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Weapons of Mass Destruction: Maintaining the Rage

First Dr John Gee Memorial Lecture by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, Australian National University, Canberra, 16 August 2007


'Rage' — which in this lecture I will be urging you to maintain, in relation to the awful continuing threat posed by the continuing possession and potential use by so many countries of weapons of mass destruction — is not a word one immediately associates with John Gee. Just about every one of the marvelous obituary tributes paid to him last January referred to him as a man of calm, patient, quiet, reserve; someone of enormous strength of character, commitment and conviction, but who achieved what he did throughout his wonderfully distinguished professional career by intelligent, well-informed, good-humoured, patient, subdued but persuasive argument — with no one ever able to remember him raising his voice. A role-model, may I say a little shame-facedly, for us all.

Not that there wasn’t much for John to be enraged about. Issues in which he was directly personally involved, for a start. The circumstances of his politically-forced departure in 2003 from his post as deputy from OPCW — the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — which he had done more than anyone else in the world to build into an effective global disarmament organisation, but which departure he accepted with quiet dignity. The charade of the Iraq Study Group, from which he resigned in 2004 — quietly but very effectively letting his judgment be known — because he thought the search for weapons of mass destruction was fatally flawed, sustained by U.S. political pressure when all the evidence was that there were no such weapons to be found. And above all the horrible unfairness, for this brilliant man and his loving family — Liv, Rebecca, Christina and Nicholas — of being struck down still in the prime of his professional and personal life by the brain tumour from which he died this year, but which unfairness again he accepted with grace and serenity.

Open rage just wasn't John's style. But I think those of us who knew him know that John's decades of intensely productive work on disarmament issues — both as Australian diplomat and international public servant — were born of something rather more than just intellectual curiosity (ample though his stock of that was, and as made in heaven for the task was his combination of an Oxford PhD in chemistry and diplomatic skills and training), and certainly had nothing much to do with opportunistic career calculation (which all his friends agree was a bureaucratic life-skill utterly beyond him). This was a man who was enraged by the combination of folly, malice and double-standards that produced a world at risk of annihilation from weapons of a destructive capacity beyond even the imagination of mankind not many decades ago. But John Gee knew how to control and channel that rage in productive directions, shaping good policy, persuading decision makers to accept it, and always looking for practical ways to move forward grand and ambitious objectives.

His record speaks for itself. In 1985, as the then chemical and biological weapons desk officer in the disarmament division of the Foreign Affairs Department re-energised by my predecessor Bill Hayden, he was responsible, almost singlehandedly, for the establishment of the Australia Group, founded in the wake of the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein in the Iran–Iraq war with the objective — through the strict application of national export licensing and customs inspection regimes — of denying access by countries of proliferation concern to chemicals and biological agents, precursors and dual-use equipment which could be used in chemical and biological weapons programs, and currently with 39 member states.

In the mid-1980s, again, John started to take a close interest in the long-stalled negotiations for a Chemical Weapons Convention, and, working closely with Defence Science and Technology Scientists Bob Mathews and Shirley Freeman, drafted the critical path for the acceleration of those negotiations, focusing particularly on the need to get industry support for a verification regime, all of which effort — along with that of a number of other extraordinarily committed officers — ultimately bore fruit in the conclusion of the Treaty in 1992, an international achievement of which Australia can continue to be very proud.

In 1991 John was appointed by the UN Secretary-General to the UN Special Commission, or UNSCOM, which had been set up to oversee the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction after the first Iraq war. In his capacity as Coordinator of its Chemical and Biological Weapons Working Group, he played a critical role in developing the Commission's on-site inspection capability, which was — unhappily all too belatedly — subsequently recognised as having done an outstanding job in ensuring the dismantling and destruction of chemical and biological weapons capabilities.

In 1993 John was appointed Director of the Verification Division of the new OPCW being set up in The Hague under the Chemical Weapons Convention set up by the CWC, charged with the complex and politically very sensitive task of developing and implementing all the institutions and procedures necessary to verify compliance with the Convention. When the Convention entered into force in 1997, John became its Deputy Director-General, a position he held with, I know personally, enormous respect from his peers, subordinates and political masters, until he left — in circumstances which cast absolutely no reflection on his competence or integrity, in fact the contrary — in March 2003.

In a widely quoted funeral tribute, his former Russian colleague at the OPCW, Mikhail Berdennikov, said this of John's role: "Today almost one-third of the world's chemical weapons and two-thirds of its production capacity have been destroyed. Much of the credit for these truly historic accomplishments, without exaggeration, goes to John Gee. Few can claim such a legacy."

Few can indeed. And it is for that reason, to honour the legacy of a great Australian, who did make a magnificent contribution to the cause of a safer and saner world, that I am delighted that this Lecture series has been established, and feel very privileged indeed to have been asked to inaugurate it.

Chemical and Biological Weapons

When we look out at the current global scene in relation to weapons of mass destruction, the Chemical Weapons Convention, with which John had so much to do, remains just about the only reasonably good news story. This is probably the WMD issue with which, in a sense, I remain most emotionally engaged — not for the obvious reason that the conclusion of the Treaty was a major achievement for Australian diplomacy at a time when I was Foreign Minister, but for a much more personal one. One of my very first recollections, as a young child in the late 1940s, was going to visit, on a number of occasions before his death, an uncle who had had most of his lung capacity destroyed in a Western Front mustard gas attack 30 years earlier: I can hear to this day his hacking, rasping, wheezing, and gasping, and I think to this day of the sheer unrelenting misery of his life and that of so many victims like him…and these were the lucky ones who survived.

The CWC remains the most significant WMD treaty ever signed, to the extent that not only does it comprehensively outlaw a whole class of such weapons, but it has comprehensive — and largely workable — provisions for monitoring and enforcement, including those requiring the complete and outright destruction of existing stockpiles. While, like the other treaties, it applies directly to states rather than the non-state actors — terrorist groups and the like — that are these days of equal concern if not greater concern to policy-makers, the argument is that the CWC, effectively enforced, can slow the spread of chemical weapons (CW) here by strengthening the restrictions on trade in precursor chemicals and generally increasing the vigilance of the international chemical industry about the proliferation threat.

The good news about its implementation is that nearly all the countries of the world are now parties to it, with only six having signed but not yet ratified, and only seven having so far failed to even sign: Angola, North Korea, Egypt, Lebanon, Somalia, Syria and Iraq. Of these, Syria and North Korea are suspected of having chemical weapons, and suspicions are still voiced that some full parties to the Convention, including Sudan and China, have not disclosed their stockpiles. In all, six countries have declared their stockpiles, including the United States and Russia, and these two account for the greater part of the total of 71,330 tonnes of CW declared.

Also on the reasonably bright side is that twelve countries have declared chemical weapons production facilities, including some of proliferation concern, such as Iran. Of the 65 facilities declared, to date 39 have been destroyed and eighteen converted to civilian use. The OPCW has also now carried out close to 2,700 inspections of 1,000 sites in the ten years of its existence, which it would be fair to describe for the most part as detailed and intrusively thorough. One of John Gee's many remembered contributions to OPCW culture was his, for him somewhat acerbic, comment: "If one of our inspections becomes a 'windshield tour' of a Potemkin village, we might just as well close down the OPCW altogether."

The less good news is that of all the stockpiles declared, not much more than 20 per cent have been destroyed to date, with both the US and Russia coming up with technical reasons (connected with security in the destruction process) for the apparently endlessly ongoing delays. And on the inspections side, a number of states party, including Iran, have been making increasingly active efforts to be obstructive; some other countries are beginning to express more overt concern that inspections intrude too far on issues of national security; while in the United States, and to some extent in Europe, complaints are increasingly being heard that the very intrusive inspections regime is risking their proprietary secrets. Dual-use chemicals and facilities remain a constant source of anxiety, and a further issue generating recurring concern is that the norm against CW use is being undermined by the use in crowd control — in major countries such as the U.S. and Russia — of new supposedly non-lethal chemical agents (eg the fentanyl derivative used in lifting the 2002 Moscow theatre siege, which killed 120 hostages).

All these concerns look somewhat less alarming, however, when matched against those which continue to plague the CWC's companion piece — the Biological Weapons Convention. Here there are not many rays of light at all to penetrate the general gloom, other than the rather feeble one that it has not, so far anyway, proved easy in practice to disseminate them on a wide enough basis to put at risk really massive numbers of lives, despite apparently readily available options like releasing biological agents into water supplies, or from light planes flying over cities or crops. Although the overt prohibition on the possession and use of biological weapons (BW) is more or less as complete as the ban on CW in the CWC, there is nothing remotely as comprehensive in place when it comes to monitoring, verification and destruction.

