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Venezuela Is Going Nuclear, and We Should Be Worried

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UPDATE, Oct. 9 2010: Thanks to all who have read and commented. I feel that I would be remiss to not provide some clarification on my own position regarding this article and its substantive arguments.

In my writing, I do say that Venezuela's potential for developing a nuclear weapons program is based on the yet-to-be-confirmed accuracy of the article written by Roger Noriega. It's important that I make clear, and that readers understand, that what Noriega says very well may be based on speculation, less-than-investigative journalism, and/or hearsay. It is of course wise to wait until more substantial evidence is presented to confirm Noriega's report. Nonetheless, important questions are raised regarding the openness or lack thereof of Venezuela's nuclear program.

Moreover, while I am aware that Venezuela is not geographically south of the equator, I am emphasizing here its commitment to the Latin American nuclear weapons free zone. It is important for the countries of the region, from a nonproliferation framework perspective, that the integrity of this and identical NWFZs across the southern hemisphere be maintained, as such agreements do serve to strengthen the global nonproliferation regime.

Finally, as an individual studying and writing on nuclear issues, I am deeply committed to nonproliferation principles, and I believe I make this quite clear in my introductory and concluding paragraphs. I am not at all interested in the ideological issues that have been brought up in the comments. To clarify, I am neither a neo-conservative (please read past articles on HuffPo and on my own website) nor a Chávez-basher, but I am always interested in any and all countries, including Venezuela and Iran, that are developing or are interested in nuclear infrastructure development.

Thanks for reading.


You may know that the entire world, south of the equator, is one huge nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ). You may also know that the very first region of the world to come up with the concept of a NWFZ is Latin America. But what you may not know, until you read this eye-opening and chilling article by Roger Noriega, is that this delicate balance of NWFZs in the southern hemisphere is about to be upended by Hugo Chávez, with the help of his trusty friend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

A little background: Nuclear weapon free zones are an important component of what we today call the global nonproliferation regime, the cornerstone of which is the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). NWFZs not only serve as confidence-building measures amongst countries within a given region, but provide their members with legally binding negative security assurances from the five recognized nuclear weapons states. They arguably promote the overall security and stability of a region -- as nuclear weapons are overwhelmingly destabilizing tools -- and contribute to the objective of the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide.

As early as 1958, countries in Latin America were discussing arms control agreements, which would include a ban on nuclear weapons. As a result of those discussions, the Treaty of Tlatelolco was presented in 1967 and then entered into force two years later. Venezuela has been a member of the Latin American NWFZ since March 1970, but in the past few years has been showing signs of breaking with convention and going rogue.

Since 2007, Venezuela has been exploring the idea of developing its own indigenous nuclear infrastructure. Moreover, there is compelling evidence that Venezuela's government and banks, with the help of the Ahmadinejad government and Iranian shell companies, are providing Iran with uranium mined in southeastern Venezuela -- which, if true, would be a blatant violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1929 prohibiting Iranian engagement in "uranium mining, production or use of nuclear materials and technology." And there are additional anecdotes, as detailed in Noriega's article, that lend credibility to the idea that Venezuela is interested specifically in nuclear weapons and not just civilian nuclear energy.

If the information available to us so far is accurate, we might be looking at having two more states join the nine nuclear weapons powers -- four of which are not even recognized under the NPT. Iran would be number 10, as by all informed and detailed accounts it is pursuing more than just nuclear power, and Venezuela might not be too far behind as number 11. And if they do acquire weapons capability, the irony of Iran and Venezuela would also be reflected in the demonstrated failure of the global nonproliferation regime: both of them currently belong to the NPT, and yet are developing their capabilities while within that framework, à la North Korea.

At the same time, there is little "we" (the international community) can really do, from a legal or extralegal standpoint, beyond passing additional Security Council resolutions or using strong and compelling rhetoric. Nonetheless, we need to make use of all available political, diplomatic, economic and legal channels to prevent Venezuela from developing a nuclear weapons capability, going rogue, upsetting the balance of the Latin American NWFZ, and punching yet another hole in an already weather-beaten global nonproliferation framework.