Nuclear Spring: Interview with Jayantha Dhanaplala

Ambassador Dhanapala served the UN as Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament and chaired the 1995 NPT Review Conference. Now he heads Pugwash

By Metta Spencer | 2010-07-01 01:00:00

METTA SPENCER: This has been the spring for people who are interested in disarmament. I suppose it has kept you hopping.

JAYANTHA DHANAPALA: Yes, I’ve been busy but the big question is whether the nuclear spring will turn into a summer. The results are quite modest at the moment, so we have to continue to press on. President Obama is embattled at the moment, facing huge problems both domestically and politically. His vision of a nuclear-free world cannot be achieved overnight.

SPENCER: He warned us not to expect it in his lifetime, but I was hoping for something swifter. The most prominent issue he is facing right now is Iran. Unless we consider the news of the day, which seems to be about North Korea helping Burma develop nuclear weapons.

DHANAPALA: On Myanmar or Burma, we have to be cautious about news reports because those can be misleading and can be deliberately planted. We don’t know how credible these reports are. It is true that Myanmar is not a popular member of the international community because of the conduct of its military regime and the way in which Aung San Suu Kyi has been treated, but that does not necessarily mean that it is going for a nuclear option. It remains a member of the NPT and there is no information from the IAEA or any credible reporter that their record is anything but what it is said to be on the surface.

With regard to North Korea (DPRK), we know that it has announced its departure from the NPT; we know that it has detonated two nuclear devices, which were picked up by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban (CTBT) Treaty Organization in Vienna—which nobody else had the capacity technologically to pick up. That proves, of course, that the CTB is totally verifiable.

But we have already seen in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) a condemnation of the DPRK in the strongest terms for its nuclear explosions. It says categorically that the DPRK cannot have the status of a nuclear weapon state. So the sentiment of the overwhelming majority of the states in the international community is that the DPRK has committed a serious violation of the treaty. Because we have agreed that the only way to approach violations of the treaty is through diplomatic means, that is why the six nation talks are going on—in order to bring the DPRK back into the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS).

SPENCER: Are you optimistic about that?

DHANAPALA: Well, let me give you the example of Libya—a country that not long ago was also the object of suspicion. A number of stories existed about their weapons of mass destruction program. Through a process of diplomacy and probably incentives, we now have Libya back in total compliance with all of the weapons of mass destruction treaties: the NPT, the Biological Weapon Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and so on. So it is possible to use diplomacy to bring countries back into compliance.

SPENCER: I heard about their change of heart. How was that accomplished?

DHANAPALA: A lot of that is shrouded in confidentiality and secrecy because of the nature of the task involved, but I think the United Kingdom, the US, and other Western governments must be given some credit for it. No doubt, also the other members of the Security Council—Russia and China—were responsible, but ultimately what is important is that the result was achieved.

We have to analyze why some countries want to go nuclear. It is basically a problem of insecurity. In the case of DPRK, it remains technically in a state of war with the United States and it desperately wants recognition by the US. It wants to ensure that it can have normal trade and commercial relations with the US and that it will no longer be treated as an outcast. You might say that it is their very behavior that has resulted in their being treated as an outcast, but there is a sense of being isolated that has led to this behavior. I think what the international community must do is to try to engage the DPRK and bring them back into the international community.

SPENCER: I’m sorry to sound pessimistic, but isn’t that what Obama has been trying to do?

DHANAPALA: That is true but let us go back in history. Originally, when the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) reported DPRK’s noncompliance, the Security Council took note of it and had a resolution, but took no further action. Then, outside the Security Council, an agreed framework was negotiated in which the Republic of Korea in the south and the DPRK in the north were participants. There was an agreement that two light-water reactors should be supplied to North Korea to provide their nuclear energy. An institution was set up to implement this but there was mutual recrimination about whether the terms of the framework were being met. Ultimately the framework collapsed and the DPRK went back to developing its nuclear weapons. During the Clinton administration there was dialogue. Attempts were made to wean the North Koreans away from their nuclear weapons program.

But then the Bush administration came in. As you very well know, it adopted a truculent attitude toward countries like the DPRK, talking about an “axis of evil.” That hostile attitude did not help. There has to be some consistency if you are approaching a country. You can’t have stop-go-stop policy because countries doubt the genuineness of the hand of friendship being extended to them—especially a country like the DPRK, which has a long history of being a “hermit kingdom.” When Korea was a united country, it was isolated. So now, in a dictatorial country with a leader like Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il, it was normal for them to develop paranoia. The inconsistency of the Washington administration seems even more difficult for them to understand.

