Prepared for the CEPS/IISS European Security Forum, Brussels, 3 March 2003

Future of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime

by Gary Samore, Director of Studies, International Institute for Strategic Studies

The international nuclear nonproliferation regime is presently under siege from several different directions. Among the litany of pressures and problems:

All in all, it is not a pretty picture. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the underlying political and technical factors supporting the nuclear nonproliferation regime – the basic judgment that nuclear weapons are not essential for national security and the technical difficulties for acquiring nuclear weapons – remains intact for most NPT parties. The number of countries outside the Treaty remains small, and those inside the NPT that have violated the Treaty in letter or spirit are few. In most regions of the world – the Americas, Europe, sub Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia – proliferation of nuclear weapons is not a serious threat.

Regional Proliferation Zones

The Middle East and East Asia are the only regions where the NPT regime is under serious pressure, and in both cases, the danger is long-term erosion, rather than imminent collapse. From the standpoint of political and technical barriers to nuclear proliferation, the situations in the Middle East and East Asia are mirror opposites.

In the Middle East, the political barriers to proliferation are low – in the sense that the NPT regime does not enjoy widespread public legitimacy – but the technical barriers to acquiring nuclear weapons remain relatively high for most countries, aside from Israel, which has maintained a nuclear monopoly in the region for several decades. In this respect, Iran now appears to be only a few years away from crossing the nuclear threshold. If the uranium enrichment facility is completed, Iran could seek to divert nuclear material for weapons (in violation of IAEA safeguards) or exercise it right to withdraw from the NPT with 90 days notice and convert the facility for military uses. In the long term, other countries in the region might try to emulate Iran's example of developing fuel cycle facilities under the pretext of civilian nuclear energy and research programs, leading to a domino style collapse of nonproliferation restraints in the Middle East as countries seek to divert nuclear material or withdraw from the NPT.

In contrast to the Middle East, the technical barriers to proliferation in East Asia are low – given the advanced nuclear capabilities in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – but the political barriers remain relatively high, including public attitudes (especially in Japan) and the security ties between the U.S. and its East Asian allies, which reduce the security rational for acquiring nuclear weapons. In the long term, however, an unchecked North Korean nuclear weapons program could pressure East Asian state to hedge their bets or even withdraw from the NPT, especially if U.S. security relations in the region are weakened. In addition, should North Korea choose to sell surplus nuclear material or provide nuclear assistance, it could dramatically accelerate the pace of proliferation in regions such as the Middle East where the political desire for weapons is great, even if technical capabilities are weak.

Given these circumstances, the most important nonproliferation challenge for the coming years will be to focus on dealing with the nuclear threat of Iraq and Iran in the Middle East and North Korea in East Asia. The success or failure of these efforts will be the most important determinates for the future of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

The Middle East

The key issue for the Middle East is how a resolution of the Iraq issue will affect efforts to deal with Iran's nuclear program.

The outcome of the Iraq drama is near. In the coming weeks, Baghdad will either dramatically improve its cooperation with UN inspectors or Iraq's cooperation will remain tactical, enough to divide the UN Security Council, but not enough to satisfy Washington and London, which have apparently decided that eliminating Saddam Hussein is necessary to eliminate Iraq's WMD programs. Most likely, the U.S., UK, and a handful of allies will invade Iraq to overthrow the Iraqi regime, with or without a second UN Security Council resolution.

Either outcome – inspections or invasion – would be a success for international efforts to enforce compliance against a country that has violated the NPT and probably continues to harbor ambitions to develop nuclear weapons, although the status of its nuclear weapons program is uncertain. Most likely, Iraq has not made dramatic progress to acquire nuclear weapons since the demise of inspections in 1998, and a continuation of current IAEA inspections could provide high confidence in detecting Iraqi efforts to build clandestine facilities to produce nuclear materials. Over time, however, Baghdad's willingness to accept the current level of intrusive inspections is likely to erode if the threat of force appears to fade. From this standpoint, the replacement of the current Iraqi government is more certain to achieve a decisive and enduring solution to Iraq's nuclear ambitions. For the time being, the new government in Baghdad will likely focus on rebuilding its conventional forces under U.S. and UK protection, with less need or opportunity to revive Iraq's nuclear weapons program.

The credibility of the UN Security Council as an instrument to enforce NPT compliance in the case of Iraq will depend in large measure on whether the UN Security Council authorizes the use of force. Ideally, authorization of force could be portrayed as a warning that the UN Security Council is prepared to take strong measures against countries that pursue nuclear weapons programs in violation of their NPT commitments. Unfortunately, at this juncture, the Council appears deeply divided, and passage of a second resolution is unlikely. Even in the absence of a second resolution, however, Washington and London will attempt to justify military action against Iraq as enforcement of previous UN Security Council resolutions to disarm Iraq, including its nuclear weapons efforts.

Assuming Iraq's nuclear program is eliminated by force of arms in the near future, how will it affect Tehran's calculations and subsequent efforts to discourage Iran from pursuing its declared civilian uranium enrichment program? On one hand, the elimination of Iraq's nuclear threat will remove one significant Iranian motivation for developing a nuclear weapons option, and Iran is likely to be even more wary of pursuing policies that will attract U.S. hostility and even risk military attack. On the other hand, Tehran is likely to view development of a nuclear weapons capability as even more essential to deter U.S. pressure and efforts to change the regime.

