Set an example on nuclear disarmament

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 July, 2009, 12:00am

Speaking in Moscow last week, US President Barack Obama was the very soul of reasonableness. The US and Russia must co-operate to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, he said, while keeping the goal of a world without nuclear weapons always in sight: 'America is committed to stopping nuclear proliferation, and ultimately seeking a world without nuclear weapons.'

Unfortunately, that is the wrong way round. The deal that underpinned the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed in 1968, was that the five powers who already had nuclear weapons would gradually get rid of them. In return, the rest of the world's countries would not make them at all. But more than 40 years later, none of those five countries (the US, Russia, Britain, France and China) has kept its side of the deal.

In the circumstances, it's remarkable that only four more countries have developed nuclear weapons. Three of them (Israel, India and Pakistan) never signed the treaty at all, and the fourth (North Korea) signed it in 1985, quit it in 2003, and then tested its first bomb in 2006. But the queue of those who are now thinking about doing it stretches down the block and around the corner.

'Any [treaty] ... has to have a sense of fairness and equity, and it is not there,' said Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The Guardian recently. 'We still live in a world where, if you have nuclear weapons, you are buying power, you are buying insurance against attack. That is not lost on those who do not have nuclear weapons, particularly in [conflict] regions.'

Just last month, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared once again that 'nuclear weapons are religiously forbidden in Islam and Iranian people do not have such a weapon'. Since Ayatollah Khamenei is a religious scholar, we may presume he is not lying when he says that nuclear weapons are forbidden in Islam. Ayatollahs do not trim their conclusions on such matters to suit the tactical needs of the moment.

So how does Ayatollah Khamenei reconcile this principle with the obvious fact that Iran is relentlessly developing all the technologies needed to build nuclear weapons? Virtual nuclear weapons, of course. You get all the technologies and the enrichment facilities up and running, you continue to the point where you could build your first nuclear bomb in only a few months - and then you stop.

So far, all legal and morally correct. But if a hostile nuclear-armed country starts making threats or secret preparations against you, you throw your legal and/or moral qualms out the window, quickly cover the remaining distance and presto! You have your nuclear deterrent.

The only thing that can stop the rapid spread of nuclear weapons now, argues Dr ElBaradei, is a genuine move by the existing nuclear powers to get rid of their weapons.

Can they? It has to start with the US and Russia, which still own 95 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons. The agreement that the US and Russia signed last Monday doesn't begin to meet that requirement, proposing only that the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which must be signed by the end of this year, will reduce their long-range nuclear weapons by up to a third within seven years. That's not nearly enough.

But maybe they're just trying to lower expectations. Maybe, by the time they finish negotiating the treaty, it will decree 90 per cent cuts within three or four years. That might be enough to turn the tide.

Dr ElBaradei got it exactly right. If that is done before the NPT comes up for review next April, 'you would have a completely different environment. All these so-called virtual weapons states ... will think twice ... because then the major powers will have the moral authority to go after them and say: 'We are doing our part of the bargain. Now it is up to you'.'

But the existing nuclear powers have to move first.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries