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Wed. October 04, 2023
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IAF Editorials
Strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime
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By Abhinav Dutta

Since its entry into force in 1970, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) should have effectively served as the cornerstone for the norms against nuclear proliferation. The first three articles (Articles I, II, and III) of the NPT seek to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons, require non-nuclear states to accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards to verify their nuclear activities, and link safeguards to export controls.[1] The challenges to the NPT regime, however, are immense because of cases where even parties to the NPT have been found violating nonproliferation obligations (for example, North Korea and Iran). In addition to state-proliferation, non-state actors (such as Al Qaeda) have also expressed interest in building nuclear weapons and have been found engaging in illicit nuclear trade. Therefore, the need for addressing the whole range of proliferation threats is being widely recognized, and over a period of time, new international initiatives (such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and National Security Summits) led by the major powers such as the United States (US) have been created that are further complementing the nuclear nonproliferation regime and nonproliferation efforts.[2]

The most dangerous problem that the world faces is the spread of uranium enrichment and reprocessing technology. These dangers are major threats to the viability of the nonproliferation regime. Many states have undergone clandestine nuclear activities, and mostly have been benefitted from the AQ Khan-led nuclear proliferation network revealed in Pakistan that had a widespread international black market that sold designs, plans, and equipment to states such Iran, Libya, and North Korea, and perhaps others. North Korea withdrew from NPT in 2003 and conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 (the latest test was conducted in 2016). Likewise, Iran was covertly engaged in enriching uranium in suspected reactors in violation of the nonproliferation obligations (Iran was part of NPT) and in defiance of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. It is likely that states may take advantages of the privileges of NPT by joining as non-nuclear states by using peaceful use of nuclear energy as a cover, thereby developing clandestine nuclear enrichment and reprocessing program. Also, because of proliferation networks such as the one led by AQ Khan or even with the help of non-state actors, it is likely that more states would pursue clandestine uranium enrichment and reprocessing efforts.[3]

The ability of the NPT to detect noncompliance of the international safeguards (IAEA) and ensuring enforcement as quickly as possible would be crucial so as to ensure the effectiveness and credibility of the regime. Detecting enrichment and reprocessing is very difficult, and thus are conducive to clandestine nuclear programs. It is also widely believed that Article IV of NPT does not really prevent states from declared uranium and reprocessing.[4] Therefore, detection and prevention on time would be crucial to avert regional proliferation concerns that could arise if a country does acquire nuclear weapons capability. For instance, if Iran happened to acquire nuclear weapons, it could have triggered a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, where many countries have already expressed their interests in nuclear power facilities (the P-5+1-Iran nuclear deal that reached its conclusion in July 2015 attempts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions for at least a decade). Envisioning appropriate criteria for granting the privileges of NPT to states for trade and commerce of nuclear technology would be crucial to prevent proliferation of dual-use capabilities for enrichment and reprocessing to countries with ambiguous intentions. Also, the need for an effective strategy to deal with issues such as spread of dangerous technologies to other states and addressing issues related to withdrawal from NPT would be crucial to prevent concerns related to horizontal nuclear proliferation.[5]

Until recently, many non-nuclear states have also been voicing their concerns regarding the commitment of the major powers in achieving global and complete nuclear disarmament. The continued possession of nuclear weapons by the five de jure nuclear weapon states (US, Russia, United Kingdom, France, and China) and their inability to completely disarm their arsenals make the non-nuclear states majority to rethink on the need to further strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Article VI of the NPT obliges the nuclear weapon states to negotiate in good faith towards nuclear disarmament.[6] This article is one of the crucial pillars of the NPT and the NPT review conferences of 1995 and 2000 have specifically attached importance to the goal of achieving universal and complete nuclear disarmament.[7] While the US and Russia have undertaken considerable steps to reduce their respective stockpiles of nuclear warheads with the signing of the START treaties (the latest one being the New START Treaty that entered into force in 2011), counties like China and Pakistan are expanding their nuclear forces.[8] Also, the inability of the international community to reach to a consensus on speedier entry into force of Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) because of complex approaches by the major countries is further adding to the frustrations of non-nuclear states.[9] The culmination of words into substance seems a distant reality as of today.[10]

The international community, on the other hand, has made some major stride in engaging with countries that continue to remain outside of NPT. For example, despite India being a non-signatory to the NPT, India was granted a Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver in 2008, which meant that India was allowed to carry out civilian nuclear trade and commerce with the 48 members of the group (the waiver followed after the US-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement of 2005, which reached its conclusion in 2008). This is fundamentally a unique case here as the NSG waiver extends the benefits of being a member to the NPT to a state, which is a non-party to the regime. Given India’s clean proliferation record, the US and Russia have continued to show support for India’s membership into other multilateral security regimes such as the Australia Group, Wasenaar Arrangement, and the Missile Technology Control Regime (India joined MTCR in 2016). However, other non-signatories to NPT such as Pakistan have also shown their desire for similar treatment, and has prompted Israel to argue for a criteria-based approach to civil nuclear trade with NSG.[11] Some observers are highly critical with regards to the developments so far citing that the NPT regime in a way has been damaged because of concessions that have been given to some countries (such as India).[12]

