Prospects for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Review Conference

Spring 2010 has offered a bounty of arms control. First came the new START treaty that promises to reduce Russian-American deployed nuclear arsenals. Then the Washington D.C. nuclear terrorism summit garnered the consensus of nearly 50 leaders to expedite efforts to reduce the vulnerability of nuclear materials to terrorist diversion. While neither measure marked a revolutionary dampening of atomic risks, we can still welcome the incrementalism.

Now comes the final nuclear arms control leg of the season, the May 3, three-week Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference that convenes in New York. But this meeting will be different. The gathering, that brings together many of the 180 plus NPT parties, will include adversaries that repeatedly have butted heads over Treaty compliance. Whether diplomacy can overcome acrimony remains to be seen.

The Review Conference, which meets every five years, comes against a troubling backdrop. In 2005 conferees failed to come to agreement. In subsequent years North Korea conducted nuclear tests and today shows no inclination to rejoin the NPT. Iran continues to resist Security Council resolutions to halt nuclear enrichment. Syria, a surprising new proliferation contender (at least until 2007 when Israel bombed a secret reactor), continues to defy IAEA requests for inspections.

All is not gloom. The United States comes to the gathering in a better diplomatic position than 2005 to promote its agenda. Then Washington opposed ratification of the comprehensive test ban. It had not entered into a full-fledged replacement agreement for the strategic arms reduction treaty. The Obama administration, which struck a new direction in both regards, has added a new wrinkle to delimit nuclear use. In the recent Nuclear Posture Review U.S. defense planners now exclude targeting countries without nuclear weapons.

But for many review conference attendees, Washington's nuclear arms control, along with the failure of Russia, China, Britain and France to eliminate arsenals, marks a slap to fulfillment of NPT Article VI that calls for the abolishment of nuclear arsenals "at an early date," an ambition uttered forty years ago. Although some conferees will make hay over the disarmament failure, there will be little ardor to sink the review conference over this issue.

What poses greater challenge will be the jousting over steps to assure Treaty compliance of non nuclear weapons parties. Washington and others will press for universal adoption of the Additional Protocol, that allows IAEA inspection of all suspect nuclear sites. Only half of NPT parties have ratified the Protocol, neither Iran or Syria among them. The U.S. likely will call for language to hold countries that exit the Treaty - a legal option under Article X - to be accountable for cheating during their tenure.

Iran will rebut that it and others cannot be held to a protocol or UN sanctions that impede the "inalienable" right of all under NPT Article IV to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. To put the United States on the defensive, Tehran and allies will attempt to make Israel's nuclear program the region's atomic pariah.

As this banter proceeds, coalitions of countries, as they have in the past, will attempt to lock down matters generally of common concern. This includes a treaty banning the production of fissile material, global ratification of the nuclear test ban treaty, a call upon states outside the NPT to join not only the treaty but regional nuclear free zones, reaffirmation of IAEA safeguards, access to civil nuclear technology without discrimination for countries in good standing and implementation of reactor safety standards, plant security and safeguards against theft of sensitive nuclear material or equipment.

These benign principals may serve as the core of the conference's consensus document. Coupled with vague language that papers over differences on treaty compliance, and advances nonbinding endorsement of a Middle East Free Zone and the principal of nuclear disarmament, the meeting could end with an agreement that nominally reinvigorates the NPT.

Of course, such an accord that fails to include implementation timetables and biting enforcement mechanisms to combat cheating ought satisfy no one. But it may suffice as long as it does no harm to institutions responsible for the real nonproliferation heavy lifting, the IAEA, the Security Council and diplomats and defense planers in individual countries and alliances that make it their mission to prevent proliferation. Evidently in a world of conflicting interests, this is the best we can do.