A Bumpy Road Ahead for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

To an outside observer, the recent high-level Preparatory Committee meeting of the Non-Proliferation Treaty appeared to be a restrained affair despite tensions over Iran, North Korea, and lack of disarmament progress. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the road ahead for the Treaty is far from smooth.

18/05/12 - Earlier this month, this correspondent had the opportunity to observe the proceedings of the 2012 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Preparatory Committee (or 'PrepCom'). Representatives from 110 countries and over 60 non-governmental organisations met in Vienna to discuss progress in nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.Reports from the meeting highlighted its smooth progression and temperate tone. While the overall atmosphere was indeed congenial, those on the sidelines of the meeting witnessed a few notable exceptions (namely, rhetorical exchanges with Iran) and some tense undercurrents that failed to make their way into recorded remarks. Together, these suggest that rough waters may be ahead for the NPT, and the tone of subsequent PrepComs may be much less positive.

Two Years of Turmoil

Preparatory Committees form an integral part of the five-year NPT review cycle. In 1995, States party to the Treaty agreed to enhance its review process by including 10-day Preparatory Committees in each of the three years leading up to a Review Conference.

The 2012 PrepCom was therefore the first meeting of NPT States party since the last Review Conference. That Conference was largely successful, having produced a consensus final document and a 64-point Action Plan covering the three NPT pillars. Most notably, the Action Plan resolved that Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) shall reduce their nuclear stockpiles and the role of nuclear weapons in national doctrine, and report on their progress to the 2014 PrepCom.

Some significant developments and noteworthy expectations have peppered the interlude since States party to the Treaty last convened in 2010. Concerns over the Iranian nuclear programme have spiked.  A bilateral 'Leap Day Agreement' between Pyongyang and Washington quickly fell apart after North Korea launched an Unha-3 rocket. And there seems to be waning momentum on disarmament fuelled by stagnating discussions between the US and Russia on ballistic missile defence and tactical nuclear weapons.

Smooth Start, Smooth Finish

The latest Preparatory Committee's restrained atmosphere was determined when the agenda was set without debate. This is a rare occurrence, as the composition and ordering of agenda items tend to become politicised by governments. Iran, for instance, held up the 2007 PrepCom for days over an agenda-based disagreement.

Discussions on the disarmament 'cluster' similarly finished over half a day ahead of schedule, with only a handful of countries making statements. This was particularly unexpected, as the perceived lack of tangible disarmament progress by NWS has traditionally been a point of tension in the NPT regime.

Several states that did offer comments hailed the expanding disarmament discussion between the Permanent Five (P5) - a forum that has gained increased attention since those countries first met in London in 2009. At PrepCom, US Ambassador Susan Burk delivered a statement on behalf of the P5, which reportedly took six months of intense negotiation to draft. She announced that the next meeting will be held this June, and that China is leading on the development of a common glossary of nuclear terms -- an important starting point for forming shared understanding of national transparency declarations.[1] This focus on the sporadic meetings and intitiatives in the P5 forum offered an opportunity for PrepCom delegations to sidestep the difficult issue of decelerating bilateral US-Russia and unilateral disarmament progress.

Also helping to foster an air of congeniality was discussion of the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons. A largely civil society-driven initiative, recognition of the 'catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons' featured in Conclusion 5 of the 2010 Action Plan. The grotesque humanitarian consequences of nuclear use was a point of widespread agreement between states participating in PrepCom. Switzerland issued a joint statement on the topic on behalf of sixteen countries. Even Russia unexpectedly devoted several minutes in the disarmament cluster to a description, in visceral detail, of what a nuclear detonation might do to those within blast radius.[2] Moscow ordinarily reserves its comments for discussing national disarmament progress and reiterating the importance of action to strengthen the non-proliferation pillar. Frequent mention of this theme suggests it will likely remain a component of the disarmament debate in the coming years.

Delegations were, for the most part, also quite restrained in treating the proliferation 'hard cases' in their official statements. In March, shortly after North Korea (DPRK) agreed to suspend nuclear and missile testing and permit IAEA inspections in exchange for US food aid, there was a sliver of hope that North Korea would send representatives to PrepCom. North Korea's April rocket launch and Washington's subsequent suspension of the 'Leap Day Agreement' made that an even more remote possibility. However, these developments did not alter the moderate tone of the meeting. In fact, throughout the conference, the Chairperson continued to keep the DPRK's country placard tucked neatly away in his jacket pocket, just in case delegates from Pyongyang appeared.

In the same vein, while many states cited concern over developments in Iran, few were fiery in tone. Most surprisingly, in general debate at the opening of the conference, US Ambassador Susan Burk did not mention Iran once.

The Exception: Select Spats over Iran

One of the only heated exchanges at the conference occurred as a result of that glaring absence of an Iranian reference in Ambassador Burk's comments. Offering a spectacle for those on the sidelines, the Iranian delegation, not far after the US on the speaking list, seemed to descend into panic; their prepared remarks were likely framed as a rebuttal to anticipated US condemnation of Tehran's nuclear programme.

