Ireland & the NPT


On 20 November 1959, on the initiative of Ireland, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proposing that the UN Disarmament Committee consider the feasibility of an international agreement under which the nuclear-weapon powers would not hand over control of nuclear weapons to other states, and non-nuclear-weapon states would not manufacture such weapons [1].


For the next decade, Ireland was to the fore in seeking international agreement on preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  This led in 1968 to the drawing up of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (aka the NPT) [2] and it was formally proposed by Ireland.


Ireland is proud of the part it played in the process that led to the formulation of the NPT and it regards itself as a keeper of the faith on the issue.  However, in the one instance (in 2008) when it had an opportunity to prevent the erosion of the international non-proliferation regime, it gave in to US pressure to give nuclear-armed India special privileges (see below).


Ireland has also got illusions that the NPT is an instrument for nuclear disarmament, when in reality it gave international endorsement to the continued possession of nuclear weapons by five states – the US, the UK, the Soviet Union, France and China – and provided them with a mechanism to apply pressure on other states not to acquire nuclear weapons.



NPT a bizarre treaty


The NPT is a bizarre treaty which places diametrically opposite obligations on states that became parties to it.  Thus, the five states that possessed nuclear weapons at the time were allowed to join as ‘nuclear-weapon’ states and keep their nuclear weapons, whereas other states that didn’t possess nuclear weapons had to join as ‘non-nuclear-weapon’ states and were forbidden to acquire them.


Article IX (3) of the Treaty defines a ‘nuclear-weapon’ state as “one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January, 1967”.  By this definition, the US, the UK, the Soviet Union, France and China qualified for this extraordinary privilege (and Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s extraordinary privilege).


What is more, this extraordinary privilege cannot be taken away from them without their consent because, under Article VIII (2) of the Treaty, no amendment of any kind can be made to the Treaty without the consent of each of the ‘nuclear-weapon’ parties.  This means that each of them is also in a position to veto any proposal to amend the Treaty to grant the same privilege to any other state.


States other than these privileged five have to join the NPT as ‘non-nuclear-weapon’ states and, under the treaty, are forbidden to acquire nuclear weapons and all the nuclear facilities must be open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  This means that to join the NPT today India, Israel and Pakistan would have to give up their nuclear weapons.  These three states stayed out of the NPT so that they would be free to develop nuclear weapons without breaching any international obligations, and they are highly unlikely to give them up in order to join. 


The NPT was opened for signature on 1 July 1968, and was signed on that day by 62 states. But only three ‘nuclear-weapon’ states – the US, the UK and the USSR – signed at that time. China and France did not sign until 1992. Today, 191 states are parties to the Treaty, 5 as ‘nuclear-weapon’ states and 186 as ‘non-nuclear-weapon’ states, the latest signatory being the State of Palestine in February 2015 (see UN Office for Disarmament Affairs website [3]).


(The ‘non-nuclear-weapon’ state signatories include North Korea, which signed as a ‘non-nuclear-weapon’ state in 1985 but withdrew in 2003, having developed nuclear weapons contrary to Article II of the treaty, though its withdrawal has not been formally accepted and the UN still lists it as a party to the treaty.)


Only 4 UN member states are not NPT signatories: India, Israel and Pakistan – and South Sudan, which became a member state in July 2011.



Flanagan on NPT


Article VIII (3) of the NPT requires that a Review Conference on the treaty’s operation be held every 5 years, if a majority of the parties to the NPT request it.  The Ninth Review Conference was held in New York from 27 April to 22 May 2015.  Prior to representing Ireland at the conference, Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan had an article in the Irish Times on 27 April entitled It is vital we prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons [4].


In it, he claimed that the NPT “has been effective in stopping countries that don’t have nuclear arms from developing them”.  It is difficult to justify that statement given that when the NPT came into force in March 1970 only five states possessed nuclear weapons but now with the addition of India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan that number has grown to nine.