Part of the practical containment problem is that, unlike CW, biological weapons (BW) do not require huge industrial plants to manufacture them or huge sums of money. BW can be made in a space the size of a bedroom. The equipment required is more or less the same as that required by an average laboratory anywhere in the world and is, moreover, readily available and easily acquired. Developing and using BW would certainly be the easiest option for a terrorist group when compared to the acquisition of other categories of WMD. This would be particularly so if they were suicide terrorists and not especially concerned to develop their weapons in safe — and expensive — containment facilities.

Even obtaining live biological agents, while difficult, would nevertheless still probably be far easier to obtain than, say, fissile material for a nuclear bomb. Scientists or laboratory technicians in countries with secret BW offensive programs, or even overt defensive ones, might be bribed. And it must also be borne in mind that there is a growing risk of eco-terrorism in the future, when scientists or lab technicians may dedicate themselves to a particular cause and be willing to make their expertise or material available to develop BW for use in terrorist acts. Again in this regard, it only needs to be recalled that at least one of the most recent BW incidents in the US weaponised anthrax was used which could only have come from a US defence facility. And the apparent involvement of doctors in the latest incidents in Britain is an even more chilling reminder of this possibility.

Despite the practical problems of enforcement, and the not unreasonable argument of many policy analysts in this area that primary reliance, in respect to biological weapons (and maybe chemical ones as well) should be placed not so much on the Herculean task of stopping them ever being developed and used, but putting in place much more comprehensive health facilities to ensure at least that the consequences of any BW attack can be better managed, there is much more that could be done than has been done to inhibit states or non-state actors from acquiring BW.

The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) entered into force in 1975 and has 155 states party to it. It prohibits states from developing or possessing biological agents for other than peaceful purposes. But very significantly, it contains no requirements whatever for national declarations of existing BW programs, and no verification or inspection regimes whatever governing research facilities and the destruction of BW stockpiles.

Negotiation of a detailed Protocol to the BWC to cover these gaps began in 1995 but was broken off in 2001 when the United States withdrew from the drafting group. The US was concerned that the inspection regime would compromise the commercial integrity of peaceful pharmaceutical industries such as its own, while doing, so the argument went, little to uncover hidden BW programs in other countries. It remains a matter of some mystery to me why this particular default has not registered a little more visibly on the international rage-meter: maybe it’s because the Bush administration was at the time walking away from so many multilateral treaty commitments and negotiating obligations that it was simply lost in the crowd.

So there the BW situation rests, with not even the merest hint that negotiations of a verification protocol might be resumed in the foreseeable future. The Australia Group has had some success in reining in the international trade in biological precursors and dual use equipment — although its efforts have been more successful in relation to chemical weapons, understandable considering that biomaterials and equipment can be much more widely sourced than the sort of chemicals or production equipment required for chemical weapons. That said, national legislation and inspection regimes are of little use when a state which is not a member of the Australia Group, is producing, selling and transporting BW-related materials, except in the unlikely event that they might enter the ports, territorial waters or airspace of an Australia Group member. A number of states of wider proliferation concern — including Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Sudan — are in fact suspected of having covert BW programs,1 a state of affairs not without interest for would-be biological terrorists.

Nuclear Weapons

For all the anxiety that chemical and biological weapons generate, it is nuclear weapons that remain the overwhelming preoccupation of rational people around the world. The Blix Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, of which I was a member and which reported in June 2006, succinctly explained why:

  • Nuclear, biological and chemical arms are the most inhumane of all weapons. And nuclear weapons are the most inhumane of all. Designed to terrify as well as destroy, they are capable, in the hands of either states or non-state actors, of destruction on a vastly greater scale than any conventional weapons, and their impact is far more indiscriminate and long lasting.
  • Notwithstanding the end of the Cold War balance of terror, stocks of such weapons remain extraordinarily and alarmingly high: some 30,000 in the case of nuclear weapons, of which around 12,000 are still actively deployed.
  • Over the last decade, there has been a serious, and dangerous, loss of momentum and direction in disarmament and non-proliferation efforts. Treaty making and implementation has stalled and, as a new wave of proliferation has threatened, unilateral enforcement action has been increasingly advocated.

In January this year the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock, for six decades now the best-known symbolic indicator of the threat posed by nuclear proliferation, moved two minutes closer to midnight — at 11.55 the closest to doomsday it has been since the Cold War. At the start of the nuclear arms race in 1953 the clock's hands were set at two minutes to midnight. Under President Bush senior, with the end of the Cold War and after the US and Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991, the clock moved the farthest from doomsday it has ever been, to 11.43.