From Tehran's standpoint, the ideal solution to this dilemma is to offer assurances of its peaceful intent, while developing a nuclear weapons capability as quickly as possible, which presumably explains Iran's recent decision to allow IAEA access to its enrichment facility while it is still under construction and to promise IAEA inspections once the plant is operational. Tehran has also signaled its willingness to accept additional safeguards measures to give maximum confidence against the risk of diversion and existence of undeclared facilities.

Given the status of its nuclear power program, however, Iran's claim that the enrichment program is intended for civilian fuel production is not likely to be accepted by Washington. Even if safeguards provide adequate protection against the risk of diversion – an assurance that is doubted in Washington – Iran could still acquire nuclear weapons materials on fairly short notice if it withdrew from the NPT once the plant is operational. To secure minimal Iranian cooperation in the impending war against Iraq, Washington has deliberately avoided making a major issue of Iran's enrichment program. Once the war against Iraq is over, however, the U.S. is very likely to turn to its attention to Iran, which presents an easier (though less urgent) proliferation problem than North Korea.

Washington has not yet decided what strategy to pursue, but the usual debate can be expected. Some officials will emphasize the use of threats and pressure to intimidate Tehran to abandon its enrichment program, including efforts to encourage the emergence of "moderate" elements in Iran who may be more willing to sacrifice Iran's nuclear weapons option to appease American hostility. As a last resort, preemptive military strikes against the enrichment plant will be seriously considered. Other officials will argue that international pressure should be augmented by incentives, such as accepting Iranian access to nuclear power assistance and secure fuel supplies if Iran agrees to forego development of an indigenous fuel production capability.

Critical to the success of any future American strategy to halt Iran's enrichment program will be whether Washington can enlist the support of key powers with influence in Tehran, including the UK, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia (Iran's sole nuclear supplier), which share Washington's interest in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The lingering effects of disagreement over Iraq is likely to obstruct development of a common policy towards Iran, but the need to deal with Iran could also provide an issue to help heal wounds among the U.S., UK and its allies.

The Far East

Clearly, Washington's efforts to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons program have failed. After confronting North Korea with its nuclear cheating last October, the U.S. effectively ruled out either military force or bilateral negotiations, and sought to orchestrate political and economic pressures to force North Korea to abandon its secret enrichment program. Rather than capitulate, however, Pyongyang retaliated with familiar brinkmanship, seeking to pressure Washington into negotiations or, if that failed, to enhance its nuclear capabilities. Rather than rally international support, the U.S. has found itself at odds with China and its East Asian allies, especially South Korea, which are wary of pressuring North Korea and prefer that Washington negotiate a solution directly with Pyongyang.

For the near term, the situation is likely to get worse. With Washington's focus on Iraq, and the divisions between Washington and Seoul, North Korea appears intent on resuming reprocessing and recovering enough plutonium for a few nuclear weapons in the coming months. The IAEA Board of Governors has reported North Korea's NPT violations to the Security Council, but the Council is unlikely to take strong action to deter reprocessing, given New York's focus on Iraq and the refusal of key countries to even threaten sanctions. As much as Beijing opposes North Korea's nuclear program, it does not appear willing to cut off vital assistance that could precipitate the collapse of Kim Jong-Il's regime or trigger a war on the peninsula.

In theory, the U.S. could mount air strikes to destroy North Korea's plutonium production facilities – a threat that North Korea takes seriously – but at the risk of causing a broader conflict and splintering the alliance with South Korea. As a basis for bilateral negotiations with Washington, Pyongyang claims it is willing to re-institute the freeze on plutonium production, but the U.S. continues to refuse bilateral negotiations unless North Korea first agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. In an effort to break the impasse, U.S. diplomats have tried to organize multilateral talks, which might provide a cover for bilateral U.S.-DPRK talks to begin, but Pyongyang has insisted on direct negotiations with Washington.

Assuming that North Korea proceeds with reprocessing, however, the immediate proliferation threat is limited. For over a decade, North Korea was believed to have enough plutonium for 1-2 nuclear weapons, and the amount of additional plutonium that North Korea can recover in coming months is relatively small (about 30 kilograms). At least for the immediate future, a few additional North Korean nuclear weapons is unlikely to trigger decisions in Tokyo or Seoul to acquire nuclear weapons, although a North Korean nuclear test could begin to shake confidence in the NPT. Pyongyang is also likely to require the small amount of additional plutonium immediately available for its own military needs, leaving little surplus for sale. Over several years, however, North Korea could substantially expand its capability to produce plutonium and highly enriched uranium, which would pose a much more serious proliferation threat.

Once North Korea has finished reprocessing (and the Iraq campaign is over), Washington's debate over North Korea policy is likely to intensify. For some, the U.S. should respond with more concerted efforts to isolate and sanction Pyongyang, in hopes of undermining the regime. For others, the U.S. should respond with more concerted efforts to negotiate a comprehensive and rigorous agreement, in hopes of ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The most effective strategy may need to combine pressure and negotiations: the threat of sanctions are necessary to buttress negotiations to secure North Korean concessions, but support from key Asian powers to impose sanctions will require demonstrating that a negotiated solution has blocked by North Korean intransigence and unrealistic demands.


The nuclear nonproliferation regime is under greatest threat in the Middle East and East Asia, depending on efforts to deal with nuclear programs in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. In the near future, Iraq's nuclear program is likely to be eliminated by force of arms, creating both opportunities and obstacles to dealing with Iran's nuclear program. Once the Iraq war is over, Washington will also focus new energy on responding to North Korea's nuclear threat. In both cases, the U.S. will need to resolve internal debates and coordinate efforts with other critical countries to design an approach that maximizes pressure and incentives.