Mark HibbsThe NPT, the NSG, and the AAAS

Steve Miller is a friend, a colleague, and an authority on the Sangiovese grape in central Tuscany and on the chunky red wines of the Piemonte. He also happens to be a tenured professor at Harvard who has just published this essay for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Read it, please, for a thoughtful tour d’horizon of where things stand right now with the NPT and the nonproliferation regime.

You might have to read it twice to truly appreciate it. My first reading of this work annoyed me. A second reading revealed why: I had concluded that Steve had throughout used interchangeably the terms “NPT regime” and “nonproliferation regime” to refer to his chosen subject in shorthand. Maybe I concluded that because Steve was focused on the grievances which are being articulated by the Non-Aligned Movement, the Arab League, and others who champion the principles of non-discrimination and NPT universality. But the terms “NPT regime” and “nonproliferation regime” since India’s 1974 test have never been equivalent, as the history of multilateral nuclear trade controls clearly illustrates. I am, however, anticipating.

My initial reading of Steve’s piece also vexed me because it seemed to suggest that right now we are dealing with a dramatic new development that threatens to kill the NPT or, if you insist, the “nonproliferation regime.” A few of the critics cited in the paper are known to use hyperbolic language at times to describe this state of affairs.

Steve begins by outlining differing conceptions of what the NPT is and is supposed to do, depending on which of the shop-worn “three pillars” of the treaty should be most important. (In fact, as ACW readers know, it really isn’t clear where the “pillars” idea came from in the first place).  And the essay goes on to describe the tussles among states and coalitions, including about whose interests the NPT serves. Steve then presents accounts of some of shocks to the system since the mid-1990s: North Korea, Iran, and the U.S.-India deal. He adds to the mix debates over Israel’s nuclear weapons, extended deterrence, Article IV rights, the Article X “loophole,” NSG restrictions, and the Additional Protocol. That’s the first 36 pages of a 41-page paper and when you get to page 36 it all looks pretty hopeless.

But at that point, Steve tries hard to square this circle in the last five pages, by telling us that in fact the situation is not all that bleak and that if NAM states, “bridge” countries in the New Agenda Coalition, and the nuclear weapon states know what is good for them, they may turn out to be more flexible than his first 36 pages might prompt us to conclude.

I would certainly agree that the present time is one of grave dangers, but I would argue that the issues being debated now and in Steve’s paper aren’t really fundamentally different than they were when the NPT entered into force in 1970 and at any time thereafter.

Nuclear Trade Lessons

Take the case of nuclear trade, a subject about which the paper says quite a bit.

NPT Article III.2 called for safeguards and export controls to be used to make the NPT credible. After EIF, the Zangger Committee was set up to define what was meant by the words “especially designed or prepared” — the yardstick included in Article III.2 to “trigger” safeguards on nuclear equipment.

A couple years later, however, in 1974, India tested a nuclear device using a reactor and heavy water provided by the U.S. and Canada under peaceful-use assurances. Two things then happened: First, a group of states–which included some that were outside the NPT but had nuclear weapons and nuclear capabilities–convened to tighten export controls beyond what Article III.2 called for. They did this because in the shadow of the Indian test they were convinced that the NPT alone would not suffice to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. That view turned out to be correct.

Second, following upon the first development almost immediately, there were protests in the developing world that a “cartel” of suppliers were setting up a “club” to depart from the NPT and discriminate against the rest. Sounds familiar? That argument didn’t begin with Iran.

When the newly-formed NSG published Infcirc/254, that meant that the NPT was no longer the exclusive reference for nonproliferation. That happened 34 years ago. It has been that way ever since. Steve’s list of shocks to the system begins with North Korea, which was caught cheating in 1993. He could have included Iraq, an NPT state which 2 years earlier was found to have a massive nuclear weapons development program undetected by the IAEA. That finding led to the first meeting of the NSG since 1978 and a piling on of new trade controls. The bottom line is that since 1974 the regime, in the view of developing countries, lurched into export control overdrive whenever a severe nonproliferation failure happened: first India–then Pakistan/Urenco–then Iraq–then North Korea–then A.Q.Khan–then Iran. Over three decades the NPT was abrogated from within more than once. It didn’t happen because the countries that cheated were being deprived of their Article IV rights.