Now, under his son's watch, the hands of the clock have been pushed back almost as close to midnight as they have ever been — with the renewed value being attached to the possession of nuclear weapons by so many countries; with the CTBT in limbo and the NPT being steadily eroded; with North Korea's bomb test and Iran's nuclear plans; with the deal with India unaccompanied by any serious discipline on fissile material production or anything else; with the continuing talk about the development of new generations weapons; with the emergence of talk — almost unthinkable in the Cold War years — of nuclear weapons being an acceptable means of war-fighting, even to the extent of their use in preemptive strikes; and with the new anxiety felt about non-state actors, combined with old fears continuing about poor safeguards of nuclear materials.

In case anyone feels that I am rather over-emphasing the contributions to this rather alarming new nuclear insecurity environment of the current President Bush — and I acknowledge that is always a temptation — it is worth pondering whether anything would be any better under his likely Democrat successor. When the increasingly struggling Barack Obama recently said that he would rule out, as a 'profound mistake' the use of nuclear weapons in Afghanistan or Pakistan to target al-Qaeda, the increasingly confident Hillary Clinton pounced on him, saying that it was unwise to be so specific: "I don't believe any President should make blanket statements with respect to the use or non-use of nuclear weapons".

That has, it seems, become pretty much the orthodox, bipartisan, American position that will carry at least through the current presidential campaign: keep enemies guessing when and where nukes might be used, including to stave off a conventional military defeat, or to destroy underground bunkers, or to retaliate against chemical or biological attack, or to go after a terrorist group's leadership — for all of which you need nuclear forces that are sizeable, safe, secure, reliable and modern.2

But this is certainly not the only available position for the US. The alternative, and I would have thought infinitely more rational and attractive one, is one composed of these key elements:

  • that in today's post Cold War world it need no longer realistically fear a nuclear attack against its own territory from any other state, and that its overwhelming conventional firepower would be sufficient to deter any possible aggressor;
  • that the real concern is that nuclear weapons, sensitive technologies (ie enrichment and reprocessing) and fissile material will spread to unstable regimes and, perhaps through them, to terrorists;
  • that the real need now accordingly is to focus not on nuclear deterrence but on preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, sensitive technologies and fissile material by such measures as strong export controls, inspections and safeguards, and tougher sanctions against violators;
  • that the further need is to reduce the availability of these weapons and fissile material by such means as reducing the reliance on nuclear forces (including through 'no first use' pledges), massively further decreasing the size of arsenals, taking weapons off alert status, and strengthening security against the risk of weapons and fissile material being stolen or diverted; and
  • that nuclear arsenals should be retained only at the level necessary to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by others, until such time as the goal of universal elimination is achieved.

This analysis and set of prescriptions, you should be aware if you are not already, are not just the sort of thing being said by Hans Blix and his Commission of crazed (or naοve, according to taste) left-leaning idealists. They are for all practical purposes exactly the prescriptions offered by the extraordinary quartet of Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn in their seminal article, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons", published in the Wall Street Journal in January this year. In their piece, published just a few days before John Gee died — and I hope he saw it because it would have cheered him no end — Kissinger and his fellow Cold Warriors, said among things, this:

Nuclear weapons today present tremendous dangers…reliance on nuclear weapons for [deterrence] is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective…Reassertion of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America's moral heritage.

We can only hope that radicalism of this stripe won't be too much for the new owner of the Journal to stomach!

So what does all this mean for policy-makers generally, including in Australia, here and now? It's easy to quickly lose one's bearings in the arcane world of nuclear policy — with, if you let it get you down — its extraordinary technical complexity, jargon all its own, and multiplicity of closely inter-related issues, substantive and procedural. For present purposes let me try to cut through that a little and focus on just two big thing for the world's policy-makers to do: get serious about disarmament, about eliminating nuclear weapons once and for all; and get serious about overcoming the many and obvious weaknesses of the present non-proliferation regime.

Getting Serious About Eliminating Nuclear Weapons

It impossible to overstate the extent to which the issues of non-proliferation (ie stopping the emergence of new nuclear weapons states) and disarmament (ie reducing and ultimately eliminating the nuclear weapons held by existing nuclear weapons states) are inextricably linked. This was a key element in trade-off at the heart of the original Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) negotiations: non-nuclear weapons states would not acquire such weapons, in return for which they would not only receive technical support for developing peaceful nuclear energy development ('atoms for peace') but the weapons states would commit themselves over time to eliminating their own stock of weapons. And this remains absolutely critical in the thinking of most non-nuclear weapons states today, irrespective of whether they can begin to advance any more rational reason for going down the weapons acquisition path: why should they be denied the right, they say, to acquire what others have no intention of relinquishing, and continue to want to upgrade and talk about using?

