The NPT at 40: Can We Salvage the Nonproliferation Treaty for the Next Forty Years?

05/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the entry into force of the global linchpin to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. With just four nuclear states outside the NPT -- India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea -- the agreement's near universal appeal belies a disturbing undertow: a minority of parties have used the façade of fidelity to mount clandestine efforts to acquire the Bomb. Unless Treaty loyalists redouble efforts to prop up leaky dikes, the nonproliferation regime's durability will increasingly fall into question and so will global security.

In late April a rare opportunity to begin repair will take place when the two week NPT Review Conference -- the meeting of all Treaty parties that convenes every five years -- opens. Progress can begin with a frank assessment of the Treaty to lay the foundation for several evident Treaty fixes.

Articles I and II mark the NPT's heart. The first forbids five nuclear weapons states bound by the agreement - the US, Russia, Britain, France and China -- from transferring weapons or related technology to others and to eliminate arsenals in a finite but undefined time. The provision grew and matured against a checkered past. While the United States shut its nuclear weapons cooperation with Britain and Canada after World War II and the Soviet Union refused China's request for a bomb, both China and France entered the NPT years after it went into force with unclean hands. France provided Israel's weapons producing Dimona reactor and Iraq's Osirak reactor while China conveyed nuclear technology and a weapons design to Pakistan. Chinese assistance continued even after it entered the NPT in 1992.

Article II addresses the responsibility of non nuclear weapons parties to abstain from the Bomb. Here, more insidious practices arose. Under Article II, these countries agree not to manufacture or seek weapons assistance. At least six NPT parties - Iraq, Libya, South Korea, Syria, Iran, and North Korea (while still a Treaty member) - and Taiwan, a Treaty endorser but not a Party, took steps to go nuclear.

Safeguards embodied in Article III failed to halt the cheating. The result, concerned countries took matters into their own hands. Israel bombed suspect nuclear sites in Syria and Iraq, the United States and Britain secretly negotiated the elimination of Libya's nuclear program, only Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War forced it to disgorge its nuclear program and Washington used economic and military assistance leverage to force South Korea and Taiwan to block proliferation.

Article IV complicates Article III safeguards. It provides "the inalienable right" of parties to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Iran uses the language today to operate nuclear enrichment and develop reprocessing weapons breakout capabilities. Iraq conceived the Osirak reactor to serve the same end.

In Article VI the five nuclear armed states agree to "terminate the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament." While planned Russo-American reductions to 1500 strategic warheads marks a dramatic reduction from the Cold War, it still places Moscow and Washington in the crosshairs. This will persist since neither they or other nuclear states plan to disarm despite lip service.

Then there remains the twist of Article X that allows countries to exit the treaty and legally pursue weapons in the event "extraordinary" circumstances "jeopardized the supreme interest ..." North Korea took advantage in 2003 and some Iranians have called for the same.

Clearly, NPT implementation needs reform and the forthcoming Review Conference offers the opportunity. At a minimum attendees should pursue four measures: First, all parties must commit to the Additional Protocol. The Protocol extends IAEA investigative authority to suspect nuclear sites. To date only 94 of 151 IAEA members have ratified the provision. The international community should cease all nuclear assistance to countries that balk.

Second, parties ought to resist building new nuclear fuel production plants and halt those that do not make economic sense given the proliferation risks. While IAEA and others have proposed multilateral solutions to meet global nuclear fuel demands, for the foreseeable future Agency management of a virtual fuel bank with access to multiple sources, in addition to IAEA oversight of a Russian limited fuel bank to open later this year, would assure supply to countries in good standing.

Reducing nuclear cheating also requires improved intelligence. To spotlight violators, national intelligence agencies must do a better job in sharing findings with IAEA. Finally, to discourage military vigilantism, - the unilateral use of force to halt suspect nuclear activities - the Security Council must construct robust tableau of certain biting sanctions once IAEA finds a party in noncompliance. To eliminate the sort of NPT gaming that Iran and Syria engage in, the Agency must raise the nonproliferation noncompliance threshold.

Failure to adopt these steps will accelerate the evident fraying of the nonproliferation regime we see today. The time for action is now.