The most important upcoming decision on Britain’s future might be made three days before the general election, when representatives from 188 countries gather in Manhattan to consider the future of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT codified a bargain between the five states which then possessed nuclear weapons – Britain, China, France, the Soviet Union and the United States – and the rest of the world. Countries ratifying the treaty as non-nuclear weapon states agreed not to develop or acquire such weapons. In return, they would be given access to nuclear technologies for energy production, the development of medicines and other purposes. They also obtained a commitment that the nuclear weapon states would ‘pursue negotiations in good faith . . . on general and complete disarmament’. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an arm of the United Nations, monitors compliance with the treaty by sending inspectors to nuclear facilities worldwide. The NPT has been remarkably successful, in that none of the 183 ratifying non-nuclear states has subsequently acquired nuclear weapons. The only three countries to have acquired nuclear arms since 1970 – India, Pakistan and Israel – exercised their sovereign right to stay out of the treaty.

The NPT has, however, failed to achieve general disarmament. More than 30,000 nuclear weapons remain, most of them belonging to the five original nuclear weapon states. Increasingly, other countries are questioning the willingness of the powerful to keep their side of the bargain, and returning to a way of thinking that predates – and was a reason for the negotiation of – the NPT.

In Leonard Wibberley’s novel The Mouse that Roared (1955), later made into a Peter Sellers film, a tiny impoverished country declares war on the United States in the hope of being rapidly defeated, occupied and reconstructed. The plan goes wrong when the flyweight belligerent inadvertently acquires the world’s most powerful weapon, and thus the ability to defend itself. The ability of nuclear weapons dramatically to alter international power relations has not been lost on North Korea and Iran, the two remaining members of the ‘axis of evil’. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kim Jong Il speculated that George W. Bush would not have gone to war had Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons. The North Korean dictator’s continued presence in Pyongyang suggests that he was right about this. Two years ago, North Korea renounced its 1994 ‘agreed framework’ with the United States under which, in return for economic aid, it had promised to stop reprocessing spent uranium fuel rods into plutonium for nuclear weapons. It also expelled the IAEA’s inspectors and announced its withdrawal from the NPT. These actions constituted a real threat to international peace and security, yet Washington neither responded militarily nor deigned to negotiate directly with Pyongyang.

In February, the North Korean government announced that it had ‘manufactured nukes for self-defence to cope with the Bush administration’s ever more undisguised policy to isolate and stifle’ the DPRK. This could be a bluff, but the information obtained by the IAEA inspectors before they were expelled suggests that Pyongyang has all the components and technological competence needed to make a plutonium bomb. In addition, the United States claims that North Korea shipped partially enriched uranium to Libya as recently as 2003, heightening concerns that it might be willing to sell weapons-grade fuel to other states or, worse yet, to a terrorist group.

The nuclear threat presented by Iran came to light two years ago, after IAEA inspectors followed up on leads provided by Iranian dissidents. It transpired that Iran had been secretly trying to enrich uranium for almost two decades. Washington immediately accused Tehran of having a clandestine weapons programme and began pushing the IAEA, which does not have the power to impose sanctions, to refer the matter to the UN Security Council. The United States needs UN involvement because it cannot exert any more economic pressure itself, having imposed stringent unilateral sanctions on Iran since its fundamentalist revolution in 1979. European governments have opposed referring the case to the Security Council, perhaps because they think Russia and China would threaten to veto any meaningful resolution: the resulting deadlock might then be seized on by the Bush administration as implicitly authorising war, repeating what happened before the invasion of Iraq.

France, Germany and Britain – the ‘EU Three’ – have been trying to negotiate an agreement whereby Iran would stop enriching uranium in return for membership of the World Trade Organisation, access to new civilian aircraft and a light-water nuclear reactor which, although less useful for producing weapons, could be used to produce electricity. This approach, which is modelled on that taken by the Clinton administration towards North Korea, has made considerable progress. Last November, Iran voluntarily suspended its enrichment programme while asserting – correctly – that it has the right to produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes. It remains unclear whether the Bush administration, whose consent is required if Iran is to join the WTO, will support a negotiated agreement or pursue a more belligerent course.

It is also unclear why Iran, a country with the second largest oil and gas reserves in the Middle East, needs nuclear energy in the first place, though it is clear why it might want nuclear weapons. Two of its neighbours, Pakistan and Russia, have nuclear arms; two others, Afghanistan and Iraq, are in effect occupied by US forces, while Israel, less than 800 miles away, is widely known to possess nuclear weapons despite its continued policy of ambiguity. Israel recently threatened a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities; in 1981 it bombed an Iraqi reactor under construction near Baghdad.