All the world hates a hypocrite, and there is no area of international public policy where double standards are more obvious than in relation to the requirement in Article VI of the NPT that the existing nuclear weapons states commit to total nuclear disarmament. Instead of moving to eliminate their nuclear stockpiles (which for a time, at least, it was possible to argue they were, with both the US and Russia substantially reducing the number of their warheads), we see now some of the nuclear weapons states talking of developing new classes of nuclear weapon or upgrading their existing ones, not to mention Hillary Clinton and all those who sail with her talking about keeping the nuclear weapons use option in a whole variety of non-nuclear threat situations.

There is no reason for Europeans to feel any sense of smug complacency about any of this, that it's all about the US — and Russia, and China — and nothing to do with us. As I told a conference at the European Parliament recently, neither of the two EU nuclear weapons states have themselves done anything to persuade the non-nuclear weapons states that they are in the slightest bit serious about meeting their own side of the grand NPT bargain — to move steadily toward absolute nuclear disarmament.

The UK Government's determination to proceed with the replacement of the Trident system is as clear, and depressing, an example as will even find of the way in which low political calculation will always trump high principle, short term advantage will always out-manoeuvre long-term gain, and perceived national interest will just about always triumph over obvious global interest. And so far as France is concerned there is an Academy Award on offer for anyone able to assert with a straight face that President Sarkozy or any of his successors will be more willing than their UK counterparts to unilaterally abandon or weaken their own country's position in the double-standard game of charades that continues to be played by the nuclear weapons states.

There is one particular message that runs like a constant refrain through the Blix Commission Report, as it did through the report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons which preceded it ten years ago, and first formulated this language, viz:

So long as any state has nuclear weapons others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain, there is a high risk that they will one day be used, by design or accident. And any such use would be catastrophic.

There are, as I have said, a lot of complexities and technicalities in the nuclear debate, and all too many policy makers, like all too many members of the public, throw up their hands and say it’s all just too complicated. But there are not many messages in public life that are simpler than that one. And so too is the Commission's answer to the endlessly recurring argument that it is pointless talking about the elimination of nuclear weapons because they cannot be uninvented:

Weapons of mass destruction cannot be uninvented. But they can be outlawed, as biological and chemical weapons already have been, and their use made unthinkable. Compliance, verification and enforcement rules can, with the requisite will, be effectively applied. And with that will, even the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons is not beyond the world’s reach.

That's a very simple couple of messages. It's time that they were heard, time that they were acted upon, and time — here as elsewhere — that the major powers, instead of hiding behind everyone else's skirts, take a lead in ensuring just that.

Getting Serious About Strengthening the NPT Regime3

There is no doubt that the current non-proliferation regime is under great and increasing stress. This is particularly so when one thinks of it, as one should, as comprising not just the NPT itself, and the IAEA safeguards system which immediately supports it, but as a whole constellation of mutually reinforcing elements, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which has still not entered into force because a number of designated states have failed to ratify (including China, North Korea, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and, indefensibly, the United States) and the long-hoped for Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) designed to ban any further production of weapons-usable highly enriched uranium and plutonium, but negotiations on which have been stalled for years.

The NPT itself, concluded in 1968, is the most widely adhered to multilateral disarmament agreement, with 188 States, including the five original nuclear-weapon States, parties to it (with only India, Israel and Pakistan not joining, and North Korea purporting to withdraw in 2003). And there are many positive things to say about the way in which it has worked: the widely held view in the 1960s that there would be some 25-30 nuclear-armed states by the 1990s has not come to pass; there have been major successes for the regime, like the joining of it as non-weapons states by South Africa, Argentina and Brazil, and more recently Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, and Libya's renunciation of nuclear weapons; and there was, after a long fight, agreement to extend it indefinitely in 1995.

But in recent years there has been the anxiety about India's and Pakistan's move to weapons possession; North Korea's breakaway from the NPT, production of both weapons grade material testing of an explosive device; the possible breakaway of Iran and its alarming wider regional implications; the revelation of a major black market in sensitive technology (with Pakistan's favourite scientific son, AQ Khan the key figure); the huge concern at the emergence of international terrorism on a much more sophisticated basis; and all this in an environment where the weapons-states under the NPT seemed to be insouciant or worse about their own role in keeping the philosophy and discipline of the treaty together. 2005 saw two particularly loud wake-up calls in the failure of the NPT Review Conference to agree on any outcomes, and the inability of the World Summit — bringing together 150 heads of state and government on the UN's 60th Anniversary — to agree on even a single line about any WMD issue. It is critical for those calls to be heeded now.