Steve describes the conflicts in the nonproliferation regime–near-universal adherence punctuated by crises–as “schizophrenic” but that may be just a high-falutin’ way of saying that the regime isn’t perfect. Eh bien! Or as Annie Hall kept saying in that movie: Lah-dee-dah. Every step of the way there have been compromises.

I think Steve is on to something important where he says near the close of the paper that states’ “interests” should be considered over their “rights.” To return to the nuclear trade area, the NSG may have learned that lesson (there are NSG participants who will tell you privately that until George W. Bush announced he wanted to halt ENR transfers to have-nots, the issue was non-controversial) and hopefully the NSG will apply it in its outreach activities to that group of countries who will emerge as candidates for membership (um… “participation”–the NSG’s politically correct term), as some nuclear trade experts urged during my preparation of this report last year on the future of the NSG.

It, and a workshop I held for NSG participating governments six months before, drilled into a matter which the NSG is going to have to come to grips with if it is to remain credible: membership enlargement. If nuclear trade and demand for nuclear power increases in coming years, if new customs unions are formed, that will mean more NAM states in the group.

I am intrigued by Steve’s suggestion that increasing the number of members beyond today’s 46 will lead to success,  not paralysis. (“[A]s the NSG becomes more inclusive, it may be easier to accommodate the supplier-recipient dialogue that many feel may detoxify the Article IV dispute.”). That certainly is not how a lot of the players in the trenches see it. Some pretty senior people will tell you privately that, in their view, the negotiation completed in 2011 on guidelines for ENR marks the end of the NSG as a trade rule-making arrangement. Why? In 1975 eight countries came up with a complete set of guidelines in just 18  months. Changing the language in just two paragraphs on ENR took seven years.


  1. kme (History)

    Surely there are other important metrics for success beyond the time taken to negotiate the rules. Language that took seven years to negotiate but nonetheless is widely respected, acquiesced to and followed is surely preferable to quicker rule changes that are not.

    • mark (History)

      Under the consensus rule which governs NSG decision making, “quicker rule changes” are not an option. So on ENR, the only option to the seven-year negotiation was no new agreement. If there is another major nonproliferation failure prompting NSG PGs to try to revise the guidelines to adapt or respond to it, how effectively will the NSG respond? That’s one question I raised in my NSG report, and Steve’s suggestion in the AAAS paper that enlargement will be beneficial should be discussed and considered especially as it may not be widely shared by NSG pracititioners.

  2. Amy (History)

    Dan Joyner and others have also been saying similar things. See the review of his latest book “Interpreting the NPT, in the Nonproliferation Review and also:

    The NPT was a voluntary treaty and prob. makes sense to listen to 118 nations that are party to it [NAM] when they express concern. The NPT was not brought from on high to steal the sovereignty of developing nations.

    How about getting to disarmament and ratifying the CTBT “at an early date”?

    • Amy (History)

      This article by Prof. Walt is also useful:

      The main problem with nonproliferation efforts these days is the high degree of politicization in pursuing those countries viewed as unfriendly, and letting others off the hook. e.g. Pakistan was basically allowed to get a nuclear device by the US — and no one bats an eye at Brasil.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      What Brazil has, Japan and Germany and Canada ( mostly ) have. More so for Japan. Where’s your outrage at the naescent Japanese weapons program?

    • Amy (History)

      GWH — my argument was the exact converse: Brazil is not doing anything illegal. Neither is Japan or Iran.

      Political forces have been arrayed against Iran:

      and they are tainting the IAEA and destroying the NPT

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Amy –

      Do you honestly believe that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, under the cover of a purported civilian nuclear program?

      Honestly? Really?

    • Amy (History)

      GWH — Do you honestly believe the DNI is a liar? Really?

      Iran HAD a nuclear weapons RESEARCH program pre-2004.

      What evidence do you have that overrules the DNI?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Amy writes:

      GWH — Do you honestly believe the DNI is a liar? Really? Iran HAD a nuclear weapons RESEARCH program pre-2004. What evidence do you have that overrules the DNI?

