New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


The NPT Review Process and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation


Below is the text upon which Dr. Ford based the remarks he presented on November 30, 2011, at an event in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you to LANL and our hosts here at the Wilson Center for organizing this event, and for inviting me to participate.  I sometimes think I get invited to these events for entertainment value – to liven things up by serving as a sort of professional NPT curmudgeon – so hopefully I won’t disappoint you today.

Looking at things a year and a half after the last Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) and still some months out from the first Preparatory Committee meeting of the 2015 review cycle, I guess it’s safe to say that how one sees the health of the NPT regime depends upon what one wants out of it.  The review process itself is arguably fairly healthy, at least in the superficial sense that diplomats will continue to draw their per diem allowances and stay in pleasant cities around the world in order to engage in NPT discussions that are at least somewhat less acrimonious than in the not-so-distant past.  If that’s the point, then I suppose there is little to complain about.

For those of us who tend to expect a nonproliferation treaty to advance the cause of nonproliferation, however – that is, anyone who has not mistaken diplomatic process for policy substance – the outlook is less encouraging.  Indeed, in some critical respects, the regime has been heading in quite the wrong direction, and things have worsened during the last three years.

I.          The Poverty of our NPT Disarmament Discourse

This isn’t a field in which saying “I told you so” is very satisfying – indeed, it’s rather depressing – but it appears that the United States has so far gotten essentially nothing of real value out of its effort to revivify NPT diplomacy by raising nuclear disarmament expectations to feverish and entirely unrealistic heights before the last RevCon.   As it becomes clear both how little Washington got for its concessionary troubles and how little U.S. nuclear weapons policy actually changed, the diplomatic party-goers are waking up with headaches, and it’s time for a more sober reassessment of where the NPT is and where it’s going.

In 2010, determined to claim diplomatic “success” by being able to point to a consensus on a final document, the United States deliberately ducked the most important NPT-related issues, most obviously by carefully working to avoid discussing the ongoing Iranian nuclear crises even as it escalated.  Rather than struggle with such real-world proliferation challenges, the United States led in focusing this important global diplomatic forum upon nuclear disarmament issues.  Hitherto, the United States had always worked to keep the nonproliferation treaty discussions as focused as possible upon nonproliferation, but no longer.

Don’t get me wrong.  I understand the theory: Washington’s careful efforts to raise disarmament expectations were supposed to have some kind of payoff in eliciting other states’ cooperation on nonproliferation, pursuant to a theory that regards disarmament as being just as important a “pillar” of the NPT as is nonproliferation itself.  Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened.  Today, we are no closer to solving today’s proliferation problems than before, and in a worse position to address tomorrow’s.

Even on its own terms, I should note, the U.S. initiative has proven deeply problematic.  It deliberately raised soaring expectations of disarmament progress, which predictably ranged from the merely unrealistic to the downright fantastical, and which inevitably have proven impossible to meet.  This has led to disillusionment, and no doubt more bitterness than if a more modest and sober course had been charted in the first place.  Sweeping disarmament promises are proving a costly currency with which to have purchased merely the ephemera of diplomatic smiles and handshakes at the RevCon.

In truth, it is likely that the disarmament community’s agenda was always essentially un-meetable.  Most disarmament advocacy long ago escaped the shackles of serious policy analysis, slipping over into something more akin to theology.  It was unwise to gamble on being able to appease such advocates, and it was hardly surprising that we haven’t gotten the “payoff” in nonproliferation cooperation we were told to expect.

I’ve heard administration officials complain how even our allies still don’t back us up on nonproliferation issues in NPT fora, and it only gets worse when one looks at a broader sample.  As I detailed on my website at the time, despite the Obama Administration’s efforts to entice change by professing earnest sincerity about disarmament, the positions of disarmament-minded delegations as expressed at the RevCon remained essentially unchanged, both in continuing to demand maximalist disarmament steps as quickly as possible, and in resisting tough nonproliferation measures.  Nice things were certainly said about President Obama’s disarmament promises to date, but other NPT States Party said no more about proliferation challenges in Iran and North Korea than did the notably quiet U.S. administration, and other delegations’ comments on disarmament repeatedly drove home the point that Washington’s new policies were still grossly inadequate – and that much, much more was required.

All this was quite predictable, and it was foolish to expect that the disarmament community could really be bought off with any steps any U.S. president could feasibly take.  And it was sillier still to think that others governments’ change of heart on nonproliferation policy could be purchased with what little the Obama Administration actually did.