There are several priority issues in this respect, on which all serious policy-makers should be committed:

  • Revive, reassert and re-endorse the fundamental commitments of all NPT parties to each other: the five nuclear weapon states parties to negotiate towards full nuclear disarmament, and the non-nuclear weapon states to refrain from developing nuclear weapons — what Selig Harrison (World Policy Journal, Fall 2006) calls 'the forgotten bargain'. Without this as a foundation, more specific steps toward strengthening the non-proliferation side of the bargain seem bound to fail.
  • Clarify and tighten the conditions under which states may legally withdraw from the NPT, especially if they have fuel cycle capabilities acquired while they were NPT parties.
  • Seriously explore international arrangements for an assurance of supply of enriched uranium fuel for peaceful nuclear energy programs, and for the disposal of spent fuel, to reduce incentives for national facilities and diminish proliferation risks, and in that context introduce stronger restrictions on the transfer of sensitive nuclear technologies. (It needs to be remembered that until the 1990s it was assumed that the development of enrichment technology would be beyond the technological means of nearly all states, so the issue of sensitive nuclear technology is simply not mentioned in the 1968 NPT.

There is of course an argument still heard about a basic underlying pillar of the whole NPT regime that the 'atoms for peace' principle is unsustainable, and that civil nuclear energy production (whatever its superficial attractions in an age of anxiety about the contribution of fossil fuels to global warming) inevitably will reinforce and make ever harder to control the move toward wider nuclear weapons possession.

But I think we have to acknowledge, like it or not, that recognizing and accommodating the demand for civilian nuclear capability is the only possible way the NPT can be held together — and, as it must be, strengthened — in the present environment, and that it would be Quixotic in the extreme to tilt at this windmill while trying to hold together a broad based international consensus in favour of drawing an absolute red line against anything in the nature of weaponisation.

Of course the optimal solution all round (except for those who are not prepared to support any role for any kind of civil nuclear energy) would be for all fissile material production, and all spent fuel disposal, to be internationalised and fully controlled so as to make impossible any diversion for weapons production purposes. But it is hard to get that aspiration even to first base while some countries – notably the US – refuse to even contemplate the internationalization of their own processes, and this includes their refusal to commit even to begin negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty.

  • Universalise a system of strengthened and more effective safeguards – including but not confined to the Additional Protocol which has supplemented traditional comprehensive safeguards agreements. This would be designed not just to enable the systematic inspection of declared material and facilities, but to enable the evaluation — qualitatively as well as quantitatively — of undeclared nuclear activities, which need not be large-scale to pose a proliferation threat.
  • Get serious about bringing into force the CTBT, negotiating to a conclusion the FMCT, and at least starting to seriously negotiate a treaty prohibiting the stationing or use of weapons in space.
  • Recognise that countries not party to the NPT (India, Pakistan and Israel) need to be drawn into the disarmament and non-proliferation process. This is an exceedingly delicate issue: having thumbed their noses for so long at the NPT regime (although with Pakistan having behaved much less responsibly than the other two in the case of actual support for non-proliferation), nobody wants to give any of them a free ride to the status of recognised nuclear-weapon states, and there is an entirely understandable reluctance to treat them as entitled to the supply of materials and technology that is permitted for non-nuclear-weapons states in good standing under the NPT.

In this context there is nothing particularly wrong in principle — as IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei has, for one, acknowledged — in negotiating special bilateral arrangements which reflect the underlying principles of the NPT regime and in effect draw these outlier states into it, including have them accept intrusive monitoring regimes. But everything depends on what the terms of these agreements are. The US-India deal has I think been rightly criticised for giving away too much (Indian access to US nuclear fuel and technology) with too little demanded in return: no promise to stop producing weapons-usable fissile material, no promise not to expand its nuclear arsensal, and no promise (or certainly no clear promise) not to resume nuclear testing. And from what I have seen of the just announced Australian government intention to allow uranium shipments to India, it will involve none of these things either, requiring only minimal traditional assurances of non-diversion.

Iran. The biggest single nuclear proliferation issue facing global policy-makers at the moment is Iran. The situation with North Korea is at least partly back on track as a result of the Bush administration learning — the hard way, at the cost of up to another ten weapons-worth of fissile material being added to the Pyongyang nuclear stock — that negotiation can be a better option than confrontation. But for the moment Tehran remains a paid up member of the axis of evil, so far as Washington is concerned, and tensions continue to mount as it becomes more and more obviously technically capable of enriching uranium up to weapons grade.

The obviously most attractive solution, given Tehran's less than honest and open record of reporting to the IAEA over a number of years, was to persuade it, by a mixture of incentives and disincentives, to forego the acquisition of fissile-material making capacity — or 'full fuel cycle capability', as the jargon has it — in return for guaranteed external supply of fuel to run its energy reactors.

But it does not appear that Iran is in any kind of mood to accept a 'guaranteed' supply from offshore, either an international fuel bank if one existed, or from Russia, as Moscow has proposed, or anyone else, in return for foregoing its fuel-cycle ambitions and agreeing to indefinitely relinquish whatever right as it has under the NPT to enrich uranium — even in the context of all the sanctions and threatened sanctions that are now on the table, and incentives (including restored relations with the US) that could be put back on the table.

Some are confident that sanctions — particularly the backdoor variety that the US, and Europeans under American pressure, are capable of applying through the banking system, to choke off both trade and investment finance — will ultimately force the Iranians to cave in, but that is not a confidence that we in the International Crisis Group share. Our reading is that, while the potential impact of these kind of measures can never be understated (and were probably decisive, eg in South Africa against the apartheid regime) in Iran just too many factors are pulling the other way, including:

  • Iran's sense of national pride, consciousness of its history, and deeply rooted ideology of independence, which cuts across other internal political and cultural divisions, and makes it deeply reluctant to be seen to be pushed around.
  • Associated with this the sense that Iran is a major, not minor, league player, not least in its own region, and entitled to have the kind of capability that goes with that.
  • The widespread sense that the West is trying to prevent Iran from having access to scientific progress, patronising it, to keep it in dependence and tutelage.
  • The sense that the international community's heart is not really in a full-scale sanctions squeeze — that Russia (although it has gone along with the UNSC so far), China and the great majority of NPT countries don’t really believe that they are at present acting outside the letter or even spirit of the NPT in rushing to acquire full fuel-cycle capability.

Add to all that the Iranians current perception that military strike action is a non-starter in the present environment — with, except for a few fringe dwellers, the clear thinking in both the US and Israel that the negatives would far outweigh the positives — and you have all the makings of a full-scale impasse.

Crisis Group has long been arguing that a new approach is needed which goes back to basics — which focuses on strategy rather than immediate tactics — by redrawing the red line. What matters, from a non-proliferation perspective, is not whether Iran has full enrichment capability, but nuclear weapons. What should ultimately concern Israel, Iran’s neighbours, and a world deeply anxious to avoid further nuclear breakout, is not whether Iran has the capacity to make weapons-grade uranium, but whether it actually makes it and puts it into deliverable bombs. While it may well be too late to stop Iran acquiring its own fissile material, and the technological capacity to enrich it to weapons grade, it is certainly not too late to halt it acquiring nuclear weapons.

To achieve this will require a different diplomatic strategy from that presently favoured by the EU and US. It means abandoning the 'zero enrichment' goal in favour of a 'delayed limited enrichment' plan. Under this:

  • the wider international community would explicitly accept that Iran can enrich domestically for peaceful nuclear energy purposes. We might not like the idea that the NPT does not directly limit the supply of sensitive technologies to any non-nuclear weapon state, except when it is actually engaged in making weapons, but that is the reality;
  • in return Iran would agree to phasing in over an extended period of years that enrichment program, with major limitations on its initial size and scope, and a very highly intrusive inspections regime — not just the Additional Protocol to which it has already signed up, which is significantly more intrusive than the basic safeguards regime, but (because of the doubts which have arisen — and are in fact widely shared by other NPT parties — about its reporting lapses and general lack of transparency in the past) specially negotiated 'Additional Protocol Plus' measures which would enable inspectors to have a rather more exact knowledge of what Iran was doing across a broader range of areas relevant to weapons capability; and
  • there would be both incentives — in the form of security guarantees, progressive lifting of existing sanctions, moves toward diplomatic normalisation and the like — and strong disincentives to ensure that the agreement stuck. In particular, Iran would be disciplined by knowing that if at any stage it made any move at all toward weaponisation — through the production of weapons-grade fissile material, or any hardware in which to put it — all hell would break loose. A full range of economic sanctions would take immediate effect (including finance and investment sanctions fully supported by the Europeans as well as the US), and military options would not be off the table.

