Jeffrey LewisNick Burns on the NPT

Whenever I give a public talk for a general audience, I always focus on the question, “Why is it okay for some countries to have nuclear weapons, but not for others?”

Someone asked that question this morning on The Diane Rehm Show today in reference to Iran — note to the caller, it is not a stupid question — and former Undersecretary of State Nick Burns tried to answer it.

He flubbed it, badly.

Burns basically asserted that the five permanent members of the Security Council won World War II and wrote the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). (I was driving, but I expect the transcript will be on the Diane Rehm Show website.) I nearly drove off the road.

This is both wrong and, I happen to think, a stupid answer.

The fact that the five permanent members (P5) of the Security Council also happen to be the five “nuclear weapon states” (NWS) under the NPT is an unhappy accident.

Recall that the Security Council was created in 1946, when the Chinese seat was occupied by the government we know today as Taiwan (The Republic of China). Most analysts, if they worried about the spread of nuclear weapons in 1946, assumed that the determining factor would be technological capability, and no one put “Red China” near the top of list of likely aspirants.

The Nonproliferation Treaty wasn’t opened for signature for another twenty-two years — in July 1968. There is a long story for another time about how the US came to support nonproliferation as a foreign policy goal, but a fair summary is that the Chinese bomb really got people’s attention. It seemed many countries were going nuclear. There was a sense, expressed in the Gilpatric Report, that this madness needed to stop. As a result, the NPT drew a temporal boundary: The formal criteria that it stated for recognition of being a weapons states was having “manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967.”

It’s like BC and AD, but the crucial event is a negotiation, rather than some supernatural phenomenon in or around a manger.

The fact that, today, the P5 and the NWS are the same is just an unfortunate coincidence. If Israel had tested the nuclear weapon it almost certainly had in 1966, it would have been “in” the club. Same for India, had it moved more expeditiously. Moreover, France may have been a Security Council member and nuclear-armed in 1968, but it refused to sign the NPT until 1992. And although “China” signed, it was still the Republic of China. The PRC, which tested a nuclear weapon in 1964 and took its UNSC seat in 1971, also refused to sign the NPT (just like France) until 1992.

As you can see, the arbitrary distinction had nothing to do with Security Council membership — indeed, one of the better arguments for Security Council reform is that the unfortunate coincidence of the P5 also being the NPT nuclear weapons states gives rather the wrong impression.

Apparently, the coincidence can mislead seasoned professionals like Burns — he was the third ranking official in the State Department, for Christ’s sake! And, of course, the coincidence feeds the tendentious argument out of places like Tehran that we used to hear from Paris and Beijing — that the NPT is a just a victor’s peace or a naked atomic power grab. It’s kind of a bummer to learn that Burns believes that drivel.

On the other hand, this does explain Burns’s advocacy of the US-India nuclear deal. If the NPT is just some victor’s peace, why not make room for India?

Of course, the argument against the US-India nuclear deal, and for the NPT, was that some line had to be drawn. It is hardly ideal, but can you think of another taxonomy that doesn’t result in dozens of nuclear-armed countries?

Which is the answer Burns should have given: Early on, we thought nuclear weapons were good if our allies had them, bad if our enemies had them. Then we figured out this would lead to a world where everyone had nuclear weapons, which seemed like a bad idea when Mao joined the club. Since it was already too late — some states already had nuclear weapons — the obvious bargain (among others) was that no more nuclear weapons states would be permitted after the NPT, while those that had come before would make good faith efforts toward disarmament.

It’s imperfect, but I struggle to think of a better approach. Each civilization gets one nuclear-armed representative? Each language group? Each continent? The ten most populous countries? The ten richest? Nope, January 1, 1967, anno nonproliferata. Sure, maybe a date certain for disarmament might have been a nice touch, but the NPT was negotiated at the height of the Cold War when the whole Global Zero crowd still believed in nuclear deterrence.

