Michael KreponNightmare Scenarios for the NPT

Any conference that requires consensus, with almost two hundred potential vetoes, has two most-likely outcomes: a lowest common denominator success or an ugly mess. The 2005 NPT Review Conference was an ugly mess. The 2010 Rev Con was a lowest common denominator success. It still had its regrettable aspects — some of which were highlighted by President Obama and other USG officials, others by NGO watchdogs. A third potential outcome — the possibility that friends of the Treaty might agree on higher standards by jettisoning the consensus rule – seems too hard or too risky. Key non-nuclear-weapon states will insist on higher standards for disarmament, while key NWS will insist on higher standards for nonproliferation. Since it is hard for both camps to agree on all points, a “friends of the Treaty” third way could produce two separate action plans, which would clarify differences rather than unifying themes. At least the lowest common denominator outcome this time around did not entail back-peddling from either camp. One reason why the 2005 Rev Con was such a ugly mess was that some nuclear weapon states, led by the Bush administration, insisted on lower-than-previously-agreed standards for disarmament.

Treaty guardians have bought a few more years of time, but new challenges lie ahead, one of which is a conference of Middle Eastern states to promote a NWFZ, as championed by Egypt. Convening a conference on this subject without the proper ground work is akin to complaining that NWS are slow-balling disarmament, requiring a timetable to speed up the process. In both cases, unforgiving political conditions are not improved by setting dates and convening conferences.

The 2015 Rev Con is shaping up at this early date to be very challenging. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu excels at handing Hamas the victim card and fraying what few ties Israel has in the Muslim world. A NWFZ conference that places a bullseye on Israel’s back while soft-soaping Iran’s nuclear program could become a harbinger of the NPT’s demise. If, at the same time, the CTBT remains in limbo, and Iran continues to flaunt its disregard for the UN Security Council and the IAEA Board of Governors, the NPT’s 2015 Rev Con will likely be an ugly mess.

What other actions could badly weaken the NPT? Here are my top five choices. If you have other candidates, speak up.

1. Another battlefield use of nuclear weapons.

2. The resumption of nuclear weapon testing with cascade effects.

3. The resumption of nuclear testing by India, without cascade effects other than Pakistan. The NSG would take a huge hit after granting India a pass on nuclear commerce.

4. Israel seeks an NSG waiver, and secures U.S. support.

5. US relations with Russia and/or China deteriorate badly.


  1. anon

    #6. “sending a small nuclear bomb down the leaking well is “probably the only thing we can do” to stop the leak.” -prominent energy expert

  2. FSB

    There appears to be an unmentioned assumption that the NPT is working and that it is a good thing to be a “Friend of the NPT”.

    Any causal evidence that the non-proliferation that has occurred has occurred because of the NPT, or that — more or less — we would have roughly the same number of states with nukes even in the absence of the NPT?

    Seems like the states that really wanted nukes made them, and the ones who did not (or changed their minds) did not, whether or not NPT was in effect.

    As a Martian, why would I believe the NPT is responsible for the limited proliferation that has occurred on earth, and not some other reason?

  3. hass (History)

    Actually, it was Iran that first proposed the creation of a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Mideast, and Iran (including Ahmadinejhad) have consistently endorsed that. Furthermore, demanding that Iran (and other developing countries) give up enrichment — a right recognized by the NPT — is another reason why the NWS states are failing to live up their end of the NPT deal.

  4. Gelfant

    The US Atomic Energy Commission stated (Chairman Seaborg stated) for the record in a Senate hearing in 1968 on the NPT that:

    “Among those non-nuclear-weapon countries whose industrial economies are probably adequate to support a program for the manufacture of reasonably sophisticated nuclear weapons and systems for their delivery, within five to ten years from a national decision to do so, are those such as Australia, Canada, the Federal Republic of Germany, India, Italy, Japan and Sweden. Those states whose resources are somewhat more limited, and might therefore take somewhat longer to reach that level of numbers or types of weapons systems, could include Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Israel, Netherlands, Pakistan, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, United Arab Republic, and Yugoslavia.”

    Other than a country or two missing due to changes in name, and one in particular left out of the list in the Middle East now pursuing a program in the Middle East, it is not clear that NPT implementation prevented any state that had the capability and made the decision to pursue a weapon from getting one. But, in the words of Dean Rusk, in the same hearing, paraphrasing, the only thing separating a weapon state from a non-weapon state is a decision. More importantly, he did say

    “Nuclear weapons in the hands of more countries could have consequences for world security which no one can foresee” [note the list above]. He continued, “Every additional country having nuclear weapons, no matter how responsibly governed, is an additional center of independent decision-making on the use of nuclear weapons.”

    Thus, it is overwhelmingly the case today, as it was in 1968, that, particularly for the weapon states, the NPT is in their interest. While the list of NWS and NNWS and potential NWS may have slightly modified since then, the assurance of nonproliferation contained in the NPT has, without doubt, given an extra measure of pause to many states contemplating the nuclear option, and in cases like South Africa, or indeed South American states, helped in providing a standard of compliance and verification that extends the benefits of nonproliferation as an added measure of security assurance to states who look at their neighbors with doubt.

    As a Martian, I am impressed that you apply human reasoning like causality to the spread of nuclear weapons here, on this planet. Looking at Mars from this planet, I am glad we do, too.

    While the number of states may have been relatively stable, the USE of nuclear weapons has been greatly prevented thanks to the NPT, as well, meaning that we would not have to inhabit a planet that more closely resembles Mars, as well.

  5. FSB

    Earthling logic fascinates me. Please explain how the use of nuclear weapons has been affected by the NPT, as opposed to by the inherent nuclear taboo?

    I agree that the NPT has been great from the perspective of the nuclear weapons states (e.g. it is crystal clear from MK’s post) as well as from the point of view of non-NPT members who have been illicitly taken under the wing of NWS: India (US), Pakistan (China), Israel (US).

    Given the treatment of Iran (as compared to that given India, Pakistan and Israel), it makes no sense whatsoever for a developing nation to sign on NPT or NPT-like treaties in the future.

    That is the lesson learned, from a Martian perspective.

  6. Gelfant

    Every additional country having nuclear weapons, no matter how responsibly governed, or irresponsibly governed, is an additional center of independent decision-making on the use of nuclear weapons, thus each additional country with a weapon increases the probability of one being used, and providing no basis for a positive decision to acquire a weapon, as does the NPT, lessens the probability of them being used—the opposite would be true, even on Mars.

  7. Sam

    FSB –

    You seem to be making different contentions in your comments. One is that the NPT has no effect on the use of nuclear weapons (2nd comment); the other is that the NPT has no effect on the acquisition of nuclear weapons. On the relationship between the NPT and the use of nukes, you may be correct. But the NPT raises the costs of acquiring nukes by increasing transparency and creating political issues (eg increased isolation, sanctions, etc) for countries within the treaty who seek weapons. You may be correct that all of the states who really wanted nukes got them. But if some of the dogs that didn’t bark were convinced not to by the NPT, alliances, or other political contrivances, we are almost certainly better off for it.

  8. FSB

    yes I am wondering how we can ascertain information about the dogs that did not bark due to the NPT.

    Gelfant — I agree that each additional country is a unique decision center, but my point is that I do not know that it was the NPT that dissuaded anyone. In some way it is difficult to be sure, but what strong argument is there that a country said that because of the NPT they would not make nukes? I think a stronger argument is because of extended deterrence, and even that is hard to prove. I think it is simply expensive and too much trouble for most nations to bother and they know no one will really use the nukes in anger after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (nuclear taboo).

    I am not sure all the energy being poured into the NPT process is all that worthwhile.

  9. Binyamin

    You left one item out of the list: Israel launches a conventional attack on Iran’s nuclear complex. After the Gaza flotilla, is there much doubt as to what Bibi is going to do?

