The Proliferation Crisis

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

EVENTS OF THE PAST few days have underlined the vulnerability of the international regime that for 35 years has mostly prevented the spread of nuclear weapons. On Sunday, North Korea, which claims to be a nuclear power and has refused to return to multilateral negotiations about its presumed arsenal, test-fired another missile, dramatizing its ambition to acquire the capacity to attack Japan and the United States. Yesterday, Iran's foreign minister restated his country's intention to enrich uranium, an advance that would allow Tehran to assemble a nuclear bomb at its discretion.

The Bush administration, meanwhile, demonstrated another reason why the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is in danger. It dispatched a mid-level State Department official, rather than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to address the foreign ministers who gathered at a major review conference in New York. It thereby signaled that it will not make a serious effort during the month-long forum to build an international consensus behind desperately needed reforms. Once again, the administration's distaste for arms control and international treaties appears to have won out over diplomatic common sense.

Though he has failed to stop the Iranian or North Korean nuclear programs, President Bush has managed in the past year to focus global attention on one of the most serious proliferation problems, which is the increasing availability of nuclear weapons technologies to states that are likely to misuse them. Alt hough more than 180 countries have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, its terms allow them to acquire the capacity to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium, the most important steps in creating weapons, because these technologies can also be legitimately used by a nuclear energy industry. Iran is exploiting this loophole, and if it succeeds in acquiring a weapons capacity, other states may follow: Taiwan, Egypt, South Korea and possibly many others.

A number of possible solutions to this danger have been floated. Mr. Bush has called for the manufacturers of nuclear technology to agree on a blanket ban on sales to countries that do not now have it. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called this week for "incentives" for states to voluntarily forgo enrichment and reprocessing. European governments have floated the idea of setting standards for allowing countries to acquire such capabilities. Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has called for a moratorium on building new facilities for processing uranium and plutonium, including by existing nuclear powers.

None of these proposals is likely to fly on its own, especially with the nonnuclear powers. What's needed is some intensive diplomacy that might win broad acceptance for new restrictions in exchange for guaranteed access to fuel supplies for legitimate uses and fresh steps toward disarmament by the nuclear powers. Yet the Bush administration appears loath even to attempt such work; instead, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld chose last week to renew his request for congressional funding for studies of new U.S. nuclear weapons. Administration policy supposes that the United States will devote the coming years to building, and probably testing, new nuclear weapons while banning most of the rest of the world from acquiring increasingly accessible technologies. It is, to say the least, an unrealistic strategy.

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