Given the expectations Washington deliberately raised, I sense that there is today a growing sense of cynicism and betrayal in disarmament circles.  President Obama is still considered preferable to the more conservative alternatives, but he seems today to be neither trusted nor supported by those who greeted his “Prague agenda” with the most enthusiasm in early 2009.   It’s not hard to see why.

The administration argues that all of the steps it is taking – including nuclear infrastructure recapitalization and modernization of the nuclear “Triad” – are quite consistent with a serious, long-term approach to “nuclear zero,” and this might even be true.  But President Obama has been having enormous difficulty persuading the abolitionists that they should support him in these details, or that such policies do not actually defeat the objective.  Particularly after the administration’s much-vaunted “restart” of relations with Russia produced only a minimalist treaty with force limits actually higher than numbers Defense Secretary Robert Gates endorsed when he worked for George W. Bush – and with prospects dim for any kind of more ambitious follow-on agreement – it isn’t hard to see how the disarmament community is coming to see the promise of Obama’s “Prague agenda” as having been a bait-and-switch gambit.

And speaking of bait-and-switch, that seems to have been the international disarmament community’s approach to President Obama.  After all, the White House did not conclude all by itself that showing more disarmament progress was the key to unlocking nonproliferation cooperation.  It was told this, insistently and repeatedly, by a range of diplomatic interlocutors and advocacy organizations.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t true.  Quite apart from the somewhat warmer tones in evidence at the 2010 RevCon, the substantive nonproliferation positions of NPT States Party appear not to have changed in response to Washington’s disarmament-friendly atmospherics.

To be sure, I’ve heard some administration supporters try to give President Obama’s disarmament posturing credit for the willingness of other countries to support tougher Iran sanctions.  As I’ve suggested elsewhere, however, this is a self-indulgent delusion.

The key to imposing somewhat tougher Iran sanctions, of course, has been the willingness of veto-wielding U.N. Security Council members Russia and China to accept such measures.  No serious observer credits them, however, with any significant desire for the “nuclear zero” President Obama has promised to work towards.  (If anything, I’d imagine that Moscow and Beijing find the idea of nuclear weapons abolition abhorrent, especially as long as the United States retains its conventional military dominance.)  They were clearly not coaxed into doing more to pressure Tehran by the warm glow of President Obama’s April 2009 remarks in Prague’s Hradcany Square.

In fact, we obviously owe today’s somewhat tougher Security Council sanctions against Iran to the Iranian government itself.  Leaving aside the vexing fact that current sanctions are clearly inadequate to the task of changing Iran’s course, I know of no one who thinks today’s sanctions would have been possible without revelations about Iran’s latest enrichment facility near Qom, without its rejection of the research reactor fuel deal offered it in October 2009, and if it had not pressed ahead in producing highly-enriched uranium (HEU).  It may be a pleasant fantasy to credit Prague and the diplomatic warmth of the 2010 RevCon with having made more sanctions possible, but it is a fantasy nonetheless.

All in all, therefore, the Obama Administration seems to have gotten itself into a terrible fix.  It has done more than enough to convince hawks that U.S. national security should not be left in its hands.  (Quite apart from conservative unease with airy aspirations to “zero,” for instance, the nuclear modernization quid pro quo with which the White House secured “New START” ratification in the U.S. Senate seems already to have proven illusory: National Nuclear Security Administration weapons activities apparently currently face the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts.)  At the same time, however, the administration been able to “purchase” no more than a modest measure of merely rhetorical goodwill from the disarmament partisans in the international community – even as proliferation challenges continue unabated.

On the whole, therefore, the current administration’s disarmament-focused approach to NPT diplomacy has proven a costly dead end.  I will credit it with making the “tone” of NPT discussions less acrimonious, but it has achieved essentially nothing of substance with regard to its promised results in catalyzing effective nonproliferation cooperation.  At the same time, it raised disarmament expectations to such heights that future NPT fora cannot help but be characterized by a degree of disillusionment, rancor, and distrust of the United States among the very parties whose cooperation we attempted to win in that fashion.

II.         The Real Message for the NPT Regime

But I should confess something to you.  The real story here is not about the failure of Washington’s NPT diplomacy to live up to its grandiose billing.  The real story is that neither the Obama Administration’s position on NPT diplomacy nor my own actually matters very much, at this point, in the context of real-world nonproliferation affairs.  The dirty little secret of contemporary NPT diplomacy is how divorced from practical policymaking in the global security environment it has become – and how, if one wants to understand the diplomatic messaging that is really crucial to the future of the nonproliferation regime, one has to look elsewhere.

