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

The New Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation

by Bruno Tertrais, Senior Research Fellow, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique

There are two ways to interpret current evolutions on the nuclear non-proliferation scene.

One is that proliferation remains limited to a small coterie of rogue or quasi-rogue nations, such as Iran and North Korea. Another is that we are entering a new era of nuclear proliferation and that a new "wave" of proliferation is taking shape.

Whatever the interpretation, it is clear that a key threshold has been crossed in the evolution of nuclear proliferation. Evidence of "nuclear for ballistic" trade between Pakistan and the DPRK has shed new light on the "proliferation networks" that have developed since the end of the Cold war. The North Korean withdrawal from the NPT, the importance of which tends to be overshadowed by the Iraqi crisis, is a seminal event. The ripple effects are already felt in Japan. Meanwhile, Iran seems to have decided to put its nuclear program into high gear.

The current evolution stems from evolutions both on the demand side and on the supply side.

On the supply side, some States or entities have confirmed their readiness to engage in nuclear cooperation and trade without full guarantees that the recipient will not engaged in military nuclear programs. "Cooperative proliferation" is hardly a new issue. But today it increasingly concerns States or entities which are opposed to Western policies. In the best case, commercial interests are the overriding motive. In the worst case, nuclear proliferation is seen as a positive.

On the demand side, it seems that US policies have become an encouragement to nuclear proliferation.

One way to see the current preoccupations of Mr. El-Baradei's (who last week had to deal with three cases: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea) is that President Bush's axis of evil concept is being vindicated by this year's evolutions. But there is another way to look at it. Even paranoids have enemies: US policies and rhetoric cannot but encourage North Korea to develop its nuclear program.

The legitimate priority given to the war on terrorism has led the United States to adopt a more benign attitude towards traditional nuclear non-proliferation instruments. The lifting of sanctions against Pakistan and India (the second U-turn in a decade in Washington's attitude towards the Pakistani nuclear program) give the impression to some that nuclear non-proliferation is not a general principle in US policy, but just a tool in support of other policy goals. And the discussions about nuclear assistance to Pakistan, when added to previous US statements about the NPT, raise doubts about the long-term commitment to its multilateral nuclear non-proliferation commitments.

Also, there is the following paradox. The United States perceives the nuclear threat as the most important for its security, and probably believes that it acts accordingly. But at the same time, nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as the trump card to resist US "imperialism" and "aggressiveness". The US Nuclear Posture Review, the massive increase in the US defense budget, and the US National Security Strategy, tend to reinforce the belief that only nuclear weapons can guarantee your security in a militarily unipolar world. After the first Gulf war, many in developing nations concluded that one should not fight the United States without nuclear weapons. Guess what conclusions the same people will draw from the forthcoming second Gulf war?

Finally, US policies may lead to a resurgence of nuclear rhetoric as a way for States to express their opposition to Washington. It is extremely revealing that while Brazil had become a champion of nuclear disarmament in the last decade, the new team in Brasilia has chosen to refer again to the nuclear option. There is no immediate risk that a few ambiguous statements will translate into a policy. But they may contribute to a "de-legitimization of non-proliferation".

The current scene is indeed an interesting one for would-be nuclear proliferators. What they see is the United States dealing with North Korea very differently from what it does with Iraq. Some will undoubtedly conclude that if you have to decide between cheating the regime and leaving the regime, it is better altogether to leave it. (Whether we like it or not, they will also use the ABM "precedent" as an excuse.)

There are two possibilities for the future. One scenario is that of limited opaque proliferation, with a handful of States coming closer to the threshold without admitting it. We will have several other "Irans" or "Japans". Another scenario is the unravelling of the regime. It will happen if there is a "second withdrawal". In such a case, there are good chances that in 2015 we will have no less than 10 new nuclear or quasi-nuclear nations.

I do not view the NPT Review Conferences as being the key to the future of the regime. I would love to see a convincing demonstration that the full implementation of the "Thirteen Steps" agreed upon in 2000 would have any significant impact on the decision for a country to go or not go nuclear.

US policies, and also the way the UN Security Council manages proliferation crises, will be much more important. In this regard, I am not reassured by the hesitations shown by some UNSC permanent members to treat the North Korean problem at the UN level.

The US, Europe, Russia and other responsible nuclear-capable nations still have many cards to play to influence the dynamics of proliferation.

We need to continue working on both the supply side and the demand side. On the supply side, all nuclear-capable nations need to show restraint on the way they manage they nuclear assets. Others still need further enhancement of their exports controls. One particular note on the Iraqi case: it will be most useful to set up a robust cooperative threat reduction program for that country after it is disarmed, including a small center to finance nuclear scientists, akin to the International Centers for Science and Technology created in Russia and Ukraine after the Cold war.

The role of positive security guarantees in the prevention of nuclear proliferation is well-known. The confirmation and reinforcement of existing security guarantees is a key to the maintenance of barriers against further nuclear proliferation. This will leave us with some very unpleasant choices. Do the United States, the United Kingdom and France prefer continuing securing the existence of the unsavoury Saudi regime, or would we rather have an isolated nuclear Saudi Arabia?

We need to find new incentives for States to agree to enhanced safeguards. The European Union has a key role to play here, and should make full use of the "conditionality" principle. Access to European assistance, markets, and cooperation, should be conditional to the full and verified compliance with existing non-proliferation norms. As far as dialogue with nuclear threshold nations is concerned, the EU can also play a useful role provided that it fully coordinates its initiatives with those of the United States, for rogue countries have mastered the art of playing with our differences. However, we also need to be realistic: lecturing the Indians about membership in the NPT is not the most certain way for the Europeans to play a useful role in managing South Asia's nuclear problems.

We need to continue to work on the full implementation of the CWC and BWC. The chemical and biological threats have become, in the past decades, one of the primary rationales for maintaining nuclear deterrence policies. To those States who want more nuclear disarmament, we need to say: let us help first getting rid of chemical and biological weapons.

When all else has failed, deterrence and protection will remain our best chances to manage nuclear proliferation.

"Regime change" is often good for non-proliferation: but the case of Iraq is a specific one in legal terms, and will not be a model. Also, we must have no illusions: democratization is far from being tantamount to denuclearization. Let me state the obvious: among known nuclear-capable countries, six out of eight are democracies. Those who believe that a democratic Iran will be a non-nuclear Iran need a booster shot of realism.

"Preventive strike" options are increasingly likely to fail given the efforts that countries make to disperse and conceal their nuclear infrastructures. States have drawn the lessons from the 1981 Osirak bombing, and can benefit these days from the immense progress of drilling techniques. Also, the fundamental dilemma of preventive strike, recognized and epitomised by the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, remains intact: will you strike if there is a chance of retaliation or escalation?

As far as missile defenses are concerned – those who still see them as "destabilizing" should now think the following way: would you rather have missiles defenses in East Asia, or nuclear weapons in Japan and Taiwan?

A final word on Pakistan, which is fast becoming the number one nuclear problem in the world. A quasi-failing nuclear State, Pakistan is also unable or unwilling to become a responsible nuclear actor. Pakistani actors have shown their willingness to transfer nuclear expertise to several State and non-State entities. Pakistan is the missing link between a nuclear Asia and a nuclear Middle East. If things do not change, there will come a time where the denuclearization of that country one way or the other will become an option to be seriously considered.