In an April 2009 speech in Prague, President Obama committed the United States to seeking a world free of nuclear weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in May 2010 will be a test of that commitment. The NPT is the foundation of the broader nonproliferation regime of treaties and international organizations dedicated to preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons. Review Conferences—meetings held once every five years—serve as a barometer of the health of the nonproliferation regime. To put the Review Conference’s importance in perspective, Carnegie’s Deepti Choubey presented her findings based on discussions with officials and experts from eighteen key nuclear and non-nuclear-weapon states. Egypt’s Ambassador to the United States Sameh Shoukry provided insight into Egypt’s approach and priorities for the conference. Carnegie’s George Perkovich moderated the discussion.

The Stakes

Achieving even modest results at the Conference will require states to exert significant political will and time is running out. Casting the Review Conference as a “make-or-break” moment is a mistake and misleading. Choubey explained how progress on current proliferation threats like Iran will create incentives for other NPT states to either strengthen the regime or keep it weak. At stake is the faith of nuclear-weapon states and Iran’s neighbors in the security benefits of the regime and whether its enforcement system works. For other states, their faith in the equity of the regime is what hangs in the balance. For many states, particularly those in the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Review Conference is an important opportunity for them to have their voice heard whereas they are otherwise disenfranchised from the other decision-making mechanisms in the broader regime.

Recommendation for the United States

Choubey suggested that the United States plays an indispensable role in efforts to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Washington’s renewed engagement has the “potential to be a game changer, but no touchdowns have been scored yet.”

Choubey also argued that the ongoing Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which will establish U.S. nuclear deterrence policy, strategy, and force posture for the next five to ten years, will either help or hinder the U.S. delegation to the Review Conference. The international community, Choubey said, will treat the NPR as the “best piece of evidence of U.S. intentions and its commitment to disarmament. The U.S. should make every effort to reconcile the NPR with its NPT commitments.” Proponents of nuclear warhead refurbishment programs should recognize that the United States’ reputation has “taken a beating” in the past decade. Taking steps to rehabilitate the U.S. reputation, like ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), can ensure that eventual refurbishment efforts are seen as consistent with and not contrary to disarmament.

Egypt’s Priorities and Approach

Egypt is an important state that can influence the prospects of success or failure at the next Review Conference. It is currently the chair of the NAM and continues to be a vocal proponent of a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone. Asked for his assessment of what to expect from the Conference, Shoukry said that given procedural limitations and the often divergent interests of states, participants should focus on securing “implementative, practical, pragmatic, and realistic results” rather than declarative and often “subjective” statements.

Shoukry warned against using the conference to “instill new interpretations” of the NPT and impose additional obligations on member states. Rather than seeking universal adherence to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol, which imposes wide-reaching safeguards on states, NPT member states should seek to universalize adherence to the NPT by states not currently members, such as Israel, North Korea, India, and Pakistan.

Current Proliferation Threats

Shoukry recommended Conference participants shy away from discussing the “specific challenges” that Iran and North Korea pose to the nonproliferation regime. Choubey said that while states should strive for balance between the “three pillars” of the NPT—disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful use of nuclear energy—the nonproliferation regime must evolve to address the challenges it faces. Progress on the three pillars depends in part on how the international community confronts these challenges.

Additional Protocol

The United States, Europe, and others believe that the IAEA’s Additional Protocol should become a universal standard for nuclear safeguards. An audience member suggested that states should adopt the Additional Protocol as a confidence-building measure. Shoukry said that while Egypt recognizes that the Additional Protocol is “an important element of the [IAEA] safeguards regime,” Egypt believes the Additional Protocol should remain voluntary. Shoukry expressed concern over perceived efforts to restrict states’ rights to the civilian nuclear technology through the imposition of “additional obligations.” Choubey argued, however, that states should recognize that adoption of the Additional Protocol is in their own interest because it can help address concerns about other states in one’s neighborhood and facilitate disarmament.

Role of Nuclear Industry

The panel concluded by discussing the role of the nuclear industry in advancing nonproliferation. Shoukry said it was “inconceivable” that a nuclear reactor would be developed without IAEA safeguards in place. Choubey, however, noted that the renewed global interest in nuclear energy—the so-called “nuclear renaissance”—does not “exist in a vacuum” and nuclear industry, particularly reactor suppliers, have a pivotal role to play in deciding where civilian nuclear energy programs take root.