The Israeli threat must be taken seriously. The US is currently providing Israel with 500 precision-guided BLU-109 ‘bunker-buster’ bombs capable of penetrating up to six feet of concrete. In January, Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker that US special forces were already in Iran trying to pinpoint underground nuclear facilities and other potential targets. Earlier this year, US and Israeli forces spent a month testing the ability of Israeli air defences to shoot down long-range Shahab-3 missiles, which would almost certainly be used in any retaliatory strike by Iran.

US policy towards Iran reflects a more general hypocrisy. The CIA estimates that Israel has more than 200 nuclear warheads, but cannot produce convincing evidence that Iran has any kind of nuclear weapons programme. Yet the Iranians, like Saddam before them, are assumed to be seeking weapons and are vilified on that basis.

US-based experts in these matters tend increasingly to distinguish between democratic and non-democratic countries. They argue that democracies don’t often go to war against each other, though this does not make democracies any less dangerous to non-democratic regimes. The NPT was, in any case, negotiated during the era of Nixon, Brezhnev and Mao. The legitimacy of the system is weakened when attention is focused on North Korea and Iran while questionable activity in Brazil, Nigeria, South Korea and especially Israel is ignored. This selectivity creates suspicions about motives – deepened when the US president delivers speeches promising ‘liberty throughout all the world’ – and makes it more difficult to maintain the global co-operation required to stop nuclear proliferation spiralling out of control.

The Bush administration’s hostility towards Baghdad, Pyongyang and Tehran has led to a curtailment of US co-operation with the IAEA, even though the agency’s access to nuclear sites means that its work is essential. Early in 2003 the US ignored the IAEA’s warnings about the importance of securing 380 tonnes of conventional high explosives located at al-Qaqaa in Iraq. The explosives, which could be used to trigger nuclear bombs, had been sealed and monitored by the IAEA before the war. US troops found the explosives but left them unattended; they soon disappeared. Looters also removed large amounts of equipment from Iraqi weapons installations in the weeks after the fall of Baghdad, including some precision machinery which could be used to make parts for nuclear devices. Before the war, this too had been closely monitored by the IAEA.

Now the Bush administration is opposing the appointment of Mohamed ElBaradei to a third term as director general of the IAEA, apparently because it still resents his conclusion, made public just before the American invasion, that Iraq no longer had a nuclear programme. That ElBaradei was correct is of no interest to Bush. In December 2004, the Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency had been tapping ElBaradei’s telephone in an attempt to acquire evidence of bias that could be used to force him from his post.

Pakistan, which exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1998, has provided most of the technical know-how for Iran’s nuclear programme. Two years ago, A.Q. Khan, who ran Pakistan’s bomb-building programme, was exposed as the kingpin of an international black market in nuclear technology. Khan was placed under house arrest but subsequently pardoned by Pakistan’s unelected president, General Pervez Musharraf. Officials from the United States and the IAEA were denied permission to interrogate him. According to another report by Hersh, the Bush administration agreed not to investigate the Khan network in return for an intensified effort on the part of Pakistan to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. More recently, Bush has rewarded Pakistan’s co-operation in the war on terrorism by authorising the sale to Musharraf of F-16 fighter-bombers. Nothing exposes the inconsistencies of Washington’s approach to nuclear proliferation and disarmament as much as its leniency towards Pakistan, particularly given that Pakistan’s arch rival, India, is a democratic state.

The Bush administration has also been negligent in dealing with the 600 tonnes of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium scattered around Russia, which is by far the most likely source of nuclear fuel for terrorist groups. It would cost $30 billion to secure or convert this material to commercial-grade fuel quickly; at the current rate, set by a 12-year-old agreement between the United States and Russia, it will take more than a decade. Two months ago, however, Bush and Vladimir Putin finally announced that the process would be accelerated; it is now projected to be completed in 2008.

One of the more serious setbacks in the struggle against nuclear proliferation came in June 2002, when Bush announced that he would ‘take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge’. Preventive military action necessarily involves speculating about the intent and future actions of foreign governments. Decisions to intervene preventively are consequently susceptible to intelligence failures or even to the deliberate skewing of facts – as occurred, at least in the United States, before the invasion of Iraq.