      The R265 nuclear generator which IAEA has now revealed it got information on, developed before 2004, tested before 2004, is a credible uranium implosion nuclear weapon system when mated with a HEU core. That design and test establish that Iran really did not need to continue active development (though I suspect that they did, dispersing the details) of most of the design; they had it. All they need to complete it is implosion performance modeling including material equation of state and the like (check, admitted in other IAEA documentation, although claimed not to be nuclear weapon related) and a sufficient HEU supply (which they’ve already produced the feedstock for, though the safeguarded material is so far not proceeding back into a topping cycle to WG enrichment levels).

      They stopped because they successfully tested the only component they had to test prior to an all-up actual nuclear detonation. That plus a material production/enrichment program is teetering on the “threshold” definition so lightly that a feather could push it over into a nuclear weapons state.

    • Amy (History)

      GWH — you didn’t answer the question.

      You re-hash pre-2004 decade old stories.

      Iran had a nuclear weapons RESEARCH program before 2004.

      Not only is there no evidence for a nuclear weapons program NOW, but the DNI has “high confidence” it does not exist.


      Incidentally, Robert Kelley thinks there are plenty of other legitimate uses for the triggers.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Once one achieves a technically demonstrated capability, a tested design and the equipment to be able to manufacture it, one does not need to continue “research”. The design can go on the shelf for later use. The apparent lack of ongoing research on that design is semantics; Iran has – by significant evidence and with tacit acknowledgement of the test by their scientists – demonstrated a nuclear weapon implosion system. That, plus fissile material of weapons grade, plus a few other minor doo-dads (reflector, neutron generator, a fuze, and a weaponized EBW firing system) equals a nuclear weapon, in this case compatible with both airdrop and a IRBM delivery system they have fielded.

      The only part of all that they haven’t had for 8+ years now is the fissile material in weapons grade enrichment levels and sufficient quantity, which they have sufficient quantity of now but have evidently (and safeguards-monitored) not enriched to weapons-grade.

      Once R265 was described in depth and they admitted testing something at least like it, and Danilenko admitted helping design something like it, the design problem is essentially solved.

      This is not failing to answer the question. This is the point. If the total R265 data package is indeed a fabrication – which I have no inside knowledge on or good way to evaluate – then Iran’s been expertly framed. If it’s not a fabrication then Iran reached the nuclear weapons state threshold in 2004 limited only by fissile material availability, and barring a desire to miniaturize or develop thermonuclear weapons would not need a further ongoing research program.

      Do you believe R265 was a frame job, or that it was a real program / design they did?

    • Amy (History)

      Mr. Herbert,
      I referred you to Robert Kelley’s assessment — have a look:

      Yes, Iran has a nuclear weapons CAPABILITY — nothing illegal about that. The NPT allows that: Japan, Brasil also have it.

      The IAEA report from Nov says Iran’s nuclear weapons program stopped ABRUPTLY in 2003.

      The continuing drama is a witch-hunt.

    • Anon (History)

      The EBW hype is just that — hype.

      From a politicized IAEA.

      There are plenty of non-weapons uses for EBWs.


      “Among several technical points, Kelley notes the report’s discussion of Iran’s “exploding bridge-wire detonators,” or EBWs. The IAEA report said it recognizes that “there exist non-nuclear applications, albeit few,” and point to a likely weapons connection for Iran.

      “The Agency is wrong. There are lots of applications for EBWs,” says Kelley. “To be wrong on this point, and then to try to misdirect opinion shows a bias towards their desired outcome…. That is unprofessional.””

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Amy writes:

      Mr. Herbert,
      I referred you to Robert Kelley’s assessment — have a look:
      Yes, Iran has a nuclear weapons CAPABILITY — nothing illegal about that. The NPT allows that: Japan, Brasil also have it.
      The IAEA report from Nov says Iran’s nuclear weapons program stopped ABRUPTLY in 2003.
      The continuing drama is a witch-hunt.

      No. Japan, Germany, Brasil (and others) have a capacity for making nuclear weapons, in the sense of having all the technology understanding, but not having taken any specific weaponization efforts.

