An A-Z of the NPT preparatory committee


Putting back the Doomsday clock

By Jenny Nielsen, Research Analyst, Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Acronym alert! Until 3 May, the Second Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the 2015 Review Conference (RevCon) of the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will be meeting at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva.

Still with us? The following alphabetical lists provides a flavour of what can be expected at this two-week gathering of states parties to the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Unlike some previous PrepComs (e.g. 2007), this session already has one – which should avoid procedural delays.

The Arab League considered boycotting this year’s committee after the 2012 Helsinki conference on the establishment of a Middle East WMD-free zone was postponed. Arab states will now attend, but remain unhappy about the lack of progress on an MEWMDFZ.

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Obama’s second chance at Prague nuke agenda

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The US electorate has spoken, and most of the international diplomats, academics, and others with whom I spoke on the day after our presidential election on 6 November breathed a sigh of relief that the stewardship of the world’s (still) sole superpower will remain in safe hands for another four years. The rest of the world famously backed Barack Obama, so while much of the satisfaction I heard about the Democrat’s re-election pertained particularly to the nuclear-policy matters being addressed in my various meetings, I also found myself, as an American citizen abroad, congratulated more broadly.

The election turned on domestic issues, and even the presidential debate that was supposed to be dedicated to foreign policy pivoted back to the American economy and education system. Nevertheless, the question that I have been asked most is how Obama will use his renewed lease on the White House to address global issues. In my area of specialisation on arms control and non-proliferation, everyone agrees there is much to be done. Unfortunately, there seems little scope for Obama to do it. And, of course, Iran looms large on his agenda.

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Iran’s refusal on concessions renews the threats of war


Fordow Uranium Enrichment Facility, North of Qom. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Podnox

Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, wrote an op-ed in The National published on 10 October examining how a prolonged stalemate in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme could lead to a strike.

Iran is ‘so far from making concessions’, writes Fitzpatrick, that there has not yet been any need for the E3+3 (France, Germany and the UK plus Russia, China and the US) to grapple with the issue of sanctions relief.

As a confidence-building measure, the E3+3 asked Iran to stop production of 20% enriched uranium, ship out the accumulated 20 per cent product and shut down its enrichment facility at Fordow.  Iran is only willing to consider stopping 20% enrichment, in exchange for the lifting of all sanctions. The trade from Iran’s point of view has been characterised by former Iranian negotiator Hossein Mousavian as amounting to ‘diamonds for peanuts‘. But for the E3+3, what Iran is offering is similarly unpalatable: ‘With the lower level of enrichment, Iran could get to the bomb in only a slightly longer time than if it started with a 20 per cent product,’ writes Fitzpatrick.

A change in Iran’s position could be ‘too little, too late’. Sanctions are having a devastating effect on Iran’s economy, but there is not likely to be another meaningful meeting between the negotiating powers until after the US election – and it is possible concessions won’t be made until after Iran’s own presidential elections in June 2013, and even then, these may merely be tactical. If a new Iranian president isn’t ready to make a deal next year, Israel may attack.

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The risk of Syria’s chemical weapons

US military personnel train in CW suits. Photo  DoD/Benjamin Kittleson
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The dangers associated with Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) are a dire example of why non-proliferation of unconventional weapons must be a top international priority. Up until a few short months ago, Syria’s chemical weapons were typically seen as for deterrence purposes only. Offensive use of the weapons was deemed suicidal and hence unlikely.

There is now a real alarm that Syria’s chemical weapons might be used, and not just in response to nuclear threats or foreign invasion. The worry, rather, is that the Assad regime might deploy the weapons against his Syrian opponents or that the weapons could be seized by radical forces aligned with al-Qaeda or other groups that might seek to use them in terrorist attacks elsewhere. Hence President Obama’s stern warning on Monday that Syria would face American military intervention in the event that chemical weapons are moved or prepared for use. An aide later clarified that Obama’s warning about ‘moving’ the weapons meant movement that would make the arsenal more vulnerable to seizure, not movement intended to secure the arsenal.

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Closing the deal with Iran

Saeed Jalili, of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and P5+1 chief nuclear negotiator Catherine Ashton at talks in Moscow in June

Saeed Jalili, of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and the West’s chief nuclear negotiator Catherine Ashton at talks in Moscow in June

By Andrew Parasiliti, Executive Director, IISS-US; Corresponding Director IISS-Middle East

There could yet be a deal over Iran’s nuclear programme between Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany; led in talks by the EU). The endgame, however, needs to be transparent: a comprehensive package that includes sanctions relief in return for Iran’s closing the nuclear file. Diplomacy with Iran should be seen as a process, with benchmarks and objectives, like any other high-stakes negotiation. These benchmarks would include a compromise on Iran’s right to enrichment; agreement on the latest fuel-swap proposal; a strategic pause in both Iranian enrichment and further sanctions; Iran’s involvement in regional security dialogue, including on Syria; and sanctions relief as a clear outcome for Iranian cooperation.

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Hoping for a zone of goodwill in the Mideast

Beirut's Al-Amin Mosque. Timos L. Flickr user

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

BEIRUT, Lebanon, 4 July – An IISS workshop in this sun-kissed capital showed that the decades-long cold war between Iran and Saudi-led Gulf Arabs has again heated up, this time over Syria. But one issue on which those nations see common cause is the goal of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons (hereafter, simply the ‘Zone’). If it ever came to pass, the Zone would resolve Riyadh’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and Tehran’s grievances about being held to a standard that is not applied to Israel. And since the Zone is such a far-off goal, nobody need be too bothered today about the intrusive inspections and other sensitive compromises that would need to be made for it to be implemented.

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Hitting the Hay Festival

Mark Fitzpatrick at the Hay Festival

Portrait of the artist as a non-proliferation wonk: Mark Fitzpatrick at the Hay Festival

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

My kids will find it amusing that their wonky father was categorised as an ‘artist’ this past weekend. The occasion was the Hay Festival in Wales, which sprinkles in some policy discussions among the talks on literature and the arts.

I was invited to lead off on a panel on the Iran nuclear issue because I had written a feature article for Prospect in April entitled ‘Iran can be stopped’. At first glance, the headline might have been mistaken for a war drumbeat. To the contrary, my argument in the piece is that Iran can be deterred from crossing the line to manufacturing nuclear weapons; Tehran will be content to have the capability.

The problem is that the capability is getting increasingly worrisome: Iran produces 30% more enriched uranium each month than when I wrote the Prospect piece and has expanded work at the deeply buried facility at Fordow, producing higher enriched uranium that is on the cusp of being weapons usable.

The good citizens at the Hay Festival didn’t want to hear much about that, though – at least not the vocal ones who came to the Iran panel. They were more interested in Israel, and why we weren’t talking about that country’s nuclear arsenal. As chair, BBC World News anchor Nik Gowing tried to keep the discussion on topic, but he had to bow to popular demand.

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Myanmar comes in from the nuclear cold (almost)

Myanmar Defence Minister Hla Min made headlines yesterday with his announcement that the country had abandoned all nuclear activity and suspended military cooperation with North Korea.

‘This is a good news story’ Mark Fitzpatrick, the Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, told Alexander Nicoll, and he sketched out the background to international concern about possible nuclear proliferation in the country. However, he also cautioned that the General’s comment that was no need for the IAEA to visit Myanmar as there was nothing to inspect was ‘the wrong answer.’

IISS Strategic Dossier: Preventing Nuclear Dangers in Southeast Asia and Australasia

Straight talking on export controls

Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khan and the rise of proliferation networksBy Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

I’ve just come back from playing the uninhibited academic on Slovenia’s Adriatic Coast. I was at the latest International Export Control Conference, convened by the US State Department and partners. The conference, which runs until tomorrow, mostly discusses the nuts and bolts of export controls, trying to ensure, for example, that exports don’t end up assisting nuclear and missile programmes in countries such as Iran and North Korea, or similar.

Most speakers at gatherings such as this are from government departments or international organisations, and have to be careful about not causing offence among any of the 80 or so participating countries. But the organisers like to have at least one non-governmental speaker who is not so constrained. This year that was me.

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Believing in a Mideast WMD-free zone

Nuclear weapons-free zone sign from IowaHighways' flickr accountBy Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Sometimes you never know what you think about an issue until you start putting pen to paper.

Last November, the United Nations Association of the UK (UNA-UK) asked me to write a briefing report on the issue of establishing a Middle East Zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. (This mouthful is usually abbreviated as MEWMDFZ, or sometimes simply called the ‘zone’.) The paper would be the second in a UNA-UK series on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Part of the organisation’s ‘Towards Zero‘ programme, the paper seeks to raise awareness ahead of a conference being organised later this year by Jaakko Laajava, Finland’s under secretary of state for foreign and security policy, in support of the zone goal.

My initial reaction was to wonder whether there was anything new to say on the subject, given that the zone has been on the international agenda since 1974 and is as distant now as it was then. I also confess to having harboured some initial cynicism about whether the 2012 conference would contribute to the goal of a zone, or indeed whether it would even be held, given the differences among the key players.

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