Although there have been cheaters, holdouts and too little progress on disarmament, overall the treaty has worked very well as part of a broader international effort to restrain the further spread of nuclear weapons. The treaty itself has attained almost universal adherence (189 down, 3 to go†) and there is a strong norm against nuclear acquisition and use, something deeply in the US interest. If the NPT didn’t exist, we’d be feverishly trying to negotiate it.

I could understand if Burns simply disagreed about the success of the treaty, or doubted its longevity, or really wanted to build an alliance with India to contain China. These are dubious propositions, but hardy perennials for a certain type of Washington geopolitician skeptical of the value of institutions. But to blow a giant hole in the NPT without the slightest clue to what it is all about or how it came to be? That fairly galls me.

† Let’s just not get into counting North Korean and whether we recognize Pyonyang’s withdrawal.

Update | 10:34 pm 15 June 2010 You can listen to the segment here.


  1. disbeliver (History)

    attn Jeffrey:

    your above response is more of a technical and academic response

    i heard the show, the question and Burn’s response

    Burn’s was attempting (rather badly) to address blatant hypocrisy of how Iran is treated versus the treatment of Israel

  2. FSB

    It is hardly ideal, but can you think of another taxonomy that doesn’t result in dozens of nuclear-armed countries?

    Yes, the intrinsic expense and uselessness of nuclear arms to most states.

    The NPT has not “worked very well” unless you can prove it was the NPT that was casually responsible for the lack of proliferation.

    You cannot.

  3. FSB
  4. anon

    disbeliever: agreed, Burns basically said that it is OK for Israel to have nuclear weapons and Iran not because Israel is our friend. At least he admitted it is not based upon law.

    That was the really important part of the program, in my view.

  5. George William Herbert (History)

    FSB –

    I’ve said this before, but there’s a certain amount of diplomatic folly in that legalistic argument.

    The NPT was in a sense a diplomatic way of stating the brute force imperialistic message “You will not play at making nuclear bombs, or we will stomp all over you.”

    It establishes a framework for non weapons countries to do nuclear things, and still establish that they’re not doing the bomb thing, well enough for there to be no need to break out the can of geopolitical whoop-ass.

    If one attempts to interpret this overly legalistically and avoid the underlying core goal, one is liable to find out how far paper covers holes in the ground.

    It would be nice if the NPT was renegotiated to make this a bit more clear, as people are playing legalistic games a lot these days, and it seems to be in fashion among both the diplomatic and nonproliferation sets. But ultimately, that ends when someone says no and backs it up with military force. If the regime does not serve the goal of deterring the developments that trigger the use of military force then the regime has failed. Using the NPT overly legalisticly is using it to its own ultimate failure.

  6. AMA

    I think this piece is incredibly naive. The relations between nations is based on power. Nuclear weapons are tools of power and NPT is nothing but a fig leaf for the effort by the powerful few to prevent others from becoming powerful and challenge them.

  7. Tom Sauer (History)

    it is not the first time that Burns made this “mistake”.

    In the context of the Generals Statement in favor of elimination in December 1996, when Burns was spokesman for the State Department, he stated during a press conference that ‘the US continues to believe that nuclear deterrence plays a key role in defending the vital national security interests of the US’. When a journalist asked: ‘Therefore the administration plans to keep some of its nuclear weapons indefinitely ?’, Burns answered with a simple “yes”. When another journalist then pointed to the goal of elimination, Burns answered: ‘That is of course a goal that the US – successive administrations have committed to. But, of course, we must live in the real world. We must live practically. We must prepare practically for the security of the American people and our allies around the world who are relying upon the US to provide for their security’. (This comes out of my book titled ‘Nuclear Inertia, US Nuclear Weapons Policy after the Cold War, I.B.Tauris, 2005).

    If the nuclear weapon states do not fulfill their NPT obligations, do not be surprised that the non-nuclear weapon states do not fulfill theirs.