In reality, the future of the NPT regime is being decided in the more practical world of what is – or is not – really being done to make proliferation less attractive.  And here, I am afraid, the record is poor.

By the time of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, it will be more than ten years since Iran’s previously secret nuclear weapons effort first began to come into public view.  During that decade, the nonproliferation regime has managed to respond in various ways to Iranian proliferation challenges – but, so far, always by doing too little, and by doing it too late.

Who knows?  Perhaps things would have been different if the international community had applied 2011 levels of pressure in 2003, when U.S. diplomats first worked to get the issue sent to the Security Council.  Would tough Security Council sanctions have worked in 2003 if this drive had not been undercut by concessionary European overtures to Tehran?  We’ll never know.  Current levels of pressure, however, are clearly insufficient now.  The nonproliferation regime has shown itself to have tremendous collective action problems when it comes to compliance enforcement, with the result that, at every point, what might then have proven effective was politically unsaleable, while what was then saleable proved ineffective.  (So much for vindicating multilateralism.)

Whatever one thinks of President Obama’s disarmament promises and the 2010 NPT RevCon, therefore, the bottom line is that the nonproliferation regime is still losing ground: the meta-message is of the regime’s failure – at least so far, anyway – to respond effectively when it matters most.

I don’t want to make the NPT seem a total failure.  It is not, and the Treaty has done a very great deal of good over the years.  But today’s challenges are somewhat different than those the regime has faced in the past.  Today, the NPT’s greatest challenge is not that of achieving universality but rather of ensuring that its basic nonproliferation norms mean anything even to States Party.  Violations from within the NPT are likely to be especially corrosive, for they reveal the Treaty regime as being unable to enforce its own rules.

Indeed, Iran and its apologists have been allowed to turn the Iranian case into a referendum on the idea that the NPT gives everyone the “right” to develop any nuclear technology they wish – irrespective of whether that capability can be effectively safeguarded and irrespective of questions of safeguards and treaty compliance.  Accordingly, we are on the verge of sending a message to the future not just that the NPT’s nonproliferation rules are something akin to unenforceable, but that the Treaty itself can be used as a tool for facilitating proliferation.

Unfortunately, it is exactly in meeting these challenges that the Obama Administration, while carefully attentive to the atmospherics of disarmament – or perhaps precisely because it has spent so much political capital and high-level attention on disarmament posturing rather than focusing upon the concrete proliferation challenges at hand – has fallen behind.

The Obama Administration has praised itself for implementing some additional Iran sanctions and other measures that have made it – in National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s words – “harder for Iran to proceed … [and] more expensive.”  And it is proud that “Iran today is fundamentally weaker, more isolated, more vulnerable and badly discredited than ever.” Such careful phrasings, however, cannot hide the obvious: that Iran is nowhere near stopping its program, and is today closer than ever before to a nuclear weapon.

Nor is the meta-narrative of Iran’s nuclear defiance anywhere near the point at which a future proliferator might conclude that even “success” in developing weaponry really amounts to strategic failure.  Tehran today confronts some additional pressures, but it faces nothing likely to appear fundamentally dissuasive, either to Iran itself or to any future country that really wants nuclear weapons.  At the same time, Tehran’s propagandists have staked out shamefully uncontested terrain in claiming that it has an “inalienable right” under the NPT to do everything it has been doing – a narrative to which the Obama Administration has refused to even try to offer a serious response.

For those of you who want a chilling read and who have some appetite for wonkish detail, I recommend you read the full text of the IAEA’s recent November 8 report on Iran’s nuclear program (GOV/2011/65) – and its detailed annex – for a good open-source summary of exactly what NPT compliance enforcement has failed to prevent.

According to the IAEA report, Iran has produced nearly 5,000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) since 2007, and it began enriching HEU in February of last year.  It has apparently and produced about 74 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched HEU at Natanz so far, and has also announced plans to produce HEU in the tunnels at Fordow, near Qom – a site Iran first pretended was intended only for LEU production – and to build ten additional enrichment facilities.

