The nuclear triptych of 2017

Nuclear weapons have come into the political limelight in 2017 as they have hardly done since the 1980s. North Korea, the Iran nuclear deal and the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons create a triptych – one panel for arming up and nuclear confrontation, one for arms control, and one for complete nuclear disarmament. Which way is the world headed?

The Ban

The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize award to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) brings the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) to the forefront. It used to be known as the Nuclear Ban Treaty. It was approved in July by 122 states and opened for signature in September, when 50 states signed it on the first day. At its heart, it is a call for the nuclear weapon states who are parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to fulfil that Treaty’s Article VI, which commits parties “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”. It is an expression of impatience that while the total number of nuclear weapons worldwide has decreased from nearly 70,000 in the mid-1980s to just under 15,000 today, that striking progress now shows signs of stalling. Taken together, the Peace Prize, ICAN’s rise to prominence because of it, and the TPNW itself add up to an emphatic call for further reductions in nuclear weapons worldwide.

There are technical and detailed arguments about whether the TPNW as drafted is up to the task of comprehensive nuclear disarmament but the important opposition to it is not technical. The US, France and the UK issued a joint statement after the TPNW was approved, denouncing it, announcing they would never sign up or be bound by it, and putting as the central plank of their case against it, that it “clearly disregards the realities of the international security environment. Accession to the ban treaty is incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence…”

Achieving a nuclear-free world clearly remains an enormous ask. But perhaps by pressing for the bigger and more far-reaching goal, ICAN and other TPNW supporters will generate action to improve nuclear safety, tighten controls on fissile materials, and achieve further cuts in nuclear stockpiles.

North Korea and the US

Meanwhile, the rhetoric and the risks in the confrontation between North Korea and the US both continue to rise. The confrontation goes back, of course, to the Korean War nearly 70 years ago. Today’s unique sharpness is given by North Korea’s drive to develop its mastery of nuclear and missile technology to the point, it seems quite clear, where it can launch a nuclear inter-continental missile that can hit the US mainland. There has been widespread opposition to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes – thus the ever-hardening UN sanctions against the country. Today, however, it seems as important to find ways out of confrontation and manage a tense situation safely, as a prelude to a possible effort to resolve underlying problems.


The irony, perhaps – and let us hope it does not develop into a tragic irony – is that one nuclear relationship that could have become dangerous has shifted onto a safer track in the last two years. Iran’s relationship with the US and with states in its region, not least both Saudi Arabia and Israel, was coloured for much of the period from 2005 to 2013, by suspicions that it was attempting to develop nuclear weapons technology. It was far from the only problem in its relations with other countries – but it was a big issue. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, and known as barjam in Tehran, massively reduced the scale of Iranian uranium enrichment, opened up its technology programmes to international inspection and returned Iran to the international trading world. It is an effective agreement that is, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, being properly implemented.

While there are legitimate questions to be asked about what happens when the JCPOA terminates (it has different expiration dates for different items in the agreement), it brought breathing space. That’s what US-Soviet arms control also achieved in the 1980s – breathing space so other and deeper issues could be addressed. The progress registered by, with and through the JCPOA, however, is put at risk by the US administration’s unwarranted scepticism about it.

Three futures

As we get to the end of the year, the three panels of the nuclear triptych map out three different futures. Which one will look the strongest and most likely in a year’s time? It’s an open question.



One thought on “The nuclear triptych of 2017

  1. Pingback: 2017: looking back | Dan Smith's blog

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