Last week marked the end of the month-long Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. After intensive negotiations, the nearly 190 nations gathered in New York agreed to a final document and notably called for talks on eliminating nuclear weapons in the Middle East. The final document prevented comparisons to the last conference held in 2005 which was widely considered a failure, but there are still questions over how successful the conference actually was. 

In a new Q&A, Deepti Choubey explains that the conference achieved small but significant steps and should be considered a win for the United States. While the Obama administration was not able to achieve all of their objectives, “the Review Conference is one opportunity to achieve the Obama administration’s goals, not the last.”

What is the purpose of the recent Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference?

The Conference is a once every five year opportunity to stabilize and strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The Review Conference is tasked with evaluating how well the terms of the NPT have been implemented and to chart a path forward to tackle unfinished business.

Expectations were extremely high going into the conference, but the positions of many of the nearly 190 participating countries were very far apart. States still found a way to constructively negotiate and find pragmatic approaches to defuse hot button issues such as North Korea’s withdrawal and nuclear testing, Iran’s noncompliance, prospects for a Middle East WMD Free Zone, and further progress on disarmament, any one of which could have scuttled the proceedings.


Was the conference a success?

It depends on how one defines success.

Despite the conditions leading up to the Review Conference, states were willing and able to compromise on a complex agenda of issues and come to unanimous agreement. In an era where multilateral approaches have faced serious setbacks (e.g., the Copenhagen climate accords), states overcame seemingly endemic and expected dysfunction, particularly on issues as polarizing as nonproliferation and disarmament. The final document that was unanimously adopted on May 28 should be considered an incremental success. In addition to the final document, the president of the Review Conference, Ambassador Libran Cabactulan, submitted under his own auspices a separate document that includes a 122 paragraph review of the operation of the NPT. Going forward, states will have to determine how much political weight to be given to the conclusions in the President’s statement.

Adopting a final document through unanimous consensus has been the traditional measure for judging the success of the conference. This customary practice can create the conditions for extremely weak results. The 2010 final document could certainly be stronger, but it could also be a lot weaker. It is not a lowest-common-denominator document.


Why was it not a lowest common denominator result and what are its achievements?

The final document, which reflects conclusions and recommendations for follow-on actions, includes:

  • A recommitment of nations to the basic bargain of the NPT;
  • Specific action plans on nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy; and
  • Proposed steps for implementing the 1995 Resolution calling for a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East

All of these elements advance the agenda further than the previous two conferences and lay the groundwork for future progress.

The action plans themselves are a significant achievement. For the first time, there are specific and measurable actions that states are asked to take in support of the three pillars of the NPT: nonproliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. These actions were drafted in a way to serve as a scorecard for measuring progress and ensuring there would be accountability at future meetings. Transforming the lofty goals of the NPT debates into tangible action is real progress.

The nonproliferation section covers a range of issues such as: ensuring compliance, strengthening safeguards, encouraging the adoption of the Additional Protocol, supporting the IAEA, strengthening export controls, emphasizing the need for the physical protection of nuclear materials, stopping illicit trafficking, and preventing nuclear terrorism, etc.

The nonproliferation action plan also enables a scorecard exercise to see how well states perform on the stated actions. Although the language could be stronger on some of these issues, such as the Additional Protocol, there are other opportunities for advancing specific proposals.

In the disarmament section, for the first time, a world free of nuclear weapons is articulated as the goal of nuclear disarmament. Acknowledged nuclear weapon states also committed themselves to continuing to work together to accelerate concrete progress on disarmament. Efforts to include a timeline for a negotiated nuclear weapons convention failed, but the disarmament action plan does includes a timeline whereby the nuclear weapon states should report on their disarmament activities at the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting. They are also encouraged to develop a standard reporting form as a confidence building measure.

On other key benchmarks for disarmament, such as moving forward with Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty negotiations, the document supports the UN Secretary General’s plan for restarting the Conference on Disarmament through a high level meeting in September 2010. It also called strongly on countries whose ratifications are required for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to enter into force to do so as soon as possible and reminds nuclear weapon states of their responsibility to get non-NPT states to sign and ratify.

Some states wanted the disarmament language to be stronger with more specific and time bound commitments, but because of explicit and implicit bargaining less ambitious terms were agreed to, as was also seen with the nonproliferation language.

The peaceful uses of nuclear energy action plan represents perhaps the most emphatic affirmation of the right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. This affirmation seems an unintended consequence of the continuing stand off with Iran over its failure to comply with IAEA obligations. Developing countries wanted to emphasize that they have and will not relinquish rights to nuclear energy, while the advance nuclear states wanted to emphasize that they had not acted otherwise and that the issue with Iran was not about "rights" but rather compliance.


What is the significance of the agreement to open talks on establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East?

The most controversial issues, at least publicly, appeared to be how to approach the Middle East WMD Free Zone, whether to name Israel but not Iran in the final document, and whether Iran would play the spoiler.