  8. FSB

    Thank you to GWH and AMA for at least admitting that the underlying rationale for hypocritically punishing Iran is based upon “might is right” rather than upon international law. I agree with them.

    Jeffrey, I did not read Burn’s statement in the program the way you did: as I understood he was referring to why it is OK for some states to have nuclear weapons and others not — he was not referencing the narrow “NWS” as defined in the NPT.

    As Jeffrey says: As a result, the NPT drew a temporal boundary: The formal criteria that it stated for recognition of being a weapons states was having “manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967.”

    The caller (and Burns) was referring to why that definition was OK — and that definition was OK, essentially because the reason Burns gave.

    It is arguable if the same definition of “NWS” would have applied if Israel and India had tested by Jan 1 1967 — perhaps the powers that won WW II would have grandfathered the “NWS” definition to a convenient date further back.

    The “arbitrary” date was more or less “chosen” or agreed upon by the victors of WW II.

    Jeffrey’s statement It’s like BC and AD, but the crucial event is a negotiation, rather than some supernatural phenomenon in or around a manger is right — but one must admit that the negotiations were dominated by the victors of WW II and they determined where BC ended and AD started.

  9. Lugo (History)

    I’m not seeing the “mistake” in what Burns said in 1996. All the things he said were correct expressions of US policy.

    “If the nuclear weapon states do not fulfill their NPT obligations, do not be surprised that the non-nuclear weapon states do not fulfill theirs.”

    What NPT obligation is the US not fulfilling?

  10. JYD (History)


    Can you not consider that both you and Mr. Burns may be correct?

    What you articulate is the academic/non-proliferation advocate’s rationale to support an NPT like arrangement, i.e. the need to draw the line at some point, using a criterion that, on its face, is objective.

    What Burns says are the reasons behind WHEN that line was drawn and WHY 1967 was the magic cutoff date.

    Basically, China’s test was the spur for US to see the need for a treaty, while the Soviets were already wary of more Western bloc nations joining the club.

    Basically, by that time both the “big dogs” i.e. the US and the USSR used their leverage to convince nuclear aspirants within their groups to sign the treaty in return for security guarantees and other sops.

    Of course, that left some countries with unique needs out in the cold, e.g. India, Israel and Pakistan (due to India).

    Without the “big dogs” using their diplomatic and political muscle to persuade their allies to accede, the NPT would have gone nowhere.

    Bottom line – you need to accept that there is an inbuilt power structure, reflecting the UNSC P5, that is woven into the DNA of the NPT.

  11. John Schilling (History)


    The obligation that the US is arguably not fulfilling is the Article VI requirement to, roughly speaking, Try Real Hard to get rid of all nuclear weapons everywhere ASAP. To the extent that Burns spoke for the United States when, in 1996, he indicated the US plans to keep nuclear weapons indefinitely, the US is not living up to that obligation.

    He was also speaking the truth. It is increasingly clear that total nuclear disarmament is at best a very long-term goal; we don’t really know what sort of treaty will get us there.

    Meanwhile, we’ve got realistic short-term goals like preventing a Middle Eastern or East Asian nuclear arms race in this decade. Almost everyone thinks this would be a good thing to do here and now. I think it would be a good thing to have a treaty framework that allows us to get on with doing that – even if it isn’t quite what the framers of the NPT had in mind.

    This will at least require flexible interpretation of the NPT. It may well call for renegotiation of the NPT or a whole new NPT-II. And yes, it will require at least a tacit recognition that there exist on the order of five Great Powers who occasionally get to say NO YOU WILL NOT DO THAT and make it so.

    And it would probably require accepting that the real short- to mid-term goal is a number of nuclear powers greater than five but less than fifteen, with arsenals of more than a couple dozen but less than a couple thousand actual warheads, that are never used. Wanting something better than that is commendable. Demanding or expecting better, is unrealistic – and a poor excuse for not achieving what is possible here and now.