SPENCER: But the immediate anger seems to be directed against South Korea—with the sinking of their ship Cheonan. I don’t hear as much about their antagonism to the US.

DHANAPALA: Oh, that happens all the time! Look at any speech of their leaders—the anti-US sentiment is always there. They see the South Koreans as an ally of the US, especially since there are almost 40,000 US troops based in South Korea. And the South Koreans are known to have the benefit of the US nuclear umbrella as well.

SPENCER: What hope do you see along those lines? There is a consortium of six countries dealing with them but I don’t hear about progress.

DHANAPALA: There has been progress from time to time but because of inconsistency on the part of the West, there has been slippage. The Chinese have been the main architects in ensuring that these six-nation talks go on, and there has been an agreement by Kim Jong Il now to resume the talks. We must look forward to that. But Kim Jong Il appears to be, from all reports, unwell. There is a succession crisis going on and there will probably be some domestic politics, some jockeying of positions from the different sectors of the country, like the army. Indeed, the foreign minister of the Republic of Korea in an interview recently acknowledged that this sinking of the ship of South Korea could have been the result of some internal political jousting in North Korea.

SPENCER: Let’s turn to the Middle East—especially Iran, which is a problematic area now. During the NPT RevCon, Brazil and Turkey worked out a deal with them that had promise. It involved exchanging Iranian uranium.

DHANAPALA: That was done outside of the NPT Review Conference by the presidents of those two countries in Tehran. It was announced during the RevCon, to the great relief of many people who were concerned about the tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. This involved the export of Iranian uranium to Turkey, where it would be stored. In return, they would receive enriched uranium for use in the Tehran reactor, which was going to be obtained from Russia and France. This was a proposal made as far back as October last year by Mohamed ElBaradei, when he was the Director General of the IAEA.

SPENCER: That was a more extensive agreement, wasn’t it? This new one would involve a smaller amount?

DHANAPALA: No, it was exactly the same amount, but at first, because the enrichment of uranium had not progressed so far, it was approximately 80 percent of the Iranian enriched uranium stock. The purpose of the Western backing of that deal was to reduce the stock as sharply as possible. Today that same amount —1,200 kg—amounts to perhaps 50 percent of what Iran has. So the Western countries are not quite so excited about this deal because they think Iran would still be left with enough enriched uranium to make (according to one estimate) two nuclear weapons. The intelligence estimates of the National Intelligence Agency in the United States and other agencies all say that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon within the next five years. The IAEA also has not given any indication that they have actually seen signs of nuclear weapons being built. What we are talking about is the fact that the Iranian government has not fully abided by the safeguards agreement by disclosing that they were enriching uranium in the last few years. The enrichment of uranium is not forbidden by the NPT or by the IAEA agreement, but it should have been reported. The Iranians are responsible for a serious omission. They have rectified that, but there are still numerous questions for which the IAEA seeks answers. The failure on the part of Iran to be fully cooperative on that score is certainly an outstanding problem.

SPENCER: I have heard that there may be more than one additional plant that they haven’t declared.

DHANAPALA: They recently revealed that there is another plant near the holy city of Qom. Whether they revealed it because they feared that it was going to be discovered anyway, I do not know, but we do have fairly comprehensive information about Iran’s enrichment facilities. The credibility gap between Western countries and Iran arose because of the regime that is in power in Tehran. When the Shah of Iran was in power and wanted a nuclear power program, that was actually encouraged by the West. But the change in the regime has created serious problems.

SPENCER: Did the Shah intend to have an enrichment program?

DHANAPALA: Yes, he did. If you want a nuclear power program, you have to enrich uranium—not to weapons grade, but to a certain grade.

SPENCER: Most of the people I know were dismayed because, immediately after the agreement was announced with Brazil and Turkey, the US asked the Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran, which could be taken as indicating their rejection of this new deal. I followed Rebecca Johnson’s daily reports from the RevCon, and someone told her that the US was not necessarily rejecting the Brazilian-Turkish deal, but that Obama had needed to forestall a plan for Congress to impose unilateral US sanctions on Iran. He had to do that right away. However, if that is so, the US may just go slow when promoting sanctions in the Security Council. What do you think? Did Obama need to ask for sanctions despite the contributions made by the Brazilians and Turks?

