Nuclear weapons: Same double standards from Obama


President Obama made a speech in Prague on 5 April 2009 [1], the main theme of which was “the future of nuclear weapons in the 21st century”.  In it, he proclaimed “America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”.


His seriousness about pursuing this commitment can be judged by the fact that he singled out two states – North Korea and Iran – as malefactors with regard to nuclear weapons, neither of which, it is generally agreed, is a major nuclear weapons power.


Indeed, to be fair to him, he admitted that Iran isn’t a nuclear weapons power at all, saying that “Iran has yet to build a nuclear weapon”.  As for North Korea, nobody really knows.


To add a little perspective to this subject, here are the current estimates by the Federation of American Scientists of the number of warheads possessed by the real nuclear weapons powers in the world [2]:





























North Korea





These numbers are, of course, only approximate, since the exact number of nuclear warheads in each state's possession, and their degree of readiness for delivery, is a closely guarded national secret.  But, according to these estimates, there are well over 20,000 nuclear warheads in this world, of which around 8,000 are operational – and, as the President admits, not one of them belongs to Iran.


Breaking the “rules”

But, the President would say, Iran and North Korea are breaking the “rules” about possessing nuclear weapons.  That’s why he singled them out as nuclear malefactors.


According to the President, the “rules” are laid down in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) [3] (which came into force in March 1970).  It needs to be “strengthened”, he said, so that it is more effective at detecting and punishing states that break the “rules”.  Here’s what he said:


“The basic bargain [in the NPT] is sound: countries with nuclear weapons will move toward disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them; and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy. To strengthen the Treaty, we should embrace several principles. We need more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections. We need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the Treaty without cause.”


There, the President admits the reality that there are two very different sets of “rules” enshrined in the NPT itself, one for “countries with nuclear weapons” (“nuclear-weapon” states, in the language of the NPT) and another for “countries without nuclear weapons” (“non-nuclear-weapon” states).  Some states were permitted under the NPT to sign it as “nuclear weapon” states and keep their nuclear weapons; others had to sign as “non-nuclear-weapon” states and were forbidden from developing them.


“Nuclear-weapon” states

But, how did certain states acquire the extraordinary privilege of being a “nuclear-weapon” state?  The answer is that it’s written into the NPT itself, Article IX(3) of which says:


“For the purposes of this Treaty, a nuclear-weapon State is one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January, 1967.”


Five states – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – passed that test and were eligible to sign the NPT as “nuclear-weapon” states (though China and France didn’t sign until the 1990s).


The NPT was devised by states that possessed nuclear weapons to preserve their monopoly over the possession of nuclear weapons, to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other states.  This monopoly was written into the NPT itself and cannot be removed or amended without the consent of all five states – under Article VIII(2) of the NPT, amendment to the Treaty requires the approval of “a majority of the votes of all the Parties to the Treaty, including the votes of all nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty [my emphasis]”.


Just as each of these five powers has a right of veto over Security Council decisions, each has a veto over any amendment to the NPT seeking to take away its right under the NPT to possess nuclear weapons.


It is true that the NPT pays lip service to the notion of all round nuclear disarmament.  Article VI says:


“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes 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 … .”


But that doesn’t require “nuclear-weapon” states to get rid of their nuclear weapons, nor even to negotiate in good faith about getting rid of them, merely to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating … to nuclear disarmament”.  And no “nuclear-weapon” state as defined by the Treaty has ceased to be one since the Treaty came into force.  The five states that possessed nuclear weapons on 1 January 1967 still possess them today.


Since these states are also veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, their right to possess nuclear weapons is untouchable.


A world without nuclear weapons?

In his Prague speech, President Obama set out to give the impression that, under his leadership, the US took its responsibilities under Article VI seriously and was embarking on an historic initiative towards universal nuclear disarmament.  He proclaimed “America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” and declared that the US will take “concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons”.  However, he added:


“Make no mistake: as long as these weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies, including the Czech Republic.”


The “concrete steps” he announced were the negotiation of a new strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), which expires in December 2009.  START I was signed in July 1991 just before the breakup of the Soviet Union.  As a result of it, by December 2001, the number of strategic nuclear warheads on both sides was reduced to about 6,000 (from about 10,000) and delivery vehicles to about 1,600.


It remains to be seen what reductions if any the START 1 replacement treaty will actually bring.  It can be guaranteed that after its implementation, the US and Russia will both possess an “effective arsenal to deter any adversary”.