One of the most crucial issues that have been at the center stage for discussion and debate is the establishment of WMD-free zone in the Middle East.[13] The 1995 NPT Review Conference had called for “the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems”. The proposal was first put forward by Egypt in 1990 that expanded the longstanding calls to establish a Nuclear-Weapons-Free-Zone (NWFZ) in Middle East, which can be dated as early as 1974. Despite international support for establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, practical process has halted because of sharp disagreements between the countries in the region over the terms of the proposal. Israel has consistently voiced concerns over the proposal to establish a WMD-free zone in the region citing its own national security concerns (Israel continues to stay out of NPT). At the 2010 NPT Review Conference, the state parties agreed on certain practical steps to make progress towards establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, and committed for a regional conference in 2012. However, the conference was postponed on declaration by the US citing concerns over the “present conditions in the Middle East” and the lack of “acceptable conditions”, and it was never rescheduled. In the 2015 NPT review conference, the US rejected the wordings of the document on the Middle East, thereby derailing the whole process of adoption of the final document.[14] Establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East has been a longstanding but an elusive goal for the international community.

The international context, however, is rapidly changing, which calls for speedier reforms in the nonproliferation regime. There is an urgency to address the inherent flaws in the nonproliferation regime (such as the discrimination between nuclear “haves” and “have-nots”) and to address to the nuclear issues in the present day international security environment, where the role of international leaders such as the US would be crucial to keep a check on nuclear proliferation. Also, multilateral coordination and strict enforcement of the regime will prove essential for preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology to hostile states so as to ensure a safer world. The newly emerging threats from non-state actors and the probable threat of ‘nuclear terrorism’ further calls for strengthening the regime by incorporating stringent measures that also looks into different kinds of proliferation risks that could emanate from illicit nuclear trade. Also, the lack of progress towards achieving global nuclear disarmament and over the NPT proposal of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East raises questions about the support the treaty enjoys, and further incites debates on the need to update and strengthen the regime so as to address to the wide-ranging nuclear issues in the world.

Abhinav Dutta is currently working on his MA in Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal University, Karnataka, India.  He holds a B Sc in Geology (Honors) from the University of Delhi, Delhi, India. His research interests are International Relations Theory, International and Strategic Negotiations, Political Thought and Theory, and US Foreign Poli


[1] “The Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)”, The United Nations, see http://www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2005/npttreaty.html, accessed on 14 February 2016.

[2] “The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Promoting Nonproliferation”, US Department of State, 2015, see http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/239799.pdf, accessed on 14 February 2016.

[3] Paul Lettow, “Strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime”, Council on Foreign Relations (New York), 2010, see http://www.cfr.org/content/publications/attachments/Nonproliferation_CSR54.pdf, accessed on 14 February 2016.

[4] Article IV (Clause 1) gives states the inalienable right to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Clause 2 of Article IV gives states the right to conduct full participation with other states for exchange of equipment, materials, and technology for peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

[5] n. 3.

[6] Article VI states “each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

[7] NPT Review Conference of 2000 adopted the final document highlighting thirteen (13) practical steps for achieving the objective of global and complete nuclear disarmament.

[8] The US and Russia together possess as many as 14,700 nuclear warheads in their inventories, as per Federation of American Scientists data in a report titled “Status of World Nuclear Forces” released by Federation of American Scientists in 2015. China has approximately 260 nuclear warheads, and is continuing to modernize its nuclear forces. Pakistan has 120-130 nuclear warheads, and is producing more fissile materials for making new nukes. India has approximately 110 to 120 nuclear warheads. See “Status of World Nuclear Forces”, Federation of American Scientists (Washington D.C.), 2015, at http://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/, accessed on 14 February 2016.

[9] Daryl G. Kimball, “Strengthening the NPT: Challenges and Solutions for the 2010 NPT Review Conference”, Arms Control Association (Washington D.C.), 31 March 2010, see https://www.armscontrol.org/events/StrengtheningNPT, accessed on 14 February 2016.

[10] In the speech by the US President Barack Obama in Prague in April 2009, he said that the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is difficult to imagine in his lifetime. He also argued for pursuing aggressively for the US ratification of FMCT and CTBT. See President Obama’s speech at The White House website at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-barack-obama-prague-delivered, accessed on 14 February 2016.

[11] n. 9.

[12] Ibid.

[13] There are five nuclear weapon free zone treaties namely the Treaty of Rarotonga (South Pacific) – 1986, the Treaty of Bangkok (Southeast Asia) – 1997, the Treaty of Tlatelolco (Latin America and the Caribbean) – 2002, the Treaty of Semipalatinsk (Central Asia) – 2009, and the Treaty of Pelandaba (Africa) – 2009; Other treaties that deal with denuclearization of certain areas are the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the Seabed Treaty of 1972, and the Moon Agreement of 1984; Article VII of the NPT supports the conclusion of nuclear-weapons-free-zone (NWFZ) treaties among states from a particular region that aim for territories free of nuclear weapons.

[14] “WMD-Free Middle East Proposal At A Glance”, Arms Control Association (Washington D.C.), updated as of June 2015, see https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/mewmdfz, accessed on 14 February 2016; There have been four instances out of the nine NPT Review Conferences (1980, 1990, 2005, and 2015) so far where final documents have not been adopted.


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