One of the often overlooked benefits of the United Nations is that it enables relatively disinterested parties in a dispute to demand more evidence, delay the recourse to arms and, if necessary, withhold the legitimacy and legality provided by Security Council authorisation. What is often seen as inaction on the part of the UN is precisely the opposite: in many instances, it is, by doing nothing, doing its job.

The Bush administration has taken one positive step to control nuclear proliferation. The Proliferation Security Initiative was set up after 15 Scud missiles were seized on board a North Korean freighter in November 2002 and then released when it turned out that international law did not allow them to be confiscated. The PSI is the brainchild of the unapologetically brash John Bolton, who served as under-secretary of state for arms control and international security during Bush’s first term, before being nominated, to the consternation of most career diplomats, as US ambassador to the UN. Bolton is an accomplished international lawyer who was able to spot every legal opportunity to stymie the international transportation of weapons of mass destruction, missiles and related technology. His greatest accomplishment was the conclusion of bilateral treaties with Liberia and Panama which opened the world’s two largest shipping registries to search and seizure by US authorities on the high seas. The PSI is now made up of 15 core countries, including Russia, Japan, France, Germany and Britain; sixty other states have agreed to co-operate on an ad hoc basis.

The PSI is an example of à la carte multilateralism whereby the United States selects and then dominates a ‘coalition of the willing’. Yet it is better than the likely alternatives – the US navy unilaterally and illegally interdicting vessels on the high seas, or unabated global traffic in nuclear fuels and technology – and this explains the widespread support it has attracted.

The Bush administration’s approach to the NPT, however, should be condemned. At the last NPT conference, in 2000, the five original nuclear weapon states made an ‘unequivocal commitment’ to take 13 steps which would result, it was hoped, in a nuclear-free world. The Bush administration has repeatedly backed away from that commitment. It has opposed a verifiable fissile material cut-off treaty, failed to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, renounced the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, initiated ballistic missile defence and sought Congressional funding for a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons. It also plans to put weapons systems in space. The US delegation in New York will push for new measures to enforce the obligations of non-nuclear weapon states, including strengthening export controls and stipulating that nuclear assistance should not be provided to any non-nuclear weapon state that has been deemed to violate the NPT. This proposal is directed at an agreement between Russia and Iran, concluded earlier this year, according to which fuel rods supplied to a Russian-built nuclear power plant in Iran will be returned to Russia once spent.

The excuse for the shift in US policy is, as always, 9/11. ‘We think the international situation with regard to non-proliferation has changed so radically that the review conference should not be looking backward at the past final document,’ one unnamed US official has been quoted as saying. This position, squarely opposed by many developing countries, means that even an agenda for the conference has yet to be agreed. The NPT could unravel: the latest – and by far the most important – international legal instrument to fall victim to Bush’s extreme agenda.

The British government is caught in the middle. It participates in the EU effort to negotiate a solution with Iran. Yet Britain still has Trident submarines and will probably soon decide to replace them with a new generation of nuclear-armed subs. Blair has embraced the Bush doctrine of preventive war; the secretary of state for defence, Geoff Hoon, has repeatedly hinted that Britain might use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack; and the government is allowing US radar and satellite facilities in Yorkshire to be upgraded so that they can be used for ballistic missile defence. Surreptitious discussions are said to have already taken place over the installation of ‘son of Star Wars’ missile interceptors in Britain, with an announcement due after the election, and around a hundred nuclear weapons remain at the US-operated airbase at Lakenheath.

Instead of helping the US to undermine the NPT, Britain should support the New Agenda Coalition, a group that includes Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Slovenia, South Africa and Sweden. These countries aim to persuade the nuclear weapon states to move decisively towards disarmament. Britain should undertake to relinquish its nuclear arsenal, which serves no present purpose. If Labour wins the election, Blair could then help to implement ElBaradei’s proposal to establish an international depository for nuclear fuel. According to this plan, the world’s supply of enriched uranium would be kept under multilateral control and made available as needed for energy production. The choice, as always for Blair, is between trying to achieve peace and security through multilateralism, and joining in the Bush administration’s unilateral pursuit of security through force.

‘One cannot worship at the altar of nuclear weapons and raise heresy charges against those who want to join the sect,’ Brazil’s representative at a preparatory meeting for the NPT conference warned. From one perspective, there is logic in nuclear proliferation. There are always mice that feel the need to roar.

21 April

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