Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman caused a media stir in March when he warned that Saudi Arabia will develop a nuclear weapon if Iran does, raising the troubling possibility of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. "Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb," the crown prince told the CBS news program 60 Minutes, "but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible." Salman's remarks came as President Donald Trump considers whether to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and amid tensions over North Korea's nuclear weapons testing. Nuclear proliferation has reentered the heart of the global security discourse.
Stratfor's 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast noted that an increasingly competitive dynamic between the United States, Russia and China will unavoidably degrade the world's arms control treaties.
A Remarkable Success
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which opened for signing 50 years ago on July 1, 1968, governs the pursuit of nuclear weapons and associated technologies. The treaty effectively bars any state outside the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom) from possessing nuclear weapons. Such a possession or pursuit is known as nuclear proliferation. Practically all countries — India, Pakistan and Israel being the main exceptions — have signed the treaty; North Korea withdrew in 2003.
In the early years after its invention, the atomic bomb was seen by top U.S. politicians and military leaders as a weapon like any other, albeit a much more destructive one. Over time, a campaign for nuclear disarmament emerged globally, championed by post-colonial countries such as Ireland and India. It took a decade or more for a compromise to emerge between the idealism of a nuclear-free world and the dangers of ready battlefield use by anybody and everybody. The NPT was the embodiment of this compromise.
The NPT lays out four core principles of the global nuclear order. The first legitimizes the five permanent Security Council members as nuclear weapons states and shuts the legal door on any new entrants to the nuclear club. The second forbids the transfer of nuclear weapons and technologies from the five founding nuclear weapon states to any other state. The third (Article IV) enshrines the "inalienable right" of all signatories "to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes." And the fourth (Article VI) requires the permanent five to undertake "good faith" negotiations leading to universal nuclear disarmament.
Nonproliferation has expanded over time from a single treaty to a full-blown regime of agreements, clubs, Security Council resolutions and domestic policies involving export controls, penalties and occasionally military action.
More subtly than its raft of associated arrangements, the legal aspects of the treated also created an international norm against nuclear weapons use that Brown University scholar Nina Tannenwald famously called "the nuclear taboo." States that have nuclear weapons risk enormous opprobrium if they actually use them. This is not to say that the use of nuclear weapons is forbidden. But the norm has had the effect of inducing extreme caution among the states that possess nuclear weapons.
The nonproliferation treaty's remarkable success can also be measured by the fact that since its inauguration five decades ago, only three additional countries have acknowledged embracing nuclear weapons. A fourth, South Africa, developed nuclear weapons in the 1980s, but subsequently gave them up, as did three new post-Soviet states that had inherited Russian nuclear weapons. Overall, about 20 countries that pursued nuclear weapons have stopped their efforts.
Thus, 50 years after the NPT was first signed, we are left with a small set of only eight nuclear weapons states. (A ninth, Israel, is believed to have developed nuclear weapons in the 1960s but declines to confirm that it possesses them.) Considering the large number of countries facing acute security threats, including from nuclear powers, that single-digit number counts as remarkable success.
Technology and Motivation
Fundamentally, the pursuit of nuclear weapons is a supply-demand problem. On the supply side, it is about the availability of technologies, material and know-how for making nuclear weapons, but it is also about systems for their delivery — such as missiles, submarines and nuclear-capable aircraft. With the passage of time, the technology needed to make nuclear weapons (particularly the capacity for uranium enrichment) has become widely known and within the reach of almost all medium-size countries.
The demand side evokes the core motivations of states to pursue latency (that is, the capability to build nuclear weapons but not possess them) or possession. Extended deterrence — the commitment by a (usually) great power to use its own nuclear weapons to defend an ally threatened by another nuclear weapons state — is a key inhibitor of demand. NATO embodies the strongest and clearest such extended deterrence; other key examples include U.S. treaties with Japan, South Korea and Australia.
States have pursued the nuclear option mostly when they have perceived an acute security threat. Two examples are the Soviet program to counter the U.S. bomb, and China's to counter both the Soviet and American arsenals. Achieving global status has also been a prime motivator in a few cases — for example, France's nuclear weaponization in the 1950s under a NATO nuclear umbrella. Domestic interest groups sometimes have contributed to the nuclear drive in order to expand their turf, an example being India's civilian nuclear research community.
This data visualization by Isao Hashimoto shows every nuclear detonation that occurred between 1945 and 1998 (HASHIMOTO, ISAO, 2003).
The United States got serious about enforcing nonproliferation with the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978. While the Arms Export Control Act barred assistance to any state that imported or exported enrichment and reprocessing technologies, the nonproliferation act requires full-scope International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and barred enrichment and reprocessing using any U.S.-supplied nuclear materials.