He went on to say that the NPT “has not achieved its other major goal, which is the achievement of a world without nuclear weapons”, as if the NPT requires its ‘nuclear-weapon’ state parties to give up their nuclear weapons.  But it doesn’t really:  Article VI merely requires them 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”, in other words, to talk about nuclear disarmament.  There is no commitment to nuclear disarmament per se, let alone a commitment to do it by a prescribed date.  And it’s inconceivable that any of them would have signed up to a treaty that laid down a date by which nuclear disarmament had to be completed.


The NPT was initially scheduled to last for 25 years, at the end of which a conference of the signatories was to be held to decide whether to extend its operation.  One might have thought that given the failure of the ‘nuclear-weapon’ parties to disarm in the previous 25 years there would have been a concerted effort by the other parties to refuse to extend the NPT’s life unless a disarmament completion date was specified. But the Review and Extension Conference took place in 1995 and made the treaty permanent without a date being specified.




The UK is in the process upgrading of its Trident submarine-based system for delivering its nuclear weapons.


In 2007, the Labour Government at the time published a White Paper, The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent [5], which made a case for the UK retaining its nuclear weapons.  It said that the UK needed nuclear weapons “to deter and prevent nuclear blackmail and acts of aggression against our vital interests that cannot be countered by other means” (Paragraph 3-4).


More recently, on 18 June 2012, UK Minister of Defence, Conservative Philip Hammond, justified the continued possession of nuclear weapons to the House of Commons in the following terms:


The possession of a strategic nuclear deterrent has ensured this country’s safety. It ensured that we saw off the threat in the cold war and it will ensure our security in the future.” [6]


In the light of this uncompromising justification for retaining its nuclear weapons it is inconceivable that the UK is going to give up its nuclear weapons any time soon.  And neither are the other four ‘nuclear-weapon’ signatories to the NPT.



US-India nuclear deal


Is it likely that those states outside the NPT with nuclear weapons – India, Israel and Pakistan – will disarm?


One source of pressure on them to disarm and join the NPT has been that since the 1970s international rules have been in place to prevent them from importing nuclear material and equipment.  This has made it very difficult for them to develop extensive nuclear power programmes.


The introduction of these restrictions was triggered by India’s first nuclear test in 1974, which revealed that India had a nuclear weapons programme.  India had used plutonium produced in a reactor supplied by Canada for civil purposes to make nuclear weapons.  In response to this, in 1975 a Nuclear Suppliers Group of states was established.  Today, this Group has 49 members, including Ireland, and is supposed to take its decisions by consensus.


The Nuclear Suppliers Group introduced rules banning the export of nuclear material and equipment to states, like India, whose nuclear facilities were not all subject to IAEA supervision.   These restrictions don’t apply to ‘non-nuclear weapon’ state parties to the NPT, since they are required to subject all their nuclear facilities to IAEA supervision. 


This state of affairs continued until 2005 when, in order to curry favour with India – and boost US sales of nuclear material and equipment to India – the Bush administration negotiated a nuclear deal with it, which has led to it, and it alone, being exempt from these rules.  To put this into effect, the US pressurised the states in the Nuclear Suppliers Group into making an exception for India at a meeting on 6 September 2008.  Ireland acquiesced in this exception being made.


As a result, the ban on India importing nuclear material and equipment, which has been in operation for over 30 years, has now been lifted.  In other words, a ban which was put in place in 1974 because India developed nuclear weapons using a reactor imported for civil purposes has now been lifted without India having to give up that programme or its nuclear arsenal.



Ireland gives in to US pressure


This was the most significant breach in the international non-proliferation regime for a generation – and the Fianna Fail Government gave Ireland’s consent to it in September 2008.  Deputy (now President) Michael D Higgins made sustained efforts to prevent the Government taking this step.  On his proposal in January 2007, for example, the Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed a motion opposing any exception for India in the existing rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group [7].


Defending Ireland’s support for the exception on 5 November 2008 [8], Foreign Minister Micheál Martin declared that “India is the largest, most populous, and economically most significant country in south Asia” with “a distinguished tradition of parliamentary democracy, responsible government, respect for pluralism and human rights and a vibrant independent media” – and an arsenal of nuclear weapons to which Ireland is opposed, he might have added but didn’t for obvious reasons.


