Absent any major catastrophe involving a nuclear weapon (which isn’t out of the question but let’s all hope we don’t get to that point), established nuclear-weapons policies look unlikely to shift dramatically in 2014. Predictably, for an issue involving diverse interests, entrenched mistrust and engagement across the entire international community, the rate of change often feels glacial. These are policies routinely linked to global power dynamics and fundamentally rooted in fear, insecurity and self-interest, so they are never going to be the easiest to shake.
But as we step into the new year, it is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves of the progress we have made. The number of nuclear weapons held by the two biggest nuclear-weapons possessors, the US and Russia, has reduced dramatically since the end of the Cold War. In 1990 and 1991, South Africa renounced and dismantled its nuclear-weapons capability. States such as South Korea, Argentina and Brazil moved away from their nuclear programs before reaching the point of weapons development. To date, Iran has not taken the decision to develop a nuclear weapon, despite a widely held belief that it could be on track to doing so. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) continues to play a central role, maintaining dialogue between diverse parties, and coalescing states around a common objective: to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.
Equally, there have been challenges, which mean we not only need to keep our foot on the pedal—we likely need to apply it more firmly. The rate of nuclear-weapons reductions in recent years has slowed. Cold War thinking continues to dominate. Iran and North Korea have focused their international engagement around a platform of nuclear ambition and India and Pakistan have remained outside NPT membership, developing their own nuclear capabilities in a highly volatile political environment.
The year ahead
This may not be the year of dramatic change but it could be an opportunity for us to reinvigorate our ambitions. Regional, international and domestic dynamics have potential to provide new opportunities to reframe our thinking and remind ourselves what we are trying to achieve.
States will meet in New York in April and May for the next NPT Preparatory Committee (PrepCom), which will set the scene for the upcoming five-yearly review, in 2015, of NPT progress. At the PrepCom, all eyes are likely to be on developments in Iran, progress towards a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East and the burgeoning debate around the humanitarian dimension of nuclear weapons. The five official nuclear weapon states (US, Russia, UK, France and China) will also be required to report on their disarmament efforts, which they claim are making progress through discreet dialogue but others argue are not enough.
Negotiations in 2013 led to a temporary agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) to freeze the development of the Iranian nuclear program for six months in exchange for limited sanctions relief. This arrangement will come into effect in the first half of 2014 and aims to create conditions conducive to negotiating a longer-term agreement.
A substantive resolution may well be achievable, although it will likely remain a heavy lift. The interim solution was required in part because the negotiating sides were unable, at that stage, to reach agreement on the thorniest issues. The interim deal hasn’t taken those issues away but what it has done is create a more sound, shared footing on which the negotiating parties can start to thrash out the details.
Domestic politics—in both the US and Iran—could yet stymie the prospects of a deal. Congress is threatening to pass legislation implementing new sanctions if agreement is not reached within six months. Some will see this as the US reneging on its end of the interim deal. In response, Iranian lawmakers are making noises of their own around uranium enrichment.
Saber-rattling by domestically-minded politicians will not necessarily scuttle negotiations. But nor will it make the political context in either country any easier. The next six months will require strong political will from the negotiating parties to retain the space and initial trust-building they worked so hard to achieve last year and to press forward towards a sustained agreement.
The prospects for a WMD-free zone in the Middle East are likely to dominate the NPT PrepCom agenda in April and May. The NPT’s 2010 Action Plan, which sets out what states need to deliver in the five-year cycle before the 2015 Review Conference, called for a conference in 2012 to take forward the development of a regional zone. Getting the parties around a table on the right terms has proved difficult, however, and no formal conference has yet taken place. Some discreet discussions have been possible in Switzerland over the last year but some will be looking for more demonstrable progress, the absence of which could sour the tone of the broader PrepCom discussions.
On the global canvas, in February Mexico will host a conference to discuss the longer-term implications of nuclear weapons use. The five official NPT nuclear-weapons states chose not to attend the preceding conference in Oslo in early 2013—their position on the Mexico event is still unclear. Either way, the initiative will feature prominently on the 2014 NPT PrepCom agenda.
Some segments of civil society are using this platform to advocate for an international ban on nuclear weapons, which they believe could ultimately press the nuclear-weapons states into renouncing their arsenals. Others take a more conciliatory approach, cautioning against exacerbating divisions which could risk pulling the NPT apart.
Conference on Disarmament
The Conference on Disarmament, the official UN platform created in 1979 to discuss disarmament issues, will convene again in January and February for the first of its three 2014 sessions. Political stalemate over a treaty banning the production of fissile materials is likely to continue to dominate the agenda. But some are hopeful that a newly-established ‘group of government experts’, mandated by a UN General Assembly resolution in late 2012, will open fresh opportunities for movement.
The group has already been set up (although not yet announced) and will consist of 25 representatives from states selected by the UN Secretary General on the basis of equitable geographical representation. It would be overly ambitious to expect it to unblock the debate in the Conference on Disarmament entirely but, if used creatively, it has potential, at the very least, to open up some new thinking.
These are the opinions of the author. This article was originally featured on a regular column by Rebecca on OpenSecurity, a forum of OpenDemocracy.net.