  12. disbeliver (History)

    attn Jeffrey:

    in order to avoid any mis(mal)representation could you please post the question and Burn’s response to the question

    i can’t find a transcript of the NPR show

  13. George William Herbert (History)

    FSB –

    You can parse my argument as “might makes right”, but it’s also clear in the treaty text that actions moving towards making a nuclear weapon put one outside the legally established bounds of the NPT.

    Building enrichment programs in secret is an action which has, to my knowledge, never been done by someone not on the road to trying a bomb program. Discovery of such a program has been considered to be a key and deciding indicator of a developing bomb program in the past.

    Iran’s insistence on the letter of the NPT goes against that history. It’s the first time someone’s had an enrichment program discovered and proclaimed itself still innocent and gotten any support on that point.

    Personally I find that support naive and a folly. I believe that Iran going for a bomb – perhaps not the final political step of assembly, but all the technical and material requirements being in place to enable that decision – is obvious and settled given the dimensions and details of Iran’s programs. Had they declared openly that they wanted LWRs and a local enrichment program and cooperated openly with the IAEA at every step that would be another thing – complete safeguards compliance and mutual trustbuilding could have established bona fides of a completely peaceful program. But none of that happened.

    There’s no reasonable reason to assume that their program isn’t ultimately a military one with a veneer of NPT-compliance glued on. It is beyond me why anyone who doesn’t believe Iran having nuclear warheads would support Iran’s position on these points.

    If you do believe Iran becoming nuclear armed is a good thing, that would be an interesting argument to hear…

  14. Carey Sublette

    I have to disagree with Jeffrey’s argument that “The fact that, today, the P5 and the NWS are the same is just an unfortunate coincidence.”

    While there is an element of happenstance – the configuration of states that had fired nuclear devices by 1967 when the treaty was drafted – the subsequent actions affecting, or not affecting, the composition of the P5 are anything but acts of coincidence.

    The nuclear armed PRC replaced Taiwan as “China” on the P5 in 1973, and in all the years since why has the P5 club remained closed, admitting only the claimed victors of WWII? If France (hardly a genuinely independent state fighting Germany) why not India, which was also on the winning side? And 65 years after the end of the war why no Germany or Japan? Are these three leading world states not qualified to take a seat?

    And I think it is reasonable to question the implicit assumption that if Israel had announced a test on 31 December 1966, that the 1 Jan. 1967 cut-off for being an official NWS would have remained.

    As Emma Bull once wrote: ‘Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.’

    What I infer is nuclear weapon power politics at work – not coincidence.

  15. Ward Wilson (History)


    Again you’ve identified a common mistake, aptly and intelligently summarized the history, and made cogent arguments about why Burns is wrong. I am (sigh) jealous. It’s nice work. Thanks.

  16. FSB

    GWH —
    the issue you have is with the NPT, not Iran.

    The NPT absolutely allows for a signatory NNWS to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

    I agree this is a problem.

    The NPT, in fact, specifically (in Article IV parts 1 and 2) encourages proliferation of dual-use nuclear technology to NNWS.

    Do you know that Brazil does not have a secret nuclear weapons or enrichment program? Of course you don’t — it has not been as zealously pursued by the politicized UNSC. (BTW, The Iranians need not have declared the existence of their clandestine program until such time as the introduction of nuclear material was imminent).

    In any case, there is no legal rational for forcing zero enrichment upon Iran — that is in direct contravention of the NPT.

  17. shaheen

    You may be underestimating the willingness of “the Five” to reform the UNSC.
    For four of them (China is the exception), it would be OK to have India and Japan have permanent seats.
    For I believe all of them, it would be OK for Germany, Brazil and at least one African country to have permanent seats.
    The problem lies at the UNGA, not at the UNSC. There is no two-thirds majority for a reform.
    In a nutshell, Argentina does not want Brazil, Italy does not want Germany, Nigeria does not want South Africa, etc, etc.
    Power politics indeed, but mostly non-nuclear countries power politics.