DHANAPALA: The United States argued that the deal made in Tehran by the presidents of Brazil and Turkey only referred to one aspect of the Iranian problem. It did not address the entire range of issues that had been the subject of the previous Security Council conclusion that Iran had not fully cooperated with the IAEA in providing information. Now, having said that, it is also true that there was a move in the US Congress to impose unilateral US sanctions against Iran. This would have painted the Americans into an undesirable corner. So, multilateral sanctions being far more effective and comprehensive globally than unilateral sanctions, the Obama administration preferred Security Council sanctions and so they expedited their consultations with the other members of the Permanent Five, and launched the sanctions in the Security Council while the NPT Review Conference was in progress. That caused the dismay that you referred to because of the fear that that would throw a spanner in the works by antagonizing the Iranians to such an extent that they would be a spoiler of the conference.

That, fortunately, did not happen: a) because the resolution was not put to a vote while the conference was going on and, as you know, it has still not been put to a vote, and b) because the Iranians reacted relatively moderately. They did not try to thwart the proceedings by their negative actions. So the resolution is still being discussed within the Security Council. Although Russia will support it, it won’t co-sponsor the resolution. The Chinese stated in the Security Council when the resolution was put that they would prefer to have negotiations go on and certainly do not want sanctions that would hurt the people of Iran.

SPENCER: Would they veto it?

DHANAPALA: Fortunately, the resolution is fairly clear. It talks about banning Iran’s investments in sensitive technologies, activities with regard to enhancement of uranium. It wants to limit supplies of conventional arms and ballistic missiles for Iran. It imposes travel bans on designated individuals and entities (which is contained in an annex); it talks about comprehensive cargo inspection on Iranian ships, and blocking Iran’s ability to use its international financial system for funding its nuclear program. So not only are they very comprehensive, but they also are directed specifically to the nuclear program. It’s not blanket sanctions, such as in the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which hurt the people. There was so much suffering in Iraq that the Security Council had to bring in the oil for food program.

SPENCER: So you would still consider these sanctions to be “targeted”?

DHANAPALA: Yes. That is one reason why Russia and China have agreed to go along with it, although there is no indication that the ten non-permanent members, which include Brazil and Turkey, have agreed to it so far.

SPENCER: I see. Let’s talk about the general principles of what to do if a country is determined to get nuclear weapons and seems intent upon using them. How far do you believe in going to stop them? I was just reading an article by Amitai Etzioni, who says that there are four possible approaches: engagement, sanctions, deterrence, and military strikes. These range from soft to hard responses. He made arguments that the first three are not very promising, and that a military strike against a nuclear installation is also, of course, terribly dangerous. He concludes that the only thing left would be military strikes against conventional military targets. What is your view?

DHANAPALA: What we can do in the future must reflect what has happened in the past. When Israel acquired nuclear weapons clandestinely, through the transfer of technology from France, the rest of the world gave a nod and a wink. They allowed that to happen. Today, though Israel neither confirms nor denies its nuclear arsenal, it is known to have about 200 nuclear weapons. The world has done nothing about it. In fact there is almost a conspiracy of silence among the Western countries about it.

When in 1998 India and Pakistan detonated nuclear devices, there was an uproar of protest, and a strong Security Council resolution, number 1172, which condemned it. But just a few years later the United States made a special exception for India by having a nuclear cooperation arrangement, supplying nuclear material to India, despite the fact that it is forbidden by the NPT and by a decision reached at the 1995 conference. So there is hypocrisy on the part of the international community in how they treat cases of countries going nuclear. The DPRK also, as you know, has become nuclear now, with impunity except for condemnation by the NPT States Parties and the rest of the international community.

The most recent decision of the NPT RevCon, which concluded on May 28, is very clear. I am quoting from it: “Concerns over compliance with any obligation under the treaty by any State Party should be pursued by diplomatic means, in accordance with the Treaty and the Charter of the United Nations.” This of course rules out military strikes because, as we have seen, military strikes can be counterproductive. The invasion of Iraq was justified on the basis that Iraq had a nuclear weapons development program which, we later discovered, was not the case.

