Big nuclear danger ahead

Pantelis Ikonomou, a former IAEA safeguards inspector, writes: 

The nuclear threat is at a historical high. The North Korean crisis and US President Trump’s intention to decertify the Iran Nuclear deal are the tip of the iceberg.

Neither the Treaty on Non Proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT), nor the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its safeguards inspectorate nor numerous United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions could stop the world’s nuclear race in recent decades. The number of countries possessing nuclear weapons (NW) increased from five, which are the recognized nuclear weapon states and permanent members of the UNSC, to allegedly nine.

While the rationale for developing and deploying of NW has always been national security through deterrence, hence war prevention, the prospects for maintaining global peace are thinner than ever before.

Just to mention some of the risk factors related to the major nuclear threat:

  • There are currently about 15,000 nuclear warheads in the arsenals of 9 countries (about 14,000 of them possessed by Russia and the US), capable of devastating our globe many times. Additionally, the nuclear material stored under various security conditions in civil and military facilities around the world is estimated to be sufficient to produce 240,000 nuclear devices. As of end 2016, about 204,000 of these are under IAEA safeguards.
  • The NPT is not applied universally. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are not parties to the treaty, thus not legally obliged to its restrictions.
  • The majority of states in the international community are disappointed in NW states for not fulfilling their NPT commitments on nuclear disarmament (NPT Art. VI)
  • The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the continuing North Korean crisis, and the up to 15 years limited Iran deal have revealed glaring non-proliferation shortcomings.
  • The failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference in New York indicated clearly the international community’s distrust in a fair (without double standards) enforcement of international nuclear law.
  • In July 2017 the UN General Assembly adopted by a vast majority a NW Ban Treaty. It is a legally binding instrument towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons that will enter into force after 50 signatures and ratifications.
  • The 2017 Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to ICAN, a worldwide coalition of NGOs campaigning against NW. Notably, the same award was given in 2005 to the IAEA’s staff and Director General, basically for the Agency’s unbiased and courageous statements failed to deter the invasion of Iraq.

In such an adverse nuclear climate there are two leaders with a finger on the button, Kim Yong-un and Donald Trump, who according to prevailing assessments have dubious nuclear decision capability. This is the fact that creates the highest current risk of major nuclear threat.

Regarding the tough responsibilities of a US president to decide on pushing the nuclear button in a matter of minutes, with no checks and balances by Congress or anyone else, Bob Woodward recalls (The Washington Post, 12 Nov 2016): «In 2008, after then-President-elect Obama was given one sensitive intelligence briefing at a secure facility in Chicago he joked, “It’s good that there are bars on the windows here because if there weren’t, I might be jumping out.”

A historic period not only for US contemporary politics but for the direction of global developments might prove to be the period 15 October to 15 December 2017. President Trump will apparently submit in the next few days to Congress for approval his decision to decertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. Congress will either approve it or send it back with no action, for the president to implement, or not.

A unilateral decision to scrap the deal would mean that the US would not keep its commitments under an agreement reached not only with Iran but with China, Russia, UK, France and Germany and finally adopted by the EU and endorsed by the UNSC Resolution 2231 on 20 July 2015. Moreover, decertifying the Iran deal will mean that the US disrespects and disagrees with the assessments of the responsible UN organization, the IAEA, that Iran is in compliance with the agreement since implementation day 16 January 2016.

Such a decision will open Pandora’s box. Some negative consequences are obvious. It will cloud Iran’s nuclear and political future, worsen the North Korea crisis, degrade political and economic relations of the US with the other five agreement parties and the EU, and increase the international community’s distrust of the UN system, international law, and justice. It will also severely damage the authority of the world’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.

Mitigation and finally elimination of the highest risk factor related to the current major nuclear threat is the topmost task in any comprehensive nuclear security plan. It is therefore now a chief challenge to get the US to preserve global peace, in accordance with its leadership responsibilities.

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