  18. Azr@el (History)

    “Burns basically asserted that the five permanent members of the Security Council won World War II and got to wrote the Nonproliferation Treaty”

    Should be:

    “Burns basically asserted that the five permanent members of the Security Council won World War II and got to write the Nonproliferation Treaty”

    ;imperfect tense as opposed to past tense

  19. Carey Sublette

    Shaheen – I am aware of the status of proposals to expand the P5, but the matter goes deeper and rebounds back on the full UNSC.

    Opposition in the UNGA to expanding the UNSC exists largely because of the P5’s
    power of the veto, which allows each of them to shape the agenda of the UN
    through its implicit threat of use (shades of the U.S. Senate!). There is
    considerable opposition to this power existing at all, and it is largely the
    basis to opposition to expanding the UNSC. The excessive power of the veto
    already cripples its functions.

    But the existence of the veto power is controlled by the UNSC itself, and they
    can revise it at will; public support for “expanding the P5” but private
    opposition to the necessary UNSC reforms that would be required to make it
    happen allows one to have one’s cake and eat it too.

    Political power is cumulative from different sources: being a large wealthy
    nation, having a powerful conventional military, being a P5 member, possessing
    nuclear weapons, and having that possession codified as an official NWS all are
    separate sources of power that reinforce each other.

    I emphasized in my original post that I was referring to the hidden, not public,
    levers of power. I still maintain that there is much more to the story of the
    present day equivalence of the P5 and the NPT NWS than coincidence.

  20. shaheen

    For those (there may still be some left) who just discovered the “argument” that one commentator has made here once again:
    1. There is no such thing as a “right to enrichment” in the Treaty. Read the treaty, and check the negotiating record (or any good history thereof such as Mohamed Shaker’s excellent study).
    2. Nobody is demanding that Iran permanently ceases enrichment. The UNSC is demanding a suspension of any enrichment and reprocessing related activities pending a still-to-come convincing clarification of the purpose of Iran’s work, given its record of violations of its safeguards agreement and in all likelihood of the NPT (though the IAEA does not have the authority to say so), in which case Iran would have forfeited any right under Article IV, which must be exercised in conformity with Articles I and II.
    Saying something false 30 times does not make it more true.

  21. FSB

    Although some commentators have noted that the NPT does not explicitly contain a right to enrich U, it does express an “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear technology, including access to the nuclear fuel cycle.

    Even the previous IAEA head admitted this is true

    “Iran insists on its inalienable right to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy, pursuant to Article IV of the NPT. Interpretations of this right have varied over time. IAEA Director General Mohamed El Baradei has not disputed this inalienable right and, by and large, neither have U.S. government officials.”

    Iran is not known to be doing anything that Brazil is not. And in Brazil’s case we have some concrete basis for concern.

    That Brazil is not pursued by the UNSC is a function of the UNSC’s politicization.

    Even WMD insights had a write-up on the Brazilians.

    No one is disputing that Iranians may be stonewalling, but that does not mean they have a nuclear weapons development program.

    The DNI has said as much — twice in the last year.

    Annual Threat Assessment:

    “We continue to assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that bring it closer to being able to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

    And the “721” report:

    “…we do not know whether Iran will eventually decide to produce nuclear weapons.”

    Let us re-cap: to the best of the US IC’s knowledge the Iranian government has NOT decided to make nuclear weapons.

    While there may be some basis (and this is arguable) to impose sanctions on Iran — the precondition for removal of those sanctions cannot affect Iran’s access to peaceful uses of nuclear technology, including the right to a nuclear fuel cycle — be it temporary or permanent.

    Blindly parroting the propaganda spewed by the US news outlets 30 times over will not make the US position valid.

    The problem is not with Iran but that the NPT implicitly allows a nuclear weapons capability.

    I encourage people outraged over Iran’s behaviour to go negotiate a new and stricter treaty — and good luck with that. Perhaps we can even get Israel to sign the new stricter treaty.