Other major powers have had a more complicated relationship with nonproliferation. China is believed to have aided Pakistan's nuclear program in the 1980s. The Soviet Union generally cooperated strongly with the United States, but more recently Russia has been sanctioned by Washington for allegedly providing modest aid to the Iranian and Syrian nuclear programs. And Pakistan's A.Q. Khan network is known to have sold enrichment technologies to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Pressure, Persuasion and Partnerships
In the case of adversaries such as North Korea, Iraq or Iran, the United States has taken a proactive stance, known as counter-proliferation, using mostly coercive tools such as sanctions, interdiction on the high seas or military intervention. The situation has been more challenging when an ally or non-adversary has pursued nuclear weapons. Here, the United States has used a combination of nonmilitary coercive tools and inducements.
The strongest inducement the United States has been able to provide to an ally is that of a nuclear umbrella, also known as extended deterrence. This has been granted to all NATO states as well as Japan and South Korea. However, a formal commitment still leaves uncertainties in the minds of some allies, particularly those outside NATO, as to whether the United States will truly step in and risk its own security when the nuclear chips are down. In other words, would Washington risk San Francisco to save Seoul?
This fear was one factor behind South Korea and Taiwan's push toward mastering nuclear technologies in the 1970s. The United States had to threaten sanctions — including a cutoff in military aid and the withdrawal of the nuclear umbrella in the case of South Korea — and offer sweeteners for the two countries to eventually back off. Japan also has pushed but succeeded in getting the United States to enable it to enrich nuclear fuel and reprocess waste as part of a more relaxed nuclear deal with Washington.
A small set of countries have opposed the nonproliferation regime from the beginning. For example, India long resisted signing the NPT on largely moral grounds. But facing perceived threats from China and Pakistan, New Delhi embarked on a tortuous nuclear journey marked by vigorous contestations among domestic constituencies, and eventually developed nuclear weapons in the late 1980s. Pakistan, seeing India as a threat, simultaneously developed nuclear weapons. The United States was aware of Pakistani proliferation but decided to prioritize its alliance with Islamabad during the Soviet war with Afghanistan.
Having failed to change Indian behavior through economic sanctions, and faced with a need to balance China in Asia, the United States decided to enter into a strategic partnership with India through the U.S.-India nuclear deal of 2005. India is now effectively a legitimate nuclear power, though outside the NPT and lacking full treaty rights of the NPT's five nuclear weapons states. Pakistan remains in limbo, not subject to meaningful pressure on its nuclear weapons, but by no means legitimized under the nonproliferation regime.
Greater Possibilities for Proliferation
Three big drivers, however, are putting enhanced pressure on the nonproliferation treaty as it currently stands. First, a great power competition is emerging involving the United States, China and Russia, with Moscow and Beijing acting in close concert on many matters. This competition is marked by more global institutional deadlock than at any period during the Cold War, and by the fraying of certain U.S. alliances. Second, and related to this competition, is the increased autonomy among a number of regional and middle powers. The third driver is ever-greater access to technologies relevant to nuclear proliferation. This has been in play for the past two or three decades, but is getting even easier going forward. For example, gas centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment can be mastered by many candidate countries and is hard to detect. Technologies for missiles, particularly of the shorter-range variety, are also more widely available than before.
The Middle East and Asia-Pacific are regions most vulnerable to nuclear proliferation.
The end result is an enhanced sense of insecurity among those outside, or in some cases inside, a formal nuclear umbrella. In terms of over-the-horizon proliferation threats, the Middle East and East Asia are regions most vulnerable, any prospects of a North Korean disarmament notwithstanding. And among the new nuclear powers, India and Pakistan are already locked in a nuclear arms race that shows no signs of easing.
Iran's dangerous nuclear drive is well-documented. But Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey also present nuclear possibilities. The first two are not covered by a formal U.S. nuclear umbrella. Israel's alleged nuclear arsenal could also become a greater issue going forward as Iran enhances its role in the region. In Asia, China's meteoric rise implies that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and perhaps even Vietnam have reasons for entering the nuclear candidates' club in the long run.
Regional power assertion takes the form of striking nuclear energy deals with multiple countries, and opening up the old debate about Article IV of the NPT: Does the "inalienable right" to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear technology include a right to enrich and reprocess? This has been Iran's position, and it was India's before that. The five permanent Security Council members, however, do not hold a consistent position on this issue, differentiating how states are treated. For example, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements with India and Japan have formalized this "right" for these states.
Other states are increasingly making a moral argument, citing Article VI of the NPT, which enshrines a "good faith" effort for disarmament by the treaty's five nuclear weapons states. Though this article was not an ironclad commitment, it has given an opening to those who claim to resist a permanent division of the world between the nuclear haves and the have-nots.
Thus, looking ahead, the overall prospects for nonproliferation are rather fraught. While the United States has been primarily responsible for ensuring the nonproliferation successes of the past 50 years, the dynamic of great power competition implies that Washington will increasingly come up against Moscow and Beijing on questions of nonproliferation, particularly in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. And regional actors will get bolder in doing what they think they need to do to enhance their security, even as a small but vocal disarmament movement continues to thrive in the shadows.