There are three advantages to this strategic approach, if the U.S. and EU could swallow their reservations. It is not inconsistent with what we know about Iran's actual nuclear intentions. The approach proposed would spread the process out over time, allowing among other things time and space for a more moderate political dynamic to take hold in Iran. And, above all, it would command genuinely universal buy-in, first from all those NPT signatories who are wedded to the basic NPT bargain and presently totally reluctant to acknowledge any limitation on full 'peaceful use' capability, and, secondly, and very importantly, from Russia and China, who are likely to go on being extremely reluctant Security Council enforcers of the present 'zero enrichment' strategy, but who are totally willing to be very tough indeed when it comes to Iran actually weaponising, with all that that implies for destabilising the neighbourhood and changing global power balances.

Crisis Group published an early version of this plan early last year, and we know from many consultations since that it has extremely wide appeal as a fallback if the present diplomatic strategy runs into the sand, as now seems very likely.

The obvious downside from the West's point of view — which will be repeated over and over as this debate continues — is that, although stretching out the process, 'delayed limited enrichment' would permit Tehran to eventually achieve full fuel cycle capability, with the risk in turn of weapons acquisition when that happens. But the reality of Iran having that choice, sooner rather than later, and with minimal inspection and supervision along the way, now stares us in the face.

Nobody wants to see the present diplomatic impasse slide into the kind of situation where the West's unwillingness to compromise strengthens its opponent's extremists to the point that their country walks away from the NPT, shrugs off any kind of international monitoring, produces a large stock of weapons-grade material and ultimately takes the risk of building its own bomb. We have been there and done that with North Korea. Although there has at last been a major breakthrough in the six-party talks, it is still going to be nightmarishly difficult to wholly recover the ground which has been lost to Pyongyang through earlier Western obduracy.

If the present diplomatic strategy is going nowhere but downhill, the only rational response is a new one which may be ideal for no-one but has attractions for everyone. If all diplomacy fails, the alternative course of military action is simply too horrible to contemplate.


I don't know what John Gee would have thought about this approach to Iran, but it certainly would have been a hell of a good discussion, thoughtful, knowledgeable and principled, cutting through the layers of hypocrisy and double-talk, and prejudice and ignorance and bluster that so often pass for policy debate in high decision-making places. And I can say that with some authority, having sat in on so many of those debates for so long in so many high places (I'm referring of course only to the international ones…)

And maybe, at the end of the day, that's what I really mean when I say 'maintain the rage' about weapons of mass destruction. It is important to remember just how mercilessly, indiscriminately, terrifyingly destructive these weapons are; to remain passionate about them being effectively outlawed; and to be unyieldingly intolerant about bad arguments for their retention or, even worse, use. We are right to be enraged about these things, and to maintain that sense of passion and commitment about them as long as we live.

But if we want to translate that passion and commitment into effective results, we have a lot to learn from the life and career and achievements of John Gee. He was a man who was passionate about all these issues to the point of rage, but never communicated his arguments in an enraged way. Just a quiet and persistent way, which impressed people that mattered, and policy makers that mattered, with his command of the issues and his integrity, and in a way which was enormously effective in getting results. John was an Australian citizen, and global citizen, whose life and work really mattered. Long may his memory be honoured, not least by the lecturers who will follow me in this series.

1 China, Egypt and Iran are suspected of having offensive BW programs. Other states, including Israel, Libya, North Korea, Russia and Syria are thought to have research programs which involve the production of BW agents, or otherwise go beyond purely defence needs. And a number of other states, including Algeria, Cuba, India, Sudan and Taiwan, maintain research programs. See the list in the Center for Nonproliferation Studies' 'Chemical and Biological Weapons: Possession and Programs Past and Present'. Countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia have BW research programs which they maintain are purely defensive.

2 Cf. Ivo Daalder and Jeffrey Lewis, 'Nuclear Weapons in the Age of al-Qaeda', Financial Times, 13 August 2007.

3 See on this, inter alia, Rebecca Johnson, 'Looking Towards 2010: What Does the Non-Proliferation Regime Need?', Disarmament Diplomacy, No 84, Spring 2007; and three papers by Head of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office John Carlson: 'Challenges to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime: Can the Regime Survive? An Australian Perspective', Carnegie Moscow Centre, 29 May 2007; 'Addressing Proliferation Challenges from the Spread of Uranium Enrichment Capability' and 'Five Decades of Safeguards, and Directions for the Future', both to Institute for Nuclear Materials Management, Tucson, 8-12 July 2007.