    There is a reason nuclear Apartheid is hard to sustain.

  22. George William Herbert (History)

    FSB –

    What on earth makes you think I’m not aware of Brazil’s program?

    I do technical proliferation capability analysis and weapons design proliferation analysis. How could one do that and not know about Brazil?

  23. Rwendland (History)

    Could those that argue the NPT does not contain a right to enrich U explain how the following words of Article III should be construed?

    Procedures for the safeguards required by this Article shall be followed with respect to … special fissionable material whether it is being produced [or used] …

    I read this as Article III clearly envisioning that (some) Non-NWS will produce special fissionable material for peaceful purposes, under safeguards. I suppose you could argue reprocessing-only was meant, not enriching, but that seems a ridiculous contortion to me.

  24. Andy (History)


    The NPT absolutely allows for a signatory NNWS to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

    So you’re saying a country can declare they want a nuclear weapons capability, but not nuclear weapons themselves, and that would be considered “peaceful” use of nuclear technology?

  25. AMA

    If a country signs on to NPT and then goes secretly to develop nuclear weapons , is it legal? The answer is if some one is coerced to sign a paper against his will is he really bound by the terms of that paper?

  26. KB

    You are right. there is no “right to enrichment” in treaty because it is a NATURAL sovereign right. Yet, I don’t know how someone can find “forfeited” rights in treaty which I heard many more than 30 times!

  27. FSB

    GWH — what makes you think I am talking about you? Sorry if you thought that.

    Kindly see the post above mine’s to see who I am referring to.

    I, and I ma sure many here, would welcome some posts from you on your analysis of the Brazilian programme.

    Andy — no I am not saying that “a country can declare they want a nuclear weapons capability, but not nuclear weapons themselves, and that would be considered “peaceful” use of nuclear technology” at all.

    I am saying that the NPT, as designed, effectively allows (in fact encourages) NNWS’s to acquire much of the dual use technology (eg. nuclear fuel cycle) they would need for a nuclear weapons program: it effectively allows NNWSs to go right to the red-line of weaponization.

    It certainly is a big flaw, I admit. You can call it a “bug” or a “feature” of the NPT.

    If you would like a stricter treaty that disallows enrichment/nuclear fuel cycle for the NNWS’s it will be a tough sell, but I invite you (and shaheen) to try.

  28. George William Herbert (History)

    Andy –

    The letter of the NPT supports that definition. The spirit of the treaty – and its underlying purpose of existence – say no way.

    The US government position is “The spirit and intent of the treaty are that you not develop either actual weapons or a close weapons potential, and Iran’s doing that”.

    The Iranian position is “There’s nothing in there saying we can’t do a ‘peaceful’ program that happens to approach a near weapons potential.”

    The IAEA is stuck in the middle, because they didn’t write the treaty, nor can they enforce it per se.

  29. Andy (History)


    My view is that those rights are contingent on the technology’s use for peaceful purposes. The question then becomes, what are “peaceful purposes?” How is that defined?

    Is “peaceful purposes” merely the absence of a military purpose, in which case a country could enrich or reprocess just because it would be really freaking cool to do so? Or must the enrichment/reprocessing be clearly tied to a demonstrable peaceful purpose (ie. nuclear power)?

  30. shaheen

    It’s simple.
    “Having an inalienable right” and “Doing something which is not forbidden” are two different propositions from a legal standpoint. Of course the NPT does not ban enrichment. But the drafters rejected amendments to the effect that there would be a “right to the fuel cycle” in the treaty.

  31. FSB

    Andy, you ask “Is “peaceful purposes” merely the absence of a military purpose, in which case a country could enrich or reprocess just because it would be really freaking cool to do so? Or must the enrichment/reprocessing be clearly tied to a demonstrable peaceful purpose (ie. nuclear power)?”

    Who is saying that anyone is doing anything because it is really freaking cool?

