the US and Russia dismantle much of their nuclear arsenals, both will have more than enough fissile material in storage, so a cut-off will have symbolic importance rather than a substantive impact. As a result, some proponents of a cutoff have sought to refocus this initiative to order to freeze and perhaps roll back the nuclear programs of the three major NPT-holdout states. (India, Pakistan, and Israel). This is also seen as a first step towards getting these states to accept the NPT and international inspection.

However, neither the CTBT nor the cut-off will adequately address the preceived security problems of these three states. They maintain that nuclear weapons are vital to their national security and survival against heavily armed neighbors. Addressing proliferation among these nations will require a shift from the global emphasis to specific regional security problems.

Understanding the Holdouts

India and Israel are wary of the global fissile material cut-off initiative, seeing this effort as an attempt to force them to abandon their nuclear deterrents without addressing the threats to their security. (Pakistan has accepted the concept of a cutoff, but only if India agrees to apply it retroactively so that both India and Pakistan would be nuclear free.)

India's leaders, for their part, have long feared a division of the world into nuclear "haves" and "have nots," despite Ghandi's legacy of nonviolence and the country's early policy of "nuclear abstinence." The Indian military also views China as a potential military threat and sought to develop its own nuclear capability soon after China detonated a nuclear weapon in 1964. India's nuclear efforts increased after the 1971 war with Pakistan amid fears of a "Pakistan-China- U.S. alliance," and successive governments have declared that India cannot and will not renounce a nuclear option until China does the same. Indeed, recently, US satellites detected preparations for a possible Indian nuclear test.

Just as India is concerned about China, Pakistan worries that India is a threat to its survival. The Indian nuclear test of 1974, and reports that India has stockpiled up to 100 nuclear weapons, accelerated the Pakistani nuclear program. The late Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared that Pakistanis would "eat grass" rather than surrender their nuclear option. Pakistan is now credited with at least a small nuclear arsenal, and any change in nuclear policy depends on a similar move by India.

Israel has never acknowledged developing nuclear weapons and carefully fosters ambiguity about its capabilities. Despite the peace process now under way, Israel remains concerned that a combination of armies from neighboring states could overwhelm it. Before the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi army alone possessed over 7,000 tanks, thousands of long-range guns, hundreds of modern combat aircraft, and over 50 active divisions, not to mention chemical weapons, deadly biological warheads, and ballistic missiles. Saddam Hussein was less than a year away from developing his own nuclear capability. The threat of Israeli retaliation deterred Iraq from using his chemical and biological warheads in 1991, and as Iran continues its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon, the Israeli deterrent may become important here as well. In this hostile environment, efforts to persuade Israel to relinquish its "weapon of last resort" are unrealistic.

Given the mutual threats in the Middle East and South Asia, it seems clear that the holdouts will not chnage their policies without regional security agreements that address their underlying concerns.

What should such regional security arrangements include? In 1988, the prime ministers of India and Pakistan signed an agreement pledging not to attack each other's nuclear installations. Although implementation was delayed by clashes in the Kashmir region in 1991, the two countries exchanged lists of nuclear-power, research, and enrichment installations in January 1992. Progress is slow, but officials have held discussions on establishing a South Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone. China will eventually have to be brought into this framework as well. China is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons until the US and Russia do the same, but limitations on the size of its arsenal and other regional security measures could provide a basis for cooperation.

In the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli peace process includes a working group on Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS). Representatives from Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and other states in the region have met frequently over the past three years to discuss confidence and security-building measures. Examples include crisis-communications centers allowing leaders to converse directly, and an agreement to notify neighboring states of any large military exercises. (However, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Libya, boycott these talks, with the latter two condemning the entire Arab-Israeli peace process while clinging to demands for the destruction of Israel. Syria might agree to join the regional talks if the country reaches a bilateral peace agreement with Israel, but the radical governments in Iran, Iraq, and Libya must change before these states participate.)

These talks could address limits on conventional weapons as well as cutbacks in chemical and biological weapons and nuclear warheads. Israel and Egypt have already endorsed the concept of a Middle East Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction, based on mutual inspection. Such a zone could offer the participating nations a higher degree of assurance than that offered by the existing NPT regime, in which verification proccess are politically filtered by the Geneva-based International Atomic Energy Agency.

Ultimately, such comprehensive regional security frameworks could provide alternative arrangements that would convince the holdouts to accept limits on their nuclear programs. But participants in these regional negotiations must end the separation between nuclear and all other threats, and address the contribution of conventional arms sales (including those from the United States) to the regional instability.

The final declaration of the 1995 NPT Extension Conference recognized that "the establishment of zones free of all weapons of mass destruction should be encouraged as a matter of priority, taking into account the specific characteristics of each region [emphasis added]." Efforts to force the three holdouts into the existing global regime, and to use the fissile-material cutoff initiative for this purpose is inconsistent with this policy. For the these states, the only realistic approach is to build serious regional security arrangements that include limits on conventional and non-conventional weapons alike.