In effect, India is now the 6th internationally endorsed ‘nuclear-weapon’ state in the world – while remaining outside the NPT.  The five official nuclear powers enjoy two privileges:


(1) they are not subject to sanctions, economic or otherwise, because of their possession of nuclear weapons systems, which they can modernise and enhance at will, and


(2) they are free to import nuclear-related material and equipment without having all their nuclear facilities subject to IAEA inspection.


Today, India also enjoys those privileges – in part, thanks to Ireland.


(For my earlier writing on the US-India deal, see



Flanagan on Iran


Flanagan also wrote in his Irish Times article that “it is vital that we prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, as in Iran”.   This implies that Iran has or had a nuclear weapons programme, which without the pressure applied to Iran by the US and its allies, including Ireland, would have yielded nuclear weapons. 


In fact, despite more than two decades of trying, no western intelligence agency managed to produce hard evidence that Iran was trying to develop nuclear weapons – and the IAEA never found any evidence in Iran’s nuclear facilities of the diversion of nuclear material for military purposes, and all of its nuclear facilities are under IAEA supervision and have been for many years. 


(I suggest that anybody who still believes that Iran had a nuclear weapons programme reads Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare [9] by US investigative journalist Gareth Porter.  It demonstrates beyond peradventure that this is a myth based on intelligence that was either misinterpreted or simply false.)


Flanagan began his article by welcoming “the progress made towards resolving the long-running issue of Iran’s nuclear programme” adding:


“This would represent a significant achievement and a major step forward towards the peaceful resolution of a long-running dispute which has had the potential to destabilise further an already volatile region.”


However, it is worth noting that this “long-running dispute” was made in Washington: it arose because, with the support of its allies, including Ireland, the US attempted to prevent Iran having uranium enrichment facilities on its own soil, which is its “inalienable right” under Article IV(1) of the NPT.  The present US Secretary of State, John Kerry, acknowledged that several years ago – in an interview in the Financial Times in 10 June 2009, he said: “They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose” (see US senator opens Iran nuclear debate [10]).  And he went on to describe the Bush administration’s “no enrichment” approach to negotiations as “bombastic diplomacy” that “wasted energy” and “hardened the lines”.  Had the US and its allies, including Ireland, accepted Iran’s right to uranium enrichment like John Kerry from the outset, there would have been no dispute at all, let alone a “long-running” one. 


As Peter Oborne and I pointed out in our book A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran [11] published in 2013, a settlement on the nuclear issue could have been reached with Iran in 2005, when negotiations were going on with the EU3 (UK, France and Germany).  Then, in exchange for the EU3 agreeing to its right to enrichment, Iran was prepared to put in place unprecedented measures – over and above the safeguards required under the NPT – to reassure the outside world that its nuclear programme was for peaceful purposes.  A settlement wasn’t reached because the US insisted that Iran must not have uranium enrichment facilities on its own soil – and the EU3 shamefully acquiesced.


Almost a decade later, a deal became possible because the US did a U-turn and accepted Iran having enrichment on its own soil – and this U-turn was dutifully followed by its allies, including Ireland.   The US policy reversal is understandable: since 2005, it expended an immense amount of political capital dragooning the world into applying political and economic pressure on Iran in an attempt to force it to cease enrichment.  But, these efforts failed abysmally: in 2005, there were no centrifuges enriching uranium in Iran; today, more than 19,000 centrifuges are installed, around 10,000 of which are operational.   


Middle East WMD Free Zone


An NPT Review Conference is counted as a success if a consensus declaration emerges at the end of it, normally a very long and largely vacuous declaration.  By that measure, this year’s Ninth Review Conference, which ended on 22 May, was not a success – a final declaration was not agreed.  The sticking point centred once more on holding a conference to discuss the creation of a WMD free zone in the Middle East.


This proposition started life at the Fifth Review Conference in 1995.  Then, a resolution was passed calling for the creation of “an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems” [12].  It also called for all states in the region to accede to the NPT as soon as possible.  This resolution was co-sponsored by the US, UK and Russia.


This Conference was also the NPT Extension Conference, which made the NPT permanent.  Agreeing to this resolution was the very small price that the ‘nuclear-weapon’ states had to pay for making the NPT – and therefore their internationally endorsed possession of nuclear weapons – permanent.


The 1995 NPT resolution calling for a WMD free zone in the Middle East was reaffirmed at the Sixth Review Conference in 2000, though, needless to say, there was no progress whatsoever towards its implementation.  The Seventh Review Conference in 2005 failed to agree a final declaration, a sticking point being the lack of progress on implementing the 1995 resolution.  The Bush administration refused to put its name to any declaration which involved additional measures to induce Israel to give up its nuclear weapons and accede to the NPT.


The Obama administration was anxious to avoid a similar outcome at the Eighth Review Conference in 2010.  This time, a coalition of the 118 states in the Non-Aligned Movement, led by Egypt, lobbied strongly for progress on this (and other) issues.  In order to achieve a final consensus declaration, the US had to agree to “a process leading to full implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East”, to quote from the conference final document [13]  (p30). 


Specifically, in a resolution on the Middle East, the Conference agreed that


“The Secretary-General of the United Nations and the co-sponsors of the 1995 Resolution [the US, UK and Russia], in consultation with the States of the region, will convene a conference in 2012, to be attended by all States of the Middle East, on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the States of the region, and with the full support and engagement of the nuclear-weapon States. The 2012 Conference shall take as its terms of reference the 1995 Resolution;”


The resolution also specifically called for Israel to accede to the NPT as a “non-nuclear weapon” state, which would require it to give up its nuclear weapons and place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards (p29/30).  (Israel attends NPT Review Conferences as an observer, even though it isn’t a party to the NPT.)  Iran’s nuclear activities weren’t mentioned in the resolution, at a time when it was regularly being accused of developing nuclear weapons.  Despite this, the US put its name to the declaration.


However, the Conference never took place, despite Finland agreeing to hold it and Jaakko Laajava of Finland being appointed as facilitator to work out an agenda, among other things.   Obviously, Israel didn’t want the conference to take place and the resolution’s prescription that it should be held “on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the States of the region” gave Israel the means of preventing it being held – Israel insisted that a wide range of Middle East security issues be on the agenda and the Arab League, acting on behalf of its Arab neighbours, refused to agree.  The US, one of the three conveners of the conference, called it off in November 2012 on the grounds that “states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference” [14]. 


Fast forward to this year’s Ninth Review Conference, where the sticking point was again arrangements for holding the conference.  Egypt took the lead in proposing that the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, take over responsibility for convening it and that it “could be held without agreement on an agenda or discussion of regional security issues” [15].  These proposals were supported by the Arab League and the Non-Aligned Movement.  The US refused to have the Egyptian proposal included in the final declaration from the Review Conference, so no declaration was agreed.



Where do we go from here?


There is very little likelihood that any of the nine nuclear-armed states in the world today will give up their weapons in the foreseeable future.


But will other states acquire them?  States that possess nuclear weapons are not subject to “humanitarian intervention” by the US and its allies.  As President Putin wrote a few years ago:


“All this fervor around the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea makes one wonder how the risks of nuclear weapons proliferation emerge and who is aggravating them.


“It seems that the more frequent cases of crude and even armed outside interference in the domestic affairs of countries may prompt authoritarian (and other) regimes to possess nuclear weapons.  If I have the A-bomb in my pocket, nobody will touch me because it's more trouble than it is worth. And those who don't have the bomb might have to sit and wait for ‘humanitarian intervention’.


“Whether we like it or not, foreign interference suggests this train of thought.” [16]


The acquisition of a functional nuclear weapons system requires a considerable effort and a state will only embark on this task if it feels seriously threatened.  The lesson for the US and its allies is obvious.



David Morrison

17 June 2015