    Making 19.75% enriched fuel for a medical reactor is a peaceful purpose.

    Even if someone else is supplying the fuel, it is legitimate for a country to learn how to make its own enriched fuel for its medical purposes, especially if the country is regularly threatened with military strikes and treated as a nuclear pariah, while it is in fact a NPT signatory state with an inalienable right to peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

  32. Anon

    @Andy: Iran wishes enrich U because it is needed for its peaceful nuclear power reactors and its peaceful research reactor for medical reasons, not because they think it is cool. Yes, other countries have offered to supply some of this fuel but no one can stop Iran from learning about this technology by doing it itself. Given the unreliability of foreign suppliers and often imposed sanctions and freezing of monetary accounts no one will deny Iran has reservations about depending on foreigners. And anyway, it has an inalienable right to such technology.

  33. shaheen

    The idea of “enrichment as a natural right” is one of the weirdest and funniest inventions that I’ve ever seen in international debates. As per forfeiting, well (yawn) Article 4 says in conformity with Articles 1 and 2.

  34. FSB


    Under the NPT, the NNWS 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.”

    To fulfill their side of the bargain, the NWS commit under Article VI to undertake “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

    The NNWSs are adhering to their side of the bargain better than the NWS. After we sanction US, UK, China, Russia and France, we can think about sanctioning the NNWSs.

  35. hass (History)

    The question “Why does Iran not have the right to build nukes” has a built-in assumption that Iran is in fact building nukes or wants to do so — which is totally unsupported (even the US only accuses Iran of seeking the “capability” of making nukes and admits it has no evidence that Iran is or plans to make nukes.) That aside, the answer is that Iran DOES indeed have the sovereign right to make nukes, as does any other country, and the NPT itself recognizes this under Article X which allows signatories to withdraw from the treaty. The NPT signatories merely SUSPENDED their right to make nukes, that’s all.

  36. hass (History)

    IF we’re talking about nuclear weapons “capabilities” note that even right now about 40 countries have that capability. It is inherent in possession of nuclear technology. The NPT recognizes that, and its solution is to institute regular inspections to ensure that the “capability” does not cross the line into “non-peaceful USE”. Iran’s nuclear program, even to the extent that it provides Iran with the “capability” to make nukes, is perfectly legal. In fact, if Iran wanted to, they have the perfect legal right to withdraw from the treaty and make nukes. There is no law of nature that says the US can have nukes and no one else.

  37. hass (History)

    Andy – “peaceful purposes” are defined as “non-diversion”. The explicit text of Iran’s safeguards agreement states quite specifically that it is EXCLUSIVELY intended to ensure non-diversion of nuclear material. Beyond that, Iran has no obligation to explain why it is seeking enrichment capability to you or anyone else’s satisfaction.

  38. KB

    Of course, if you have no respect for nations’ sovereign rights you can call it “funny”, “weird” or an “invention”. This lack of respect and consequent mindset is the major source of instability and driving force for development of WMDs.
    “As per forfeiting”, I would like to invite all those who can read English to the Text of treaty to find “forfeit” or a synonym:

  39. Derick Schilling (History)

    “The formal criteria that it stated for recognition of being a weapons states was having ‘manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967.’”

    Has “exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device” ever been defined in reference to the NPT? If the test Israel is widely believed to have conducted on November 2, 1966, was a zero-yield test that gave them confidence that their implosion design would work, would that count as exploding “a nuclear explosive device”? What if records from the Israeli nuclear project showed that they had enough plutonium on hand in November 1966 to have conducted a test with a significant nuclear yield, if they had chosen to do so?