      Iran has a capability – it has undertaken weaponization efforts, and developed (or it is at least credibly alleged, and not being refuted here) what by all accounts seems to be a perfectly functional implosion system, which it test fired on full scale, and a fully functional enrichment program, and enough input material to enrich to weapons grade for multiple weapons.

      An actual nuclear weapon is a capability plus an intention to build one. Iran is one intention (which arguably may not be there now, though assuming not without considering otherwise is unsafe) and a few months of “topping cycle” enrichment away from an actual weapon.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Anon writes:

      The EBW hype is just that — hype.

      EBWs are a safety plus in some detonator usage that’s non-weapons. Iran’s not doing much of that type of industrial activity.

      The specifics that they developed, including test firings of large sea-of-detonator EBW arrays to observe the smoothness of the resultant detonation front coming out of an explosives block, developing large many-EBW firing sets, and finally the R265 system and its apparently two-point plus distribution network approach, have few if any non-nuclear-weapons applications.

      It’s not “EBW”, it’s “EBW plus wave shaping explosives engineering and associated stuff” which points unambiguously towards implosion systems. You just don’t need it for non-implosion systems, and the “implosions for detonation microdiamonds” cover story is as flimsy as toilet paper.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Partial technical rebuttal to Robert Kelly –

      There is one obvious reason to fire a test charge inside a container of some sort. The obvious reason is what he gives for the nanodiamond cover story – wanting to capture the explosion’s results.

      For a nanodiamond program, one needs to capture the product. The 70 kg charge size and the chamber size and the process efficiency seem unlikely for that, though.

      The alternate theory – that it contained a nuclear system implosion test – would be harmless to have inspectors come by far afterwards, if you removed all the detonation wave quality detection gear. Unless, of course, there was something about the test that you couldn’t clean up adequately. Like, traces of unambiguous neutron reflector and surrogate fissile material (natural or depleted U) remaining in the test chamber, which there might be no way to completely sanitize without cutting the chamber up and recycling it completely.

      That also explains why one would use a chamber, to avoid spreading the materials all around (where anyone could later come pick up a sample and detect it).

      The reluctance to allow IAEA to take a look is therefore a worse signal than it appears at first.

      It could just be objecting out of objecting’s sake, but remember that Syria objected to the IAEA inspecting their reactor site after the Israeli bombing to try and clean it up, and when IAEA got there they eventually found Uranium traces in the soil anyways. Iran’s likely learned that lesson. Chamber + U = all-up implosion system / core test. Chamber cut up and removed suddenly = coverup thereof.

      It’s not confidence building. One cannot rule out innocent explanations, but it’s not a good sign.

    • Anon (History)

      As Robert Kelley said these EBW detonators are used in cutting oil pipelines. And other peaceful uses. Iran has oil.

      As Mr. Herbert admits “One cannot rule out innocent explanations”

      Anyway old hat — a decade ago.

      Iran does not have to male Mr. Herbert or the IAEA comfortable, or allay all their politically motivated concerns it only has to abide by its CSA. Which it is doing.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Anon writes:

      As Robert Kelley said these EBW detonators are used in cutting oil pipelines. And other peaceful uses. Iran has oil.
      As Mr. Herbert admits “One cannot rule out innocent explanations”

      Not cutting oil pipelines. Shaped charges are used to perforate casings and the surrounding rock, allowing oil to flow into the well string from more than just the endpoint.

      EBWs are sometimes used for this, but not exclusively. Other detonators work just fine for most applications, though the highest-temperature applications tend towards EBW and EFI as one can use non-primary explosive boosters in the detonator.

      One cannot rule out innocent explanations for parts of this, including the bare presence of EBW technology. For the implosion wave shaping, it’s extremely hard, even given that Danilenko worked on detonation nanodiamonds.

      Anyway old hat — a decade ago.
      Iran does not have to male Mr. Herbert or the IAEA comfortable, or allay all their politically motivated concerns it only has to abide by its CSA. Which it is doing.

      Iran has to convince Israel and the US (and others) that it’s not actually working on a nuclear weapon, or unfortunate things will happen. They are not taking any steps to do so.

