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No frisson in talks over fission

V.R. Raghavan

V.R. Raghavan   | Photo Credit: Vino John

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The 2015 Review of the Non Proliferation Treaty is a process expected to be stormy and contentious due to a new set of geopolitical drivers. Yet again, it could leave the dream of nuclear disarmament unattained and the purpose of preventing proliferation defeated

The 2015 Review of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will take place in New York from April 27 to May 22 and the process is expected to be stormy and contentious. The event marks some significant anniversaries of conflict: the 100th — of the use of chemical weapons in Ypres, Belgium; the 70th — of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the 20th — of the indefinite extension of the NPT. A new set of geopolitical drivers will work the agendas of nuclear and non-nuclear members of the Treaty.

Coming into force in 1970, the Treaty has been subjected to numerous pulls and pressures which have left the dream of nuclear disarmament unattained and the purpose of preventing proliferation defeated. The last review, in 2010, followed the complete failure of the 2005 Review conference, as a consequence of serious disagreements which had emerged over a decade. The desire of non-nuclear states to see better progress on disarmament by the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) will figure as before. The discourse on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has given a new shape to the NPT debate.

Humanitarian impact

The NWS have not been enthused by either of these two concepts. Relations among the NWS after Russian actions in Ukraine will have a substantial impact on the conference. Moscow’s rhetoric and responses have led to a rethink on the role and relevance of nuclear deterrence, even among the non-nuclear states of eastern Europe. As if this is not enough, the situation in West Asia will loom large since it involves the uncertainties of Iran, Israel, Syria and the Islamic State (IS) in particular and the rest of the Arab world in general. In comparison, the nuclear shenanigans of North Korea which were once viewed as a major global danger, would remain a marginal issue.

The NPT Review Conference in 2010 built a hard-fought consensus based on more than 60 action points spread over three broad areas. These three “pillars” were nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. West Asia figured large, which primarily meant finding a way to a nuclear-free zone, which in turn meant addressing the issue of Israel’s nuclear weapons. This has now been much muddied by Iran’s own nuclear programme which in turn could now be resolved if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China, facilitated by the European Union) and Iran comes to fruition. Three preparatory committee (Prepcom) meetings have been held so far to prepare an agenda or work plan for the 2015 Review Conference next week. Reconciling the wide range of views of 190-member states has never been easy. Consequently, various consensus drafts have been attempted and what emerges as the agreed agenda for the conference remains to be seen. The three pillars are in themselves complex and intractable as examined hereon.

Discussing disarmament

Nuclear disarmament is possibly the easiest issue on the table, more so because there is no solution possible or even conceivable. As a result, a formulaic approach is likely to get used in which non-nuclear weapon states deplore the NWS’s lack of progress on reducing their arsenals and making good on promises made in the past. On their part, the NWS will reaffirm their commitment to disarmament, but point to the strategic security scenario to justify the incremental and slow progress so far. This will be contested strongly at the conference. The discourse on the humanitarian dangers, from the use, deliberate or accidental, of nuclear weapons either by states or non-state actors, has gathered strength. This requires, from the NWS, greater transparency and tangible steps on nuclear security. U.S. President Barack Obama has led the initiative on nuclear security through international conferences, which have yielded more statements of intentions than specific actions. This will coalesce the non-nuclear states into a large bloc demanding tangible action from the NWS. They would seek time bound progress on the long promised consultative process among the NWS.

Shifts in West Asia

West Asia has undergone significant shifts of power and capabilities since the 2010 conference. Mixed outcomes of the Arab Spring, the ongoing struggle for power within and among the states of the region, and the emergence of the IS have made West Asia a region of uncertainties. Progress on the Middle East Conference, agreed upon in 2010, has been at a glacial pace. Israel has shown no inclination to either join the conference or otherwise. Iranian obduracy — or strategic skill — in holding out against sanctions and other pressures had led to a situation where the U.S. turned towards a solution which favoured a postponed Iranian nuclear weapons capability, instead of an immediate cessation of weapons capacity building.

An agreement flowing from the JCPOA that provides for the lifting of sanctions on Iran (which has agreed to a stringent regime of nuclear regulation) will change altogether the balance of strategic strength in the region. Israel has serious objections to this plan and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent statements suggest no lowering in its hard stance on the issue. The Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in West Asia will have to be worked on wholly new parameters, whose shape and content remain unclear. The conference next week will thus provide a platform for a lively, if not hostile, conglomeration of protagonists and antagonists. Whether it leads to clarity or confusion on West Asia remains to be seen.

Developments in Ukraine

Events in the Ukraine have had a far-reaching impact in many fields, all of which have a bearing on the imminent NPT Review. Russian-U.S. strategic arms control equations have reached their nadir. Russia is unwilling to engage in negotiations on bilateral arms reductions. Its annexation of Crimea, its continuing support to dissidents in Ukraine, and the reactions to it in Europe and from the U.S., will make it more difficult than ever for the Obama administration to even contemplate unilateral reductions. It is useful to remember that Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons from its territory after the Soviet Union collapsed, only to face a Russian-directed conflict threatening to dismember it. On its part, Russia is witnessing a narrative of resurgence in the face of containment and sanctions by the West. A “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations does not seem likely in the foreseeable future. The first casualty in this stand-off will be nuclear proliferation and disarmament.

South Asia’s two states with nuclear weapons are also steadily improving their strategic capabilities of nuclear warheads, missiles and submarines. Pakistan continues to assert its new found capability in tactical nuclear weapons, as a counter to Indian conventional military capabilities. This is viewed as another form of proliferation by Western nuclear mandarins, whose best solution is confined to advising New Delhi on restraint in dealing with Pakistan.

The NPT Review 2015 will be held in a strategic scenario not very dissimilar to the Cold War antagonism of the 1980s. The glue of a globalised world economy and the prospect of a world without conflicts among developed states have been replaced by seemingly implacable positions. The situation is made explosive by the arrival on the scene of new forces of terror and coercion in and around states whose efforts had led to the signing and sustaining of the NPT over the decades. An idea of the straitjacket of ideas which drives the NPT can be had from the resolution passed in the UN last year. This had demanded that India and other non-signatories to the NPT join the Treaty as Non Nuclear Weapons States. I >ndia had rightly rejected the resolution which ignores the ground realities. Therefore, expectations are not high for the Review Conference and there are competing definitions about what will constitute success in New York. The future of the NPT seems uncertain, and the best outcome of the Review Conference may be another extension to the agreed action plans of the past, even as the Treaty has failed to either stop nuclear proliferation or encourage disarmament

(V.R. Raghavan was Commissioner on the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, and Advisor to the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament.)

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2019 6:05:12 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/no-frisson-in-talks-over-fission/article7123063.ece

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