Now that the IAEA is no longer headed by a man who regards it as “God’s work” to downplay Iranian violations in order to prevent “crazies” from using its nuclear program as an excuse for war, moreover, more and more information is being released about Iran’s work on nuclear weaponization.   According to the IAEA, the infamous Iranian document on the production of uranium metal hemispheres – the existence of which was first disclosed in 2005 – was in fact “part of a larger package of information which includes elements of a nuclear explosive design.”  This package was similar to, but apparently more detailed than, the bundle of design and manufacturing information (including weapons designs) the A.Q. Khan network provided to Libya.  The IAEA also describes Iranian preparatory work for fabricating natural and HEU metal components for a bomb, as well as development work on extremely high-speed detonators – apparently in connection with a multipoint initiation test conducted in 2003, about which Tehran subsequently lied to the IAEA in 2008 by claiming it didn’t know anything about such technology.  Additionally, the report mentions Iran’s work on what appears to be an underground nuclear testing capability.

Interestingly, the IAEA also seems to have learned more information about Iran’s previously-revealed engineering and airburst fuse work on a suggestively spherical warhead for the Shahab-3 ballistic missile.  According to the November 8 report, the Agency has now established “a link between [the production of] nuclear material and a new payload development programme” for the missile.  This is significant not only because it supports the conclusion that the anticipated warhead was a nuclear weapon, but also because it underscores the point that all Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing work must be considered part of the country’s nuclear weapons program.  (This is a point that has been obvious enough since the beginning, but it is nonetheless one the drafters of the infamous 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran seem deliberately to have tried to obscure.)

The IAEA’s current report also recounts Iranian experiments with containment vessels for hydrodynamic explosive experiments, as well as the manufacture of simulated nuclear explosive components made of tungsten or other such high-density materials.  Between 1996 and 2002, in fact, Iran was also able to call upon the services of a foreign scientist with experience in his home country’s nuclear weapons program, who assisted the Iranians with the development of specialized multipoint explosive arrays suitable for implosion-type nuclear weapons.

Nor is all of this weaponization work just a historical footnote, for according to the IAEA, Iran experimented with just such a multipoint explosive array after 2003.  Various modeling and simulation experiments on spherical geometries for core of HEU-based implosion device were apparently also carried out in 2008 and 2009, building upon preparatory work undertaken in 2005.  Work on a certain type of neutron initiator system was reportedly done in 2006.  This is a depressing litany, but if nothing else, we can thank the IAEA for putting to rest the idea that work on Iran’s “nuclear weapons program” ceased in 2003.  Weaponization-related activites clearly occurred after that point, and the materials-production prong of the program – at Esfahan, Natanz, now Fordow, and perhaps elsewhere – never stopped at all.  (In fact, the materials prong apparently never halted even under the short-lived European-brokered “suspension” in late 2003.  As the IAEA long ago detailed, Iranian centrifuge component production continued at at least three facilities thereafter.)

The IAEA’s current report, therefore, recounts a depressing litany of information indeed, and must perforce be considered a better barometer of the real health of the nonproliferation regime than the fact that our diplomats reached agreement on a shallow and evasive RevCon document in 2010.

III.       Conclusion

According to Tom Donilon, there is still “time, space and means” to persuade Iran to change its nuclear course.  No one in the current administration, however, seems to know how, and there is little sign that this will occur.

And people are beginning to notice.  In my experience, it is unusual for U.S. presidents to be upbraided by the Washington Post editorial board for not being hawkish enough.  But that’s exactly what happened to the Obama Administration last week, when on November 22, the Post editorial board complained that in response to Iran’s ongoing provocations – apparently now also including an extraordinary plot by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States and bomb the Israeli embassy in Washington – the administration has taken only “half-steps.”  (Indeed, the paper did not merely describe the administration’s response to the most recent Iranian challenges as being inadequate: rather, it made clear that these half-measures were just the latest example in a long line of them.  Inadequacy seems to have become something of a specialty.)  All in all, according to the Post, “President Obama is not even leading from behind on Iran; he is simply behind.”

When push really comes to shove, therefore, I think it is here that we see the message diplomacy that will turn out to be most important to the future of the NPT regime.  The White House has preoccupied itself with the atmospherics of nuclear disarmament credibility, lowest-common-denominator consensus diplomacy, and the awkward and confusing tap dance of seeming concerned about national security threats while yet avoiding the appearance of being so focused upon them that President Obama looks like his predecessor.  With Washington’s attention thus diverted to political theater, the nonproliferation regime has continued to fall down on the job where real credibility is most needed: preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

We can wring our hands all we like about what Article VI and the NPT Preamble really mean with respect to disarmament, and what it might do for our reputation if we could demonstrate more disarmament “credibility.”  At the end of the day, however, the future of the nonproliferation regime depends first and foremost upon its credibility as a nonproliferation regime.  Shame on us for getting the priority backwards.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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