Iran then promptly had itself moved down the speakers list. Easing the Iranian redrafting process, the French offered a scathing criticism of Iran's suspected non-compliance with its UN Security Council  and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) obligations. The Iranian crisis, they said, undermines not only regional and international security, '[It] touch[es] the very substance of the agreement contained in the NPT'.[3]

France was therefore in the crosshairs when the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister was finally given the floor the next morning. 'It is an open secret', he said, 'that France is the only NPT State party that has categorically rejected the legal obligations for disarmament in both word and action, and has tried to invent a new concept of conditional disarmament.' Furthermore, he asserted that nuclear cooperation under the Anglo-French defence treaty is an example of hypocrisy by Nuclear Weapons States.[4] This brief reciprocal mudslinging was however, the notable exception to PrepCom's generally restrained approach to the Iranian nuclear programme.

Washington issued more explicit condemnation of the Iranian nuclear programme when debate turned to the non-proliferation pillar during PrepCom's second week. The EU statement also garnered attention. At the last round of EU3+3 negotiations with Iran in Istanbul, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said; 'We have agreed that the non-proliferation treaty forms a key basis for what must be serious engagement to ensure that all the obligations under the treaty are met by Iran while fully respecting Iran's right to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy'.[5] This was sufficiently vague to allow speculation by analysts on whether the EU3+3 might compromise on the issue of uranium enrichment, reading enrichment or a certain level of it back into 'Iran's right'.[6]

The EU's statement in the PrepCom debate was comparatively unambiguous; its position at the negotiating table with Iran adheres to current United Nations Security Council policy. 'Iran must suspend its enrichment activities and heavy water related projects, including research and development...Bringing into force an Additional Protocol is also a requirement under UNSC resolutions.'[7]

The Unspoken Fear: A DPRK Nuclear Test

Inside the plenary room, states repeated their longstanding concern over Pyongyang's continuing nuclear developments outside of the NPT. However, those lines felt formulaic, having been stated at NPT meetings with little textual amendment since North Korea withdrew from the Treaty in 2003.

Outside of the plenary room the picture was different. There was fresh and widespread concern that North Korea is back to belligerence in its cycle of provocation and negotiation.[8] A number of Western representatives quietly mentioned their fear that Pyonyang would conduct another nuclear test while PrepCom was in session, drastically altering the  meeting's tone.

Short-lived Calm?

Apparent restraint at PrepCom, at least on the record, can be explained by a few factors. The residual co-operative spirit from 2010 is likely to have contributed to the atmosphere at this year's meeting. States remained cautiously optimistic that progress against the Action Plan could yet be made, but were unwilling to exert the political energy required to re-visit all of the points outlined in that Plan (especially on the disarmament front) quite so soon. The 'P5 disarmament progress' and 'humanitarian consequences' themes therefore flourished in this environment.

Benefiting the balanced tone of the meeting was the fact that many participating states avoided making comments which they felt might jeopardise the forthcoming EU3+3 talks with Iran. It is hoped that those negotiations will produce a framework for increasing international confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme. Had PrepCom taken place earlier in 2012, when EU3+3 talks with Iran were not yet a reality, the situation may have been very different.

However, the calm among NPT states may be short-lived. If negotiations with Iran in May bear little fruit, or North Korea  tests a nuclear device, restraint by Western nations and many others may deteriorate quickly. The next PrepCom could involve a much more overt rhetorical confrontation over how best to deal with the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes in the context of the NPT. 

Similarly, as we approach the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) disarmament reporting deadline in 2014, Non-Nuclear Weapons States may feel increasingly willing to develop a yardstick for measuring NWS disarmament progress, and apply it. The P5 process in this context could be a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, P5 discussions are better facilitated behind closed doors, where confidence building can be carefully balanced with national security concerns and progress is more likely to be made. On the other, the P5 process is therefore largely opaque. Agreements made in private will not be enough for Non-Nuclear Weapons States, who will expect the P5 to substantiate action against their disarmament commitments. The challenge for the Nuclear Weapons States will therefore be to maintain a level of transparency acceptable to Non-Nuclear Weapons States if increased tensions are to be avoided.

Developments on these fronts over the next year will certainly affect the dynamics at the 2013 PrepCom in Geneva, and the result may not be so restrained.

Andrea Berger is a Research Fellow at RUSI. Andrea had the privilege of observing the recent NPT Preparatory Committee Meeting in May.

*Photo Courtesy of IAEA


[1] Andrea Berger and Malcolm Chalmers (eds.) 'Forging UK-China Consensus on a Strengthened NPT Regime', Occasional Paper, RUSI, March 2012, p.5

[2] The text of the speech was not distributed.

[3] 'Statement by the Head of the French Delegation during General Debate', First Meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference',  30 April 2012

[4] 'Statement by H.E. Mr. Mohammad Mahdi Akhondzadeh', First Meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference',  2 May 2012

[5] 'Obama rejects Netanyahu's claim on Iran nuclear "freebie"', CNN News, 16 April 2012,

[6] See, for example: Daniel Brumberg, 'Despite big unresolved issues, progress in Iran nuclear negotiations', United States Institute for Peace, 19 April 2012

[7] 'EU Statement on Cluster II Issues', First Meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference,  7 May 2012

[8]  Heather W. Williams, 'Missilliness: What Would Reagan Do?', King's of War, 17 April 2012,


Andrea Berger

Associate Fellow

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