Going ballistic over nukes

How much brinkmanship with Iran and North Korea can there be before the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty implodes?

By Mark Follman
Published May 2, 2005 7:22PM (EDT)

Every five years the United Nations takes stock of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty; diplomats from 188 countries will spend the month of May reviewing the agreement, which gives nations broad access to nuclear energy technology in exchange for pledges to forgo and reduce nuclear weapons arsenals.

The backdrop this time around has turned radioactive rather fast. The remaining two card-carrying members of the Axis of Evil are talking tough again, as is Washington. With Kofi Annan warning of potential catastrophe, the U.S. shook a big stick at Iran and North Korea in a speech at the U.N. today.

Iran has been puffing out its chest in anticipation, vowing to defend its right to a nuclear energy program. Over the weekend Ayatollah Khamenei called the U.S. arrogant and rude, and said it "deserved a punch in the mouth."

And North Korea reportedly launched a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan on Sunday, just two days after a spokesman for Kim Jong Il's government dubbed President Bush "a half-baked man in terms of morality and a philistine whom we can never deal with." In the same statement, the official described Bush as the "world's dictator," who has "turned the world into a sea of blood." (Those comments followed Bush's own reiteration that Jong Il is a "tyrant" and a "dangerous person" who runs "concentration camps.")

The almost cartoonish invective is nothing new from either rogue regime -- but beyond the exchange of verbal blows, critics of the Bush administration see a real danger of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty getting beaten up in the process, and perhaps left for dead. So far Washington is avoiding any mention of a dozen commitments focused on disarmament that the U.S. and other nations signed on for during the previous NPT review in 2000. Most of those commitments have gone unfulfilled, giving nonnuclear states ammunition to blast the U.S. as hypocritical -- and to continue pursuing their own weapons programs.

"If the conference fails and the U.S. is seen as the reason for that failure, it is going to be much harder for the United States to get the international cooperation it needs to deal with Iran, to deal with North Korea and to deal with all the other issues we are concerned about," said Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an interview with the Washington Post.

The Bush administration has argued that the NPT commitments from 2000, made in a pre-9/11 world, are no longer relevant given the war on terrorism, a roiling Middle East, and a nuclear black market with global reach. And most experts, Bush critics included, agree the treaty needs updating. But few if any would agree that the Bush White House's fueling a new global arms race is a wise idea.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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