      Additionally, the NPT established a standard that went somewhat beyond “Don’t do it” into “Help establish credibility that you aren’t hiding anything”. Particularly so with the now-nearly-unanimous additional protocol. The other states that obstruct that underlying “establish credibility” all had some nuclear weapons program to hide (current or past).

      Legalistic “Oh, but the treaty only requires X” interpretations are geopolitical toilet paper. That’s not why treaties get signed. Such interpretations generate wars. If they generate avoidable wars (such as Iraq 2003) then more the pity.

    • anon (History)

      A few comments on this thread:

      The DNI does not have “high confidence” that Iran has not restarted its nuclear weapons development efforts. the 2007 NIE expressed “high confidence” that (1) Iran had such a program until 2003 and (2) that Iran made a decision in 2003 to stop the program, but as of 2007 it had only “moderate confidence” that the program had not restarted. More recent characterizations (particularly the IAEA report) indicate that some of the activities may have continued or resumed.

      It is possible to find non-nuclear explanations for several individual elements of the program the IAEA described. But if they really were, as the IAEA reports, part of a coherent program (until 2003), there is no other plausible explanation than a nuclear weapons program. Calling this a “research” program is disingenuous. This was an effort to design, develop and test the non-fissile components of an implosion-based fission device.

      Regarding EBW, Iran has claimed a non-military purpose but refused to respond to the IAEA’s request for further information to substantiate that claim.

      I can’t figure out Robert Kelley. Not long ago he supported claims that Burma was pursuing a nuclear program, based on far weaker evidence that the IAEA has presented in Iran’s case. And now he is criticizing the IAEA’s analysis of Iran. I think he has hurt his credibility in both cases.

  3. Magoo (History)

    The threat to the NPT is a product of the negotiations and compromises made between the then nuclear weapon states [NWS] and their more powerful allies – especially those that were at par on the nuclear technological horizon. The “nonproliferation regime” that followed was a fire brigade actions to constrain States not party to the NPT from developing nuclear weapons potential and ensuring the non nuclear weapon states [NNWS] adhere to their commitment to the NPT. The inherent flaws in the NPT have never been corrected, instead the “nonproliferation regime” is perceived, by some, as the prophylactic to contain the consequences of those flaws. Death incurred by the original wounds can not be attributed to the life saving administrations that are attempted, or for that matters to redress the wound in semantics. The NPT may not be dead but is today a vegetable as it exists on life support systems. – Magoo

  4. Cthippo (History)

    It probably doesn’t help any that the last US administration laid out a doctrine of “if you don’t have nukes you’re subject to regime change whenever we feel like it”. That may not have been the intended message, but I’m sure that’s how it was read in many parts of the world.

    I’ve often wondered how much of the reasoning behind Obama’s winning of the Nobel was relief that the US might start acting rationally again.

  5. Nick (History)

    Sorry I have not read the whole Steve Miller article yet, will do soon and comment, but while I was glancing over it, I saw his point that was made:

    ” The Iran story is equally distressing to the Western nonproliferation community. In August 2002, it was revealed that Iran had been secretly developing
    nuclear facilities, including a uranium enrichment facility that inevitably raised weapons implications given its dual-use nature.”

    It is one thing that ill-informed reporters make this type of comments, but when highly well known experts line up with the fawning main stream media, then it really concerns me. I am not going to repeat all the issues that are wrong with the above statement, but we really need to get out of this hole and find a way to address proliferation concerns in a way that rights of non-nuclear states are protected.

    • anon (History)


      The paragraph you object to is not the view of the “fawning media.” It is the general view of the nonproliferation expert community, the people the responsible media listen to. I find it entirely unproblematic.

  6. anon (History)


    There’s a typo you may want to correct. You say: “Steve’s list of shocks to the system begins with North Korea, which was caught cheating in 1993. He could have included Iraq, an NPT state which 12 years earlier was found to have a massive nuclear weapons development program undetected by the IAEA.”

    In fact, the revelation of Iraq’s cheating occurred 2 years before the the DPRK.

    • mark (History)

      Thanks, Anon. Got it–jet lag FRA-PEK!

  7. Amy (History)
  8. Anon (History)

    @George Herbert:

    US Intel believes nuke weapons work in Iran stopped in 2003. Also, there is no way to disprove that Brazil or Argentina doesn’t have nuke weapons program. i.e. IAEA cannot say Brazil’s program is exclusively peaceful either.