  40. Anne Bazuin (History)

    1 – Any governement of a state with sufficient technical and economical power to develop a nuclear weapon will do so.
    A few exeptions are NATO members under the the US nuclear umbrella.
    2 – Having developd the nuclear bomb, and having tested it, does not mean that the state has become a <Nuclear Power State> (NPS, Dutch: Kernmogendheid)
    3 – To become a NPS you must have the capacity to hit any target at any time in your ennemy’s country with a nuclear bomb. Having air force, instant rocket launching facilities and sub marines capable to launch nuclear warheads make you a NPS.
    Until now, the US, Russia, UK and France are NPS, but China, India and Pakistan are not (yet).
    5 – North Korea and Iran are trying very hard and may succeed in some years from now to join the not (yet) group of NPS.
    6 – Any state attacked by a nuclear strike may collapse, civil as wel as military.
    7 – A geographical small country, like Israel, can be destroyed by a few nuclear bombs. But after that, Israel military will strike back from international waters by its sub marines with rockets bearing nuclear warheads.
    8 – Above points reflect the situation <as it is> and not <as it should be>.
    What should be is a world wide and effective non proliferating policy and a dismanteling of existing nuclear weapon systems.
    Anne Bazuin, 18 june 2010

  41. Attaché

    The Iranian government has spent untold billions of dollars (and almost as much political capital with all but the hard-core NAM-types), while its domestic economy is in terrible shape. All of this to pursue an enrichment capacity that will in no way be able to produce enough U-235 to fuel even the single PWR at Bushehr.


  42. Rwendland (History)

    shaheen, I’ve not studied the drafting history of the NPT where you say “right to the fuel cycle” amendments were rejected. But I would point out that the IAEA 1974 Safeguards Agreement (INFCIRC/153) envisages that any non-NWS may have a “fuel cycle”. So I would need more convincing that the NPT Article IV inalienable rights were not intended at that time to extend to the full nuclear power/research fuel cycle.

    Eg INFCIRC/153 6.c which says

    Concentration of verification procedures on those stages in the nuclear fuel cycle involving the production, processing, use or storage of nuclear material …

  43. Rwendland (History)

    Andy, interesting question whether “peaceful purposes” merely the absence of a military purpose clearly tied to a demonstrable peaceful purpose.

    I’d suggest in coming to an answer considering the intent of 1974 Safeguards Agreement (INFCIRC/153) Article 37, which permits a non-NWS to hold 1kg Pu + 1+kg HEU + 10 tonnes natural U + other stuff “exempted from safeguards at the request of the State”.

    I don’t understand the intent of this Article, and would welcome pointers to good papers discussing this. Is it intended for possible non-nuclear weapons such as DU or U dense shells? But my initial take on this is that it reflects that the NPT original intent was that research short of weaponization would not be blocked, as FSB argues above.

  44. AMA

    I find all this hair splitting about legalities of different provisions of NPT meaningless. I believe most nations who signed NPT did so with a nuclear gun pointed to their head. Now if some nations are breaking out of NPT, that only means the potency of that nuclear gun (possessed by the P5) is weakening. What exactly weakened it? As Sec Clinton indicated it recently it is India-Pakistan nuclear tests that has removed the world nuclear balance.

  45. FSB

    Looks like the Saudis want enrichment — who in the class wants to bomb or sanction Riyadh ? Oh wait, those evil dictators are our friends. Scratch that.

  46. FSB

    that is exactly why they are building 10 more enrichment plants.

  47. kme

    GWH: You are taking a very NWS-centric view of the “spirit” of the NPT. From the NNWS side of the fence, the “spirit” of the treaty was more along the lines that states could legitimately gain nuclear expertise, stopping short of actual weaponization. I would go so far as to say that this is one reason why the treaty is near-universal (it’s not only NWS that think about hedging).

    Certainly expectations and norms have changed significantly in the time since, though. Many more NNWS these days would likely be happy to sign up to a stricter treaty than would have been the case when the treaty was drafted (although, many also would not).

  48. hass (History)

    The fact that the full fuel cycle is inherently recognized by Article IV is obvious in the fact that many nations developed their enrichment capabilities without seeking anyone else’s approval or permission. They didn’t need it because it is an inherent sovereign right, predating the NPT.