Radioactive Hypocrisy: American Nuclear Hubris Threatens Perpetual Nuclear Proliferation

05/15/2008 07:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Why can't we have them when they can?" That, for the "nuclear have nots," has long been the essence of what some call the nuclear double standard, what others call nuclear narcissism, what others still call America's nuclear hypocrisy.

The bitterness about that double standard has steadily intensified for almost exactly four decades now (the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, was signed on July 1, 1968, and came into force in 1970). Why? Because in the basic bargain of the NPT, the non-nuclear weapon states promised forever to forego nuclear weapons, in exchange for a pair of promises from the nuclear weapon states. First, the nuclear weapon states conceded - quite explicitly, in Article IV -- that the non-nuclear weapon states possess an "inalienable right" to develop "nuclear energy for peaceful purposes," and even promised "to facilitate" their efforts to do so. Second, the nuclear weapon states promised - quite explicitly, in Article VI, and re-iterated quite explicitly at the NPT Review Conferences in 1995 and 2000 - to negotiate the complete elimination of their own nuclear arsenals, and eventually to deliver to the human race a nuclear weapon free world.

In a speech in Geneva on Monday, May 5, however, Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, speaking to the preparatory committees that were meeting in advance of the 40 year NPT Review Conference coming up in 2010, offered a more complex and quite illuminating elucidation of the range of grievances regarding the nuclear status quo.

Soltanieh began by complaining about "nuclear apartheid" -- just as his country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has done many times, and just as Indian government officials did many times a decade ago when they conducted nuclear tests in the spring of 1998 in defiance of world opinion. However, the Iranian ambassador on this day was referring not just generally to the basic nuclear divide, but specifically to the United States imposing harsh export controls on countries like Iran, while at the same time, he claimed, secretly assisting Israel in the development of its sizeable nuclear arsenal.
"Access of developing countries to peaceful nuclear materials and technologies has been continuously denied," Soltanieh said, "to the extent that they have had no choice than to acquire their requirements for peaceful uses of nuclear energy ... from open markets." Usually, he said, that means that countries like his own must purchase items that are more expensive, of poorer quality, and less safe.

Therefore, Soltanieh insisted that Iran would not submit to more intrusive IAEA inspections as long as this situation persisted. "The existing double standard shall not be tolerated anymore by non-nuclear-weapon states," he said. "No additional measure in strengthening (IAEA) safeguards can be accepted by non-nuclear weapons parties unless these serious constraints and discrimination are removed."

Moreover, Soltanieh continued, "Israel, with huge nuclear weapons activities, has not concluded" any kind of agreement with the IAEA to allow for inspections of its own nuclear facilities.

Now Israel, it must be said, has never signed the NPT, so it is under no international legal obligation to conclude such an agreement. (Nor are the NPT's nuclear weapon states for that matter - under the NPT, only the non-nuclear weapon states must open themselves to international inspections.) Still, the aspiration for the NPT has always been that it would eventually apply universally. (It is, at present, the most nearly universal treaty in history, as all but four states on the planet - Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea after its withdrawal - are members.) Israel's failure to join the regime can hardly be expected to diminish the simmering antipathies - and not just in Iran -- about the perception that in the nuclear realm, there are different rules for different actors.

So, the "double standard" or "nuclear apartheid," in Iran's latest rendering, did not just signify the basic chasm between the "nuclear haves" and the "nuclear have-nots." Instead, Ambassador Soltanieh conveyed what one might call a more sophisticated nuclear resentment - first, at Washington's (allegedly) assisting Israel with nuclear technologies while at the same time hampering Iran's abilities to obtain the same, and second, at Washington demanding that certain adversaries submit to rigorous IAEA inspections - profound intrusions on national sovereignty -- while certain allies are under no obligation to do so.

Mohamed El-Baradei, head of the IAEA and 2006 Nobel Peace Laureate, says that the time has long since come to "abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue nuclear weapons but morally acceptable for others to rely on them." Why is it that when some countries act to protect their national security we hear barely a whisper of comment, while when others do the same it generates a torrent of righteous indignation? More fundamentally, why can some countries possess hundreds of nuclear warheads (e.g., Israel), or even many thousands (e.g., the United States and Russia), while other countries cannot aspire to obtain even one? What's the principle? What's the argument?

It is never said. And it cannot last.

Ironically, the American envoy to the same meeting, Christopher A. Ford, conveyed a much more traditional understanding of the nuclear double standard -- not so much by what he said, but instead by what he did not say. "This treaty regime," said Ford in Geneva, "faces today the most serious tests it has ever faced: the ongoing nuclear weapons proliferation challenges presented by Iran, by North Korea and now by Syria."

Now there is some candid, unvarnished nuclear narcissism for you. An American official labels the (alleged) nuclear quests of certain non-nuclear weapon states as the "most serious" challenges confronting the NPT "ever." Yet he says not one single word about the continued deployment by the United States of nearly 10,000 nuclear weapons. Nor about its explicit and detailed plans to build new generations of both its nuclear weapons and its systems for delivering them (long-range strategic bombers, nuclear submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles) -- extended over the next three or four decades! Nor about the complete absence of any kind of initiative in Washington to even commence negotiations to comply with our Article VI obligation to achieve universal nuclear disarmament. Nor about the fundamental connection, so clearly articulated and envisioned by the framers of the NPT four long decades ago, between nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament.

One might venture to say that all those American nuclear policies, standing together, pose at least as much of a "serious test" to the fate of the NPT regime as the (alleged) nuclear activities of Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

And one might venture to suppose that Mr. Ford's single sentence in Geneva, standing alone, could be the most straightforward statement by a Bush Administration official, "ever," of America's nuclear hypocrisy.