In 1995, NPT states agreed to indefinitely extend the treaty. As part of that agreement, Arab states won support for the creation of a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East. But since then, little progress has been made. The 1995 Resolution became a key policy priority for Egypt, the chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) for the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Conventional wisdom among delegations was that without progress on this issue, support for other measures or a final document was unlikely.

The 2010 final document calls on all Middle East states to participate in a conference in 2012 based on the terms of the 1995 Resolution. The United States announced after the Review Conference that the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom, along with the UN Secretary General, will co-sponsor the meeting and determine a country to host it and an individual to help organize it.

Egypt and other states may want to use a conference in part to single out Israel. At the same time, however, the language of the document calls on all states in the Middle East to participate. This would include a number of states that do not recognize Israel and in the past have not been willing to sit with Israeli officials in formal settings, including Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. Hence, while such a conference would pose challenges to Israel, it would require Iran and major Arab states to de facto acknowledge Israel. Many hurdles will have to be overcome in the next two years to begin such a conference, but if handled strategically, it could advance the cause of peace and security in the region.


Was is it important that Israel was named, but Iran was not explicitly mentioned in the final text?

The reactions to Israel being specifically named, while Iran was not, have been overblown. The Review Conference is not the place to resolve specific cases of noncompliance (e.g., Iran). Instead it is an opportunity to create or further strengthen the rules more generally. There is also the political reality that if named, Iran would have likely derailed the final document and thereby the real, although small, progress made at the conference. Israel, not being party to the NPT or the conference, could not block its being mentioned, and other states were not prepared to derail the whole review and undermine the treaty over the mentioning of Israel by name.

The actual reference is just that, a reference. It is not new language. The text states, “The Conference recalls the reaffirmation by the 2000 Review Conference of the importance of Israel’s accession to the Treaty and the placement of all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards.” The Conference President’s statement, in a similar vein, specifically names India, Israel, and Pakistan and calls on them to accede to the Treaty.

Washington and Tel Aviv have expressed their “deep regret” about the inclusion of the language, but hopefully they can get beyond reflexive and defensive responses and instead use the proposed conference as an opportunity to further nonproliferation objectives in the region.


Did Iran play a spoiler role at the conference?

Ultimately, no. In the long run, Iran’s tactics at the conference only reinforced its isolation.

Starting with the weary reaction of some states to President Ahmadinejad’s opening statement (as the only head of state to attend), including several attempts to create procedural confrontations that were deflected, and ending with the high drama in the final hours during which Iran failed to convince Egypt to convene a final NAM meeting while awaiting instructions from Tehran, Iran was definitely a country to watch. The Iranians forcefully argued for their positions, with some delegates commenting on the more sophisticated style they displayed.

During the last day, Iran had a clear decision to make. It could either be the one state to object—where the NAM had made it clear they would not do the same and Iran would be alone in objecting—or it could go along with the consensus. Iran chose to support the NAM position out of “respect for the views of others and good will.”


Did the United States achieve its objectives?

While the United States was able to achieve its objectives, such as:

  • Ensuring that debates would not disintegrate into stalemate through the adoption of a final document;
  • Strengthening the global nonproliferation regime by recommitting states to the basic bargain of the NPT;
  • Identifying concrete steps towards realizing the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons through the disarmament action plan;
  • Determining practical measures for moving forward with the 1995 Middle East Resolution as captured in the final document; and
  • Expanding the ability of all states to utilize nuclear energy through the IAEA Peaceful Uses Initiative,

There is more to be done to:

  • Address how best to enforce compliance;
  • Gain agreement on stronger verification standards; and
  • Commit other nuclear weapon states to do as much as the United States has done and intends to do on disarmament.

Some commentators have claimed that U.S. progress on disarmament, as outlined in President Obama’s Prague speech, was pocketed with nothing given in return. Such an assessment is wrong for two reasons. It is almost preposterous to assert that the United States would take steps on disarmament that do not have merit in and of themselves. Second, there are no immediate or automatic nonproliferation quid pro quos to be had from non-nuclear-weapon states (see Are New Nuclear Bargains Attainable?).

President Obama has, however, created an enormous amount of goodwill from most states within the regime. Some states—those friendly to and critical of the United States alike—expressed disappointment in the U.S. delegation not fully meeting the high expectations set by President Obama. But they should credit President Obama for influencing the negotiating atmosphere and inspiring the commitment from many states to work towards some kind of tangible outcome in contrast to what happened in 2005.

The Review Conference is a complex multilateral negotiation involving nearly 190 countries. Ultimately, compromises are required to successfully conclude such negotiations. Given this reality, the U.S. did indeed achieve some of its objectives. As for those that were not, such as stronger language on the Additional Protocol or clearer consequences for NPT violators, there are other opportunities to pursue them. The Review Conference is one opportunity to achieve the Obama administration’s goals, not the last.


What are the next steps?

Finally, it is up to all states to ensure that the hard fought consensus does not become meaningless through a lack of implementation. Starting immediately, all states have obligations and actions they should take and by which they will be measured and held accountable. For those who fear the nonproliferation regime is fraying, the results of the 2010 NPT Review Conference serve as a temporary reprieve, but states should start now to further strengthen the regime and not wait until 2015.