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Brace for even stricter NPT regime

Just after Saddam Hussein?s regime was overthrown, an analyst wrote that future historians would call the US invasion of Iraq the first war in the Age of Non-proliferation. In other words, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, a middling priority during the Cold War, is now at the top of the global agenda.

india Updated: Feb 19, 2006 23:13 IST

Just after Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown, an analyst wrote that future historians would call the US invasion of Iraq the first war in the Age of Non-proliferation. In other words, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, a middling priority during the Cold War, is now at the top of the global agenda.

There are two key reasons for this.

One, after September 11, the real fear is of terrorists getting nuclear weapons. They, unlike say the Soviet Union, will have no compunctions about using them. And the most likely place to get such weapons: Rogue states who support terror and have clandestine nuclear programmes.

Two, the world has discovered that WMD programmes, even nuclear ones, are easy to hide. The US was surprised to find in 1991 that Iraq was only a few years from having a nuke. Then North Korea confessed it had a second nuclear weapons programme no one had known about. It doesn’t help that both were signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty which is supposed to put a lid on wayward nuke tech.

This has made world governments increasingly paranoid about nuclear programmes.

And it sets the backdrop for Iran.

Iran is an NPT signatory and, therefore, has the right to have a civilian nuclear programme so long as it’s under international inspection. In 2002, however, it became clear that Iran was upto something. Dissidents blew the cover of two clandestine nuclear sites and Iran admitted it had been wheeling and dealing with A Q Khan.

Working assumption: Iran wanted a nuclear weapon. Why else deal with Khan?

Since 2003, Iran has largely kept to the straight and narrow. It has signed all the necessary protocols, allowed nuclear inspections and largely cooperated with IAEA investigations. The IAEA, after three years, wrote a report saying it couldn’t find evidence Iran wanted a weapon but couldn’t rule it out either.

In the past, Iran may have gotten away with all this. But not in the Age of Non-proliferation.

In its interminable negotiations with the European Union, Iran was basically told, “You did some dirty deeds in the past. You claim you’re only interested in civilian nuclear power. In that case, here are some offers that would provide for your civilian nuclear power but would hinder your ability to convert this into a weapons programme.” By most diplomatic accounts, the offers were generous and would have, for example, guaranteed nuclear fuel to Iran for a decade. The recent offer to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian soil was only the latest such offer.

But Tehran has said no everytime, insisting that as a matter of principle it must develop a civilian nuclear capability at home. As these refusals make sense if Iran wants an atom bomb, its Nos have greatly increased suspicions that something is rotten in the state of Bushehr.

Iran’s asset is the NPT regime. Designed in the 1960s, it is leaky and loophole-ridden. Iran rightly argues that it is presently in full compliance of its treaty obligations right now. However, everyone knows any government with half a brain can run rings around the NPT.

The global non-proliferation regime is being toughened up. The NPT has additional protocols making its inspection system more intrusive. The Proliferation Security Initiative is part of a new “diplomacy by action” designed to stop nuclear proliferation.

The non-proliferation regime is in transition – one reason the US and India are trying so hard to get into the nuclear club now is that membership is about to become more difficult. The Iran crisis will set new precedents for this neo-nonproliferation regime. Which is one reason why there has been such a battle about taking Iran to the Security Council. The latter’s binding resolutions are as good as international law. Ultimately, being for or against Iran is about whether you believe it wants to get a weapon. Its steady leakage of global support indicates Iran hasn’t done enough to be trusted.

First Published: Feb 06, 2006 01:11 IST