  10. hass (History)

    The NPT was never intended to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons “capability”. In fact, quite the opposite: the NPT was meant to make nuclear technology MORE accessible. Since that inherently includes the “capability” to make nukes, then all the hand-wringing about countries acquiring the capability of nuclear weapons becomes transparent for what it is: concern by the NWS that the NPT cannot continue to guarantee their monopoly on nuclear weapons power, and nothing more.

  11. Gelfant

    Indeed, the NPT is expressly and legally about what is permitted, not what is prohibited, hass. Oddly though, it quite clearly does not say that a weapons capability is permitted. Enrichment and reprocessing are not exclusively peaceful, as you apparently agree, so why are they needed to enjoy peaceful uses of the atom?

  12. John Bragg (History)

    Umm, shouldn’t an Iranian nuclear test or declaration be on the list?

  13. Andrew

    John, see #2.

  14. masoud (History)

    “Enrichment and reprocessing are not exclusively peacefu, as you apparently agree…”

    Neither is the production steel or cement, or even instruction in grade 12 mathematics. Are the second class parties to the NPT obliged to seek P5 approval in carrying out these activities as well?


  15. masoud (History)

    Michael Krepon:
    “A NWFZ conference that places a bullseye on Israel’s back while soft-soaping Iran’s nuclear program could become a harbinger of the NPT’s demise.”

    I disagree with this assessment. How would such a scenario bring about the NPT’s demise? Would there say, be massive defections from the NPT? The NPT review conference final satement, which was agreed to by over 180 different nations, by consensus no less, does in fact “soft soap” Iran’s nuclear program while demanding Israel dismantle it’s nuclear arsenal, so I think the will of the international community is pretty clear on this. There was not a single country in the world that was willing to veto the resolution so as to save Israel’s nuclear weapons, just as there was no country in the world that was willing to veto the resolution because it made no mention of Iran. I think it’s clear that a conference along the lines that you described would go a long way to restoring world confidence in the NPT, I would go so far as to say that such a conference is vital to the continued relevance in the NPT.

    As to your question regarding what could possibly bring down the NPT, the answer is clear: the BOG must return to the non-politicized technocratic role it played in decades past. Whereas previously, resolutions were adopted by consensus, now there is about a third of the board who either votes against the resolutions involving Iran or abstains. This is not sustainable. If the BOG cannot resume it’s former role, it’s seat allocation practices must be altered. As things currently stand the NSG group are allocated a third of the seats right off the top, after those seats have been filled, a very anachronistic regional quota system is used to determine the composition of the rest of the club. So for example while Europe is allocated 8 seats, Asia is only allocated 2. This is no longer reflective of the balance of power in the world. The actions of the BOG must be brought into line with the demands of the vast majority of NPT member states.

  16. John Schilling (History)

    It would probably be worth distinguishing between an Iranian nuclear test or brief test series, and a resumption of nuclear testing by the United States or another established nuclear power. Either would constitute a “resumption of nuclear testing”, and could lead to “cascade effects”. But the potential causes, escalation path, and countermeasures would be rather different, and I wouldn’t want to see that obscured by lumping them both in a generic “resumption of nuclear testing” category.

    Actually, I think there are four distinct categories here. In order of increasing danger (they’re all bad)

    A: resumption of testing by an established nuclear power. We should be past all that, but they are established nuclear powers and the nonproliferation regime wasn’t that badly broken by the French tests of the 1990s.

    B: first test by Iran. At this point, pretty much everyone seems resigned to this happening sooner or later, and willing to not start a war over it at least.

    C: First (open) test by Israel, possibly in response to B. Everyone is resigned to Israel having nuclear weapons as well, but with the expectation that they will be very discreet about it.

    D: First test by Syria, Turkey, Burma, Brazil, Japan, Monaco, whatever. Absent that, we can at least hope to have nuclear proliferation bounded to the Big Five and five more special cases – yet another new gatecrasher in the club would make the whole concept look pretty hopeless. And depending on the circumstances, quite easily lead to a proliferation cascade.

  17. George William Herbert (History)

    I suspect #2 was meant to cover resumption of testing by the acknowledged nuclear powers, not by a new one.

    However you account for it, I believe that an Iranian bomb test would make it extremely difficult to hold the line on several nearby countries bomb program aspirations. Some of those are directly threatened by such a prospect, some are indirectly threatened or would seek to form a counterbalancing bloc within the Muslim world.

  18. FSB

    Coming back to the subject of the post — I maintain there is no evidence that it is the NPT that stopped proliferation.

    Think about it this way: many many countries have not built aircraft carriers.

    If we had a Non-Aircraft carrier Proliferation Treaty, we could all toast ourselves that it was this Treaty that stopped aircraft carrier proliferation, but that is obviously not the case. People don’t want aircraft carriers, and they don’t want bombs.

    For many reasons.

  19. MK (History)

    Yes, Iran’s unfettred nuclear program definitely belongs on the list — it would have been better had I been explicit about this.

    John: Thanks for parsing the cascade effects of a resumption of nuclear testing. I agree that the longest cascades come from a resumption of testing by three of the P-5: The US,Russia, and China. Will Iran pull this trigger? I’m not so sure.

    My thanks to Masoud for clarifying the arguments that will be used to focus on Israel rather than Iran in the proposed conference on a NWFZ in the Middle East — a potential vipers nest.

  20. FSB

    there may be reasons that rational people choose to focus on Israel rather than Iran. The main one I can think of is that Israel ALREADY has nukes. Whereas our own DNI (booted out of his job — wonder why?) has said there is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons production program.

    Another reason I can think of is that Israel is not an NPT member and Iran is.

    It certainly becomes a vipers’ nest when one country — outside of the NPT bargain — demands nuclear hegemony over a region.

    I have no idea if Iran will make nukes, but if it does it may lead to stability in the region: eg. end of the gaza blockade and less unwarranted commando boardings at sea.

  21. masoud (History)


    My thanks for your thanks, buy do you have an answer to my question? How would a conference along the lines you describe sink the NPT?


  22. Cameron (History)


    I’m not sure that Aircraft Carriers are a good analogy, if I’m Chile and Brazil gets one, I don’t really care, it doesn’t effect me. If they get a nuclear weapon (or more realistically 10-20) then I’m at a strategic imbalance with a neighboring country. And ditto Argentina. Now I’m the only country without one in this part of S. America and have to be concerned with how that effects me strategically.

    A better example would be the sale of F-16’s to Chile and Brazil, which caused alarms about an arms race in neighboring countries.

  23. FSB

    point taken — but I meant it as an analogy and thus it cannot be perfect.

    It is obviously hard to prove, but I feel that the potential barrier to making a nuclear device is so high and so expensive that only a handful of countries have been motivated to try — and few, if any, more would have even in the absence of the NPT.

    I question that it is the NPT that has caused limited proliferation of nukes.

    (PS: MK, could you pls check your msg’s as I had a correction and another 2 posts that are missing…)

  24. John Schilling (History)

    Just a clarification – my list of “resumption of testing” cases was ordered by level of danger, not as a probable chronology. Major-power testing is at the beginning of the list not because I feel it likely to happen soon, but because I consider it relatively harmless (compared to the rest of the list).

  25. bradley laing (History)

    To: George William Herbert

    If Iran were to test a nuclear weapon, why would the reaction be nuclear proliferation, rather than conventional weapons proliferation? From the viewpoint of an arms salesman, what could you sell in the region, after an Iranian test, that you cannot sell now? (Should that include chemical weapons or biological weapons technologies, as well as conventional weapons?)

  26. Andy (History)


    I do think we need to be careful about attributing cause and effect. Whatever you think the effects of the NPT, have been, however, I think it’s clear the NPT raises the costs of any future decision to pursue nuclear weapons and therefore is still useful.