We have to be firm in our principles that no violation of the NPT and no new NWS will be allowed to arise. But you can’t maintain that policy unless you, yourself, get rid of your weapons. There is a famous statement made by former Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, who said, “It is very hard to preach the virtues of non-smoking when you have a cigarette dangling from your lips and you are about to buy a new pack.” That’s precisely what the NWSs are doing.

SPENCER: (laughs). Absolutely. I would love to see something done about India, Israel, and Pakistan, which involve obvious double standards. Could those countries still be brought under the same universal principles that we would like to apply in the future?

DHANAPALA: The only course of action is to have a nuclear weapons convention, banning nuclear weapons for everybody. It is impossible to maintain this apartheid system of countries arrogating to themselves the right to hold nuclear weapons and depriving the rest of the world of them. Nuclear weapons are inherently dangerous. They are the cause of enormous humanitarian consequences. We know that. They can extinguish all human life. The genetic and ecological effects will be horrendous, even in a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan. The latest evidence is that it can also contribute irreversibly to climate change .

SPENCER: But the one thing that conspicuously didn’t happen in the NPT Review Conference was a plan for a nuclear weapons convention.

DHANAPALA: Precisely, because of the obdurate resistance of the nuclear weapons states. It would be impossible to get a consensus agreement as long as they block it. But if you took a vote—which, of course, is not the practice in NPT review conferences, then overwhelmingly the non-nuclear weapons states would have voted for it—as happens in the UN General Assembly, where the nuclear weapons convention has over 120 countries voting for it.

SPENCER: But one thing that did come out was a proposal for a Middle Eastern Nuclear Weapon Free Zone conference. What can we expect of that?

DHANAPALA: Well, I personally, and my organization, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, also strongly support that. The resolution on the Middle East in 1995 was negotiated under my presidency. For fifteen years, the lack of implementation of it had caused heartburn on the part of the Arabs and was one of the causes for the failure of the 2005 Review Conference. So there was a build-up of public opinion for some kind of steps to implement that resolution. Fortunately, the Obama administration recognized this and began discussions with the Arab countries. The final document of the NPT Review Conference agreed that the conference will be held in 2012 and that a facilitator will be appointed to consult with the states in the region and prepare for it. After the conference it will be possible for the facilitator to implement its results and then report to the next Review Conference in 2015.

This, of course, is only the target. We have to achieve it. It didn’t help that the representative of the US at the conclusion of the conference, followed by President Obama and the national security advisor, made statements regretting the fact that Israel was actually named in the agreement. But that reference to Israel was made in the “recalling” language of the 2000 review conference, where Israel was mentioned as a country that should be brought into the NPT and have its nuclear facilities subjected to IAEA safeguards. That was not an accusatory mention of Israel, but a factual one. I cannot understand why the US government should take so much exception to it, unless it is to placate the strong Israeli lobby in the United States.

SPENCER: That is probably the reason. The Israel lobby may actually scupper the deal. Israel won’t show up.

DHANAPALA: You cannot assume that the Israelis will not participate. When the Madrid peace process took place some years ago as a result of the Oslo Accords, there was one section of it called the ACRS, under which there was a discussion of the Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Middle East. It went on for a few years but then collapsed. There is no reason why a Middle East peace process and a process to try to achieve a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East shouldn’t go concurrently and be mutually reinforcing. But right now, with Netanyahu as the prime minister, adopting his stubborn policy in the face of global opinion (you saw what happened recently with regard to that flotilla of ships coming in with aid to break the blockade in Gaza) you can’t expect anything at the moment. But politics are not frozen. They evolve, and it is possible that we may have some changes later that will create a better climate. We are now in 2010, talking of a conference in 2012.

SPENCER: Yes. And it would not be only Israel that is problematic, but Iran and Syria and God knows who else.

DHANAPALA: And with regard to military strikes, which you mentioned earlier, remember that when Israelis attacked Osiraq in Iraq, the evidence that we now have is that it was a temporary setback, that Saddam Hussein continued unhesitatingly to go ahead with his nuclear weapons program. And in the case of Iran today, they have spread their enrichment facilities all over the country. If you strike one place, nothing prevents their continuing enrichment elsewhere, especially since some sites are under mountains.

SPENCER: Yes, Amitai Etzioni takes that view too—that it would be a mistake to hit nuclear installations. He’d hit ordinary military installations and possibly also dual-purpose infrastructure, but with plenