Joshua PollackMalaysia and the Bomb

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najab
Razak, man of the hour. For real.

[Update | 5:45 pm. The White House has a readout of the Obama-Najab bilat.]

When most Americans think of Malaysia, they… Well, most of us don’t think of Malaysia at all. A quick visit to the Americans & The World polling site, for example, produces these penetrating insights.

When nuke wonks think of Malaysia, though, they tend to think, “Hey, isn’t that where the A.Q. Khan network produced centrifuge components for Libya? And isn’t that the last of the industrializing countries without nuclear export controls?”

The first part is eternally a fact. The second part, though, we’ll think no more, because the Strategic Trade Bill is now law. (ISIS has a little more on the subject. And if you just can’t get enough, here’s some more background.)

Although the government in Kuala Lumpur denies that there’s any connection, this move comes just in time for the Nuclear Security Summit now underway in Washington. Not only is Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak representing Malaysia on this occasion, but he’s on President Obama’s calendar.

Going South

Indeed, it’s notable just how far off the beaten track President Obama’s meetings are. No fewer than six of the ten leaders scheduled to meet with Obama this week represent member states of the Non-Aligned Movement — nine of ten, if you want to count observer states. Of the 47 countries represented in Washington today, I count 17 full NAM members. So some of the places that normally get overlooked are having their week in the pleasant mid-April sun.

There seem to be two reasons for an emphasis on the up-and-coming countries of the world.

Reason Number One is the new technological reality. If you want to do something about nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, it’s too late to focus narrowly on the likes of the Netherlands, Germany, and Japan. Nothing will make that clearer than the map of A.Q. Khan’s suppliers, so let’s revisit this marvelous bit of research by Sammy Salama and Lydia Hansell, cataloging where Libya’s centrifuge technology was sourced: Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia (of course), South Korea, Switzerland, South Africa, and Turkey. [I accidentally omitted Singapore.] That’s more NAM than OECD.

Reason Number Two is the diplomatic calendar. In just a few short weeks, the NPT Review Conference starts up in New York City. U.S. officials have made clear what they’ll be seeking there by way of strengthened nonproliferation measures, intended to keep the Treaty healthy in the face of today’s challenges: expanded adherence to the Additional Protocol, measures to address non-compliance with the Treaty, and measures to discourage withdrawal from the Treaty by states already not in compliance. In this setting, every member state has an equal vote, even the ones that don’t often dominate the headlines in the New York Times and Washington Post. So there’s a courtship aspect to the Nuclear Security Summit.

The latter point has not been lost on the Iranians, who see all of the above ideas as calculated to put the screws to them. (They probably aren’t thrilled with plugging gaps in export control laws, either.) So they’re holding a counter-summit of sorts shortly afterward. Do you suppose they’ll get 47 countries, or 40+ national leaders and heads of state? Don’t stake any great sums on it.

But Back to Malaysia for a Moment

To capture the difficulty of healing the fractured nonproliferation consensus in a single anecdote, we could do worse than to recall the bizarre events of last November’s IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna. Maybe you remember how Malaysian Ambassador Mohd. Arshad Manzoor Hussain voted the wrong way on whether to rebuke Iran and was subsequently recalled and dismissed? Here’s the story of how the vote went down, from Reuters:

A senior diplomat close to the matter said Malaysia’s IAEA mission had been instructed to vote in line with the position of the Non-Aligned Movement of developing nations, which has historically opposed Western-driven international actions to isolate Iran, a fellow member of NAM.

Iran denies Western suspicions that it secretly seeks nuclear weapons and NAM has stood up for Iran’s proclaimed right to develop a sovereign civilian nuclear power industry.

When the vote was held, the diplomat said, Hussain was surprised to see NAM members Egypt, Pakistan and South Africa abstain, and India vote “yes”. Hussain had no time to double check policy with his capital, and so voted against as originally planned, the diplomat told Reuters.

He said Malaysian diplomats who attended NAM strategy talks before the vote in Hussain’s stead because he was busy with other duties as board chair briefed him that sentiment in the group against censuring Iran was widespread.

But another diplomat familiar with the issue said NAM states reached no consensus on how to deal with the resolution so the varying votes on the floor should not have been a surprise.

The other opposing votes were cast by Cuba and Venezuela, both U.S. foes unlike Malaysia. All Western board members, joined unusually by Russia and China, voted in favour.

That’s a good news story, but also a warning against complacency. The Nuclear Security Summit is just a warm-up event; the real fight will be at the RevCon.


  1. 333maxwell (History)

    I’m so proud of the job the President is doing. In the last two weeks, all while dodging the muck and jumping the hurdles placed by those who try and bring him down at any cost, he has passed the Jobs Bill, Education reform, Health Care Legislation, Signed really good nuclear treaties and specifically told Iran and N Korea if they are not on the treaty then they are afforded none of the protections on it from a US nuclear retaliation. And now he is hosting the largest gathering of world leaders in a nuclear summit since WW2.

    This President is a strong leader and a heck of a fighter. I’m sure glad he’s on my side.

  2. anon

    “This President is a strong leader and a heck of a fighter. I’m sure glad he’s on my side.”

    I just get goose bumps all over my body.

  3. FSB

    In the story you quoted it sez:

    “Iran denies Western suspicions that it secretly seeks nuclear weapons”

    Some western governments’ views are out of line with the views of their own intelligence services, however.

    As the USIC has repeatedly said, Iran seeks to keep open the option to have a weapons capability — not that it has a nuclear weapons production program.

    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.

    Just sayin’.

  4. GPD

    Strong points throughout. While there is a disconnect between what the media/public believe the summit is about and what nuclear wonks know it is about, both can agree that this is good for policy and for advancing a strategic foreign policy agenda. Indeed, it’s another win-win for the President.

  5. sineva (History)

    Obama hosts a summit on reducing the threat of nuclear weapons then turns around and threatens iran and nth korea with nuclear attack,don`t you just love the rancid stink of good ol` U.S. hypocrisy and double standards,oh and in case anyones forgotten,the u.s. was the only nation to actually use nukes not just once but twice!

  6. kme

    Does anyone else find the spectacle of states not party to the NPT voting on others compliance with the inspection regimes established under that treaty somewhat disturbing? Yes India, I’m looking at you.

  7. Smalk (History)

    India has long been a victim of international nuclear cartel set up by the P-5. The right to use nuclear weapons is not limited to five nations.
    India has nuclear-armed Pakisan and China as neighbors. Do you expect it to give them up for a treaty that allows China but prevents India?
    India has consistently supported a nuclear-free world. It has agreed to give up its nukes in exchange for global nuclear disarmament. India rejects the concept of haves and have-nots where nuclear armed nations continue to hold on to their stockpiles.
    India has done more towards non-proliferation than NPT members. The USA and China do not have a clean sheet in Pakistani nuke program.

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