    And a capability for weapons work exists in all Japan, Brazil and Argentina among others. see eg.:

  9. Nick (History)

    Aronson is day dreaming. Brazil will never give up the enrichment option. If anything, they probably want to have the option to refuel their (planned) French made nuclear subs using domestically produced 20% 235.

    See the link below:

  10. Andrea (History)

    If the NSG expanded its membership, it isn’t altogether unimportant who the new members would be (and on what basis they would be decided) in order to judge future effects on the regime.

    • mark (History)

      Andrea, yes–there can be no question. At the end of the day a small number of states which were either in the NAM or were observers in it were the hold-outs on consensus on paragraphs 6/7 of the guidelines. You know who they were, I don’t have to name them. To be fair, however, there were a number of Western states with nuclear power infrastructures–just to give two examples take Spain and Canada–which had issues on 6/7 that took a few years to resolve. But let’s suppose that the EU en bloc entry into the NSG is considered the norm–and why shouldn’t it be?–then we could have in a decade or so Qatar, Jordan, Morocco, UAE, Saudi Arabia Oman, Kuwait all in the group. All of these are NAM states. All of these are members of the Arab League and the Arab Group in Vienna. That won’t change the face of the NSG? Whoever doesn’t think it will lives on a different planet than the rest of us! Or, I might add, someone who has never been in the immediate vicinity of an IAEA board meeting.

      Postscriptum: It should also not be omitted that of the 7 years it took to reach a compromise on new text for ENR guidelines, the US may have held it up longer than any other state in the NSG, since it sought a ban (as opposed to a criteria approach) from 2004 until 2008..

  11. Anon (History)

    Mark states: “I would certainly agree that the present time is one of grave dangers, but I would argue that the issues being debated now and in Steve’s paper aren’t really fundamentally different than they were when the NPT entered into force in 1970 and at any time thereafter.”

    The debates have continued; what is different is that there is clear evidence in hand for IAEA bias and politicization for selectively pursuing nations seen to be unfriendly to the West. i.e. the worst fears that were merely debated earlier are now fact.

    That, and the fact that “at an early date” has certainly passed.

  12. rmd (History)

    Hibbs complains that “… Steve [uses] interchangeably the terms “NPT regime” and “nonproliferation regime” to refer to his chosen subject in shorthand”:

    The expression “nonproliferation regime” doesn’t appear in Miller’s own text; it does appear in the title of the paper, in other author’s text cited by Miller, and in Al-Assad’s and Minh Tuan’s responses. On the other hand, the expression “NPT regime” appears mostly in Miller’s own text, though also in an NAM statement (p. 34) and in Dhanapala’s response (p. 48).

    Maybe the complaint would better be phrased, that Miller uses “NPT regime” when “nonproliferation regime would be better”. Maybe also that the expression “NPT regime” somehow skews the discussion in favour of the NNWS/NAM.

    • mark (History)

      Steve Miller in the paper for the most part was in fact talking about the “NPT regime” as opposed to the “nonproliferation regime” so I don’t think that “nonproliferation regime” would have been a better reference. To the contrary. If I have an objection, after getting past my first reading of the piece, in which it appeared that “NPT” and “nonproliferation” were being somewhat conflated, it is that frequently the NAM and others urging universalism and non-discrimination, when objecting to elements of the “nonproliferation regime” that go beyond (more neutrally: that are separate from) the NPT do not recognize that the “NPT regime” and “nonproliferation regime” are not identical and haven’t been for four decades. The mission and logic for some important nonproliferation measures and arrangements does not come from the NPT in the first place. They have evolved over time while the NPT has remained static in the face of dynamically changing threat assessments. Where is it written that the sole benchmark for nonproliferation is the NPT?

  13. Kay (History)

    The dilemma of the Nuclear Age is that there is a yawning gap between the rights and obligations of the states within the nonproliferation regime due to political reasons. The “nuclear-haves” have failed to maintain impartiality in controlling proliferation, punishing proliferators, preventing misuse, and sharing the immense potentials of civil uses of nuclear energy equitably.