by Laura Pelzmann
“Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are not utopian ideals. They are critical to global peace and security.” – Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations.
In April, a preliminary agreement between the United States and Iran offered hope that a responsible nuclear plan might finally be possible. Negotiations between the P5 + 1 (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which include China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Germany) and Iran continue in Vienna, parallel to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York.
A landmark international treaty, the NPT has an integral role to play in the international arena, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons technology as well as promoting peaceful uses of atomic energy. While 191 countries are members of the NPT, only five states are officially recognized as nuclear-weapon states, although other countries are presumed or have admitted to having nuclear weapon programs.
Although the NPT enjoys almost universal membership and serves as the only binding multilateral treaty aimed at nuclear disarmament, there have been a few cases in particular that highlight the NPT’s loopholes. Although in possession of nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan have not signed the treaty. North Korea ratified the treaty but later withdrew, and Israel, a country considered to possess nuclear weapons, has never signed.
Calling the NPT “the best tool” in the fight for a world without nuclear weapons, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, stressed the importance of the NPT while underlining the significance of the negotiations with Iran aiming at bringing Iran back into compliance with its obligations under the NPT.
Although different in scope, at the heart of both the NPT Review Conference and the Iran talks lies the issue of nuclear proliferation. The ongoing discussions, by virtue of their global and political separation, fail to take a holistic approach to the issue of nuclear proliferation. Ultimately, both the 2015 NPT Review Conference in New York and the ongoing Iran negotiations in Vienna are concerned with the future of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
While most countries agree that nuclear disarmament are goals worthy of pursuit, as can be seen from the NPT’s next to universal scope, some have voiced skepticism over a possible agreement between the P5 + 1 and Iran – Israel being the frontrunner of said group. This agreement aims to restrain Iran’s nuclear program and to ensure that it will only move forward for peaceful uses in accordance with the obligations laid out under the NPT.
For the first time in twenty years, Israel took park in an NPT conference even though it is the only Middle Eastern country assumed to have a nuclear arsenal. Due to Israeli worries of Iranian “anti-Zionist” attitude coupled with ongoing negotiations between the United States and Iran, Israel hoped that participation in the NPT Review Conference would make it possible to engage anxious Arab nations in dialogue. Israel deems Iran to be a major threat and fears that an arrangement with the P5 + 1 would concede too much freedom to Iran concerning nuclear issues.
Regardless of whether these concerns are well-founded or not, Western nations, in particular the United States, have often been accused of promoting a double-standard by sanctioning Iran for not following its obligations under the NPT while simultaneously refusing to submit Israel to the international supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Following objections voiced by Israel, the 2015 NPT Review Conference ended without a concluding statement due to the United States, together with the United Kingdom and Canada, blocking the statement. As all decisions must be made by consensus, the final outcome of the NPT Review Conference was, as the New York Times put it, “a reminder of the deep divisions over the future of nuclear weapons and what efforts should be made to eliminate them.”
Having discussed whether or not to make the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone by 2016, it was expected that the final draft of the concluding statement would require the United Nations Secretary General to convene another conference on this topic. However, because of disagreement over the proposal and the condition of consensus, this plan has failed.
The proposal, which was supported by many Arab states, amongst others, was intended to focus on Israel’s assumed nuclear weapons program while both Israel and the U.S. agree that Iran poses the regional threat.
Despite the fact that the 2015 NPT Review Conference missed its goal, the Iran talks between the P5 + 1 and Iran are being continued in Austria’s capital. Focusing solely on Iran’s nuclear program and the sanctions relief, the negotiations deal little with regional balance. After the failure of this year’s NPT Review Conference, the Iran talks have nevertheless provided a spark of hope. They might not deal with Israeli-Iranian relations or the question of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, but the framework offers a great opportunity.
An agreement between the P5 + 1 and Iran has yet to be concluded, and it would be a mistake to draw early conclusions. Nothing is set in stone, but if the talks continue as planned, the agreement would prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and constrain the Iranian nuclear program. Furthermore, it would put Iran under supervision of the international nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, as well as grant sanctions relief, thereby promoting economic recovery and improving international relations.