NPT Review Conference Gets Regime Back On Track

UNObama administration officials had vigorously sought to lower expectations for reaching a global consensus during the month long twice-decade conference that reviews the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher said as much here at the Center for American Progress. But in the end the conference delivered what they said was unlikely, a consensus among all 189 countries.

The consensus was achieved on the last day of the conference and succeeded in getting all 189 countries to renew their commitments to the 40 year old treaty that undergirds the nonproliferation regime and serves to prevent the nuclear proliferation damn from breaking. The US had hoped to get countries to agree to stronger safeguard and inspection measures, but since the review operates by consensus getting all 189 countries party to the treaty to sign up to anything is quite an accomplishment (just ask those at Copenhagen last December).

Nevertheless, the consensus in support of the treaty is important because it affirms that the treaty’s central bargain – which holds that non-nuclear states agree not to develop nuclear weapons and in exchange nuclear armed states pledge to reduce their arsenals and give non-nuclear states access to civilian nuclear technology – remains in tact. Over the last decade, the treaty and the non-proliferation regime was pushed to its breaking point. The 2005 conference ended in acrimony, as the Bush administration’s regressive approach to non-proliferation and their overall disdain for multilateralism and global cooperation meant the conference failed before it ever started. Furthermore, the US-India nuclear deal negotiated by the Bush administration further undercut the treaty and was seen by non-nuclear NPT members as a real slap in the face, as India is not a member of the NPT. Egypt’s U.N. ambassador, Maged Abdel Aziz, who led the large non-aligned bloc during negotiations, explained:

If you say countries outside the treaty are going to get … even more benefits than countries inside the treaty, than what is the benefit for me to bind myself with more [nonproliferation] restrictions?

As a result, getting a consensus document this time around has gotten the regime back on track and has helped move past the regressive years of the Bush administration. An Obama administration official exclaimed:

We’ve got the NPT back on track. There was so much criticism about 2005… and a lot of doom and gloom about the treaty failing… We have to hold this treaty together.

Yet much attention in the US press has focused on the main US “concession,” which saw the US agree to back the holding of a conference on a nuclear-free Middle East that involves Israel. Defensive quotes from American officials, disguise the fact that this agreement is nothing new and was essentially what was agreed to at the 1995 conference. George Perkovich of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted that:

If Israel were to participate, the states that don’t even recognize its existence now–that don’t have diplomatic relations with it, that don’t meet openly with Israeli officials–would have to come sit with Israel and begin discussions on what would it take to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction…That means that Iran would have to recognize Israel, which it doesn’t now, as would Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, and so forth… Israel can’t be forced to give up its nuclear capability. Rather than being defensive and pretending that this hasn’t been an issue all these years, it’s better for Israel to step forward and invite the other states in the region and say, “OK, you want to make this a zone free of weapons of mass destruction? What are you prepared to do?”

In the end, as Perkovich noted this NPT review conference was an “incremental success” and ensures that the global nuclear security agenda remains on track. Additionally, while the final document did not mention Iran by name, it did call on states that are not compliant with the treaty to come into compliance. This was clearly directed at Iran and had strong backing and demonstrated a growing international frustration with Iranian actions. Far from undermining the US sanctions efforts, which the Iranians had hoped to do, those efforts have in the end been strengthened by the conference.