The Obama administration is determined to make it up with Russia (see my article The US “forgets” about Georgia and makes up with Russia [4]).  The signing of a START 1 replacement, when Obama goes to Moscow in July, is going to provide concrete evidence of their new relationship. 


No disapproval of India, Israel and Pakistan

President Obama hadn’t a word of disapproval for the three states – India, Israel and Pakistanthat never signed the NPT and secretly developed nuclear weapons.  Nuclear proliferation on this grand scale didn’t get a mention in his speech – perhaps because these states are US allies.


These states chose to remain outside the NPT and therefore didn’t break any NPT “rules” by developing nuclear weapons.  But, if the President’s goal is a “world without nuclear weapons”, one might have thought that these states which actually possess nuclear weapons were more worthy of his disapproval that Iran, which he admits has none.


It used to be the case that these three states were in the international nuclear doghouse, in the sense that they were unable to purchase nuclear material and equipment from the rest of the world, which made it difficult for them to expand their civil nuclear programmes.  But, in July 2005, the Bush administration signed the US-India nuclear agreement, an initiative which has lead to India being taken out of the doghouse.  It is now free to engage in international nuclear commerce (see my article India & Iran: US double standards on nuclear weapons [5]).


India: a natural strategic partner for the US

Senator Barack Obama voted for the legislation required to enact that agreement.  In July 2008, he explained his actions to the Indian magazine Outlook:


I voted for the US-India nuclear agreement because India is a strong democracy and a natural strategic partner for the US in the 21st century.” [6]


There you have it: the Bush administration, allegedly a determined opponent of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, has rewarded India, a state that has engaged in proliferation to the extent of acquiring around 60 nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them.  Obama, an equally determined opponent of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, approves wholeheartedly on the grounds that India is “a natural strategic partner for the US”.


There, Obama was speaking during his election campaign.  Now that he is in office, his administration has embraced the US-India agreement.  On 23 March 2009, his Deputy Secretary of State, James Steinburg, told a conference at the Brookings Institution:


“The US is committed to working directly with India as a robust partner on civilian nuclear energy. Our governments have taken some of the steps needed to realize the one, two, three agreement [with India on nuclear commerce], but we both need to do more.” [7]


It appears that there are special “rules” for “a natural strategic partner for the US”.


Steinburg went on:


“Both the United States and India have a responsibility to help work, to craft a strengthened NPT regime that fosters safe, affordable nuclear power, to help the globe’s energy and environment needs while assuring against the spread of nuclear weapons.”


Think about it: here the US is saying that India, a state that remained outside the NPT so that it was free to develop nuclear weapons, should help “strengthen” the NPT in order to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other states.  You couldn’t make it up.


It is not as if India is going to sign the NPT.  Since it isn’t one of the five privileged “nuclear-weapon” states as defined by the NPT, it would have to give up its nuclear weapons and sign as a “non-nuclear-weapon” state.  It is safe to say that India will not do that – but nevertheless the US wants it to help “strengthen” the NPT in order to prevent other states acquiring nuclear weapons.


Iran a pariah state

By contrast, the US treats Iran as a pariah state because of its nuclear activities.  Unlike India, Iran has been a signatory to the NPT since July 1968, as a “non-nuclear-weapon” state.  By Obama’s own admission, it doesn’t possess any nuclear weapons.  It says that its uranium enrichment facilities are not for military purposes and the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) has found no evidence to the contrary.  Yet Iran has had economic sanctions imposed upon it in order to force it to cease uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities, which are its right under the NPT so long as they are for “peaceful purposes”.  Article IV(1) of the NPT says:


“Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes … .” [3]


Clearly, Iran made the wrong choice in 1968 by signing the NPT.  Had it taken the same route as India (and Israel and Pakistan) and refused to sign, it would have been free to engage in any nuclear activities it liked in secret, including activities for military purposes, without breaking any of the “rules” of the NPT.  If it had kept on the right side of the US, it might have been invited by the US to help “strengthen” the NPT in order to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to other states.


Withdrawal from NPT

Under Article IX of the NPT, Iran would be within its rights to withdraw from the Treaty and remove the constraints upon it due to NPT membership.  Article IX says:


“Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”


By any objective standard, Iran (and other neighbours of Israel) has good grounds for withdrawal, because of the build up over the past 40 years of an Israeli nuclear arsenal directed at them.  There could hardly be a better example of “extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty”, which “have jeopardized [their] supreme interests”.


It might not be wise for Iran to withdraw from the NPT at the present time, since it would risk terrible havoc from the US and/or Israel.  But, there is no doubt that such an action would be within the “rules” of the NPT, that President Obama puts so much store by.


David Morrison

24 April 2009