  27. John Schilling (History)

    Libya, to me, looks like a pretty clear success for the NPT and associated regulatory regime. Possibly a unique case, with Qaddafi’s nuclear intentions being substantial but mercurial – hence most of Libya’s nuclear infrastructure placed under NPT safeguards when Qaddafi was in a good mood, and insufficient support for a parallel, covert program. With an unsafeguarded nuclear infrastructure to work from, it would have been much easier for Libya to have managed a breakout during a period when Qaddafi was in a nuclear-grade bad mood.

    A Libyan bomb might have started a Middle East nuclear arms race a few decades earlier. There might be other, similar cases in the annals of nuclear history. Or maybe the NPT only gets the one win to its credit, but I will credit it with at least that one win.

  28. FSB

    the NPT does not raise the costs to getting a nuclear weapons capability. That is exactly its flaw. The costs eg. as extracted from Iran are extra-legal and a function of political maneuverings in the UNSC and have their genesis in domestic lobbies.

    NK was able to make nukes and get out of the NPT.

    Whoever really wants nukes will get them.

    Yes you can try to impose costs via UNSC but you can do that without the NPT also. In fact, NPT proliferates nuclear weapons-capable dual use technology.

    The basic reason not a huge amount of nuclear weapons proliferation has occurred is that most nations cannot afford nukes and don’t need them.

    There is no evidence that NPT has stopped anyone who really wants nukes from getting them. It is fantasy of the wasteful think-tank/UN/diplomatic/arms-control complex.

  29. FSB

    Fair enough — yes, perhaps, a Libyan bomb may have been possible: not sure the NPT alone scotched it though. I think Gaddafi changed his mercurial mind.

    I don’t put much stock in the “Arms race in the middle east” nightmare, and I don’t credit the NPT from stopping it in any case, even under the hypothetical Libyan bomb. Most likely most other ME nations would have welcomed another Islamic bomb (besides Pakistan’s that is). They are not too threatened by each other’s programs, US propaganda notwithstanding — eg. check articles in the Kuwait Times.

  30. Andy (History)


    A nation’s desire to acquire nukes isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Statements such as “whoever really wants nukes will get them” are simplistic to the point of uselessness because they fail to consider that such decisions are made on the basis of perceived costs vs benefits. I really want a Buggati Veyron, does that mean I am certain to get one? No, even if I have the means to somehow acquire one (which, unfortunately, I don’t).

    Whatever one thinks of the NPT, it does increase the cost side of the cost/benefit calculation both a politically and technically. A NNWS under the NPT must either withdrawal or pursue a clandestine program. Either option carries significant risks (ie. costs) to the state which does provide a deterrent.

    Of course, the NPT isn’t the only deterrent against acquisition of nuclear weapons, but unless you have access to a state’s internal decision-making process, you can’t know for certain why any particular country decided not to pursue them. Was it a fear of getting caught? Was it the expense? What it fear of international opprobrium? Some combination of all three and, if so, how big a factor was each? There’s no evidence at all and even in a case like Libya the reasons are still subject to significant uncertainty. Which brings me to:

    There is no evidence that NPT has stopped anyone who really wants nukes from getting them.

    That is a speculative and logical fallacy. One generally isn’t going to find much evidence supporting a non-event. For example, I will state right here that I have not cheated on my wife. Why haven’t I had an affair – what “stopped” me? Some person on a blog might claim that there is no evidence that fear of getting caught “stopped” me from pursuing an affair, but how would they know?

    So yes, there’s no evidence the NPT “stopped” anyone from building nuclear weapons but then there’s also no evidence that anything else “stopped” them either.

    In the end I think it’s more useful and accurate to say that the NPT makes acquisition of nuclear weapons harder which, to me, is sufficient justification for its existence.

  31. FSB


    1. my contention is that most nations do not need nor want nor can afford nuclear weapons anyway, so one does not need to invoke the NPT — or anything else — for the non-event. You cannot say the NPT has been responsible for tamping down proliferation, if there was not a huge demand for proliferation to begin with.

    2. The NPT is a voluntary treaty — if nations really want to have nukes they have (had) the option of opting out.

    3. The NPT does impose costs on signatory nations to take the final step of weaponization, but the NPT makes it much easier for signatory nations to gain valuable help in knowledge and machinery to obtain a nuclear weapons capability.

    In fact, Article IV obliges NWS to help NNWS with knowledge and machinery on their —the NNWS’s — soil:

    Article IV: 1. Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.

    2. All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Parties to the Treaty in a position to do so shall also co-operate in contributing alone or together with other States or international organizations to the further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty, with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.

    4. That you really believe the NPT imposes costs on weaponization is more function of its wrong implementation and misuse (e.g. Iran) than the original bargain: the NPT proliferates dual-use nuclear weapons’ technology to signatory nations, right to the red-line of a nuclear weapons’ capability.

    5. If any nation really wants nuclear weapons, it can get them by a. not signing the NPT b. trying really hard (North Korea). Even Pakistan a 3rd world nation was able to get them by (according to its then President) even if it meant “eating grass”.

    6. That you want a Buggati Veyron but cannot get it means you don’t want it badly enough — if you did you would find a way, like Pakistan and North Korea.

    7. The NPT bargain can be summarized as: “We the NWS swear we will reduce our nukes, and promise to help you with nuclear technology and knowledge — almost to the red-line of a nuclear weapons capability — if you promise you won’t actually make weapons, and promise you will use the technology for peaceful purposes.” The NPT proliferates dual-use nuclear knowledge and technology.

    8. That most nations don’t have nukes is not due to the NPT, but due to their not wanting them (that is why they signed the NPT) — as is the case with aircraft carriers.

  32. kme

    FSB, you are severely overegging this omelette.

    Of course most nations do not want nukes. Absent any other considerations, this is self-evident – they are expensive and dangerous. This is why even the US and Russia are signing treaties to get rid of some of them.

    However, such decisions are not made in a vacuum. For most countries, if their strategic competitors acquire nukes then that would tip the balance toward them aquiring their own.

    This is the key mechanism by which the NPT damps down proliferation. It gives most of its members some assurance that its strategic competition is not developing nukes, which in turn allows them to put off developing their own. This is a mutually reinforcing state of affairs.

    There is indirect evidence of this: All instances of past proliferation and current proliferation concern are in cases where the state developing nuclear weapons were worried by other states that already had nuclear weapons. (The singular exception to this may be Israel. South Africa, for example, was clearly worried by the USSR in the nuclear context).

    No state seems to have developed nuclear weapons when their external threats were all NNWS under the NPT.

  33. John Schilling (History)

    South Africa’s bombs were pretty clearly intended to deal with conventional attack by SA’s immediate neighbors; the scale of the program and the associated delivery systems were quite inadequate for deterring direct Soviet nuclear attack. And conventional attack by the neighbors was a real threat, whereas Red ICBMs striking Johannesburg was not.

    The same is probably true of the early Israeli program. And the US and British nuclear programs were started when neither had any nuclear-armed enemies. So it isn’t just other states with nuclear weapons that drive proliferation, but other states with large and powerful powerful conventional armies.

    This may be relevant w/re, say, Burma.

  34. lucklucky (History)

    “Libya, to me, looks like a pretty clear success for the NPT and associated regulatory regime.”

    The italians say he was afraid of Bush…

  35. JAWAD (History)

    I think biggest hit would come from India if they resume Nuclear weapons testing to make sure their new generation Nuclear Weapons with High yield do work (Remember they have been given a preferential treatment by the USA to allow them to be part of Nuclear commerce when they haven’t signed the NPT) and this will be followed by the Pakistani Nuclear tests.

    India wants to play a big role in the region and need to compensate the big and powerful Chinese nuclear arsenal. They have already taken many steps in this regard by launching a SSBN nuclear armed submarine, SBLM etc therefore a nuclear tests in next decade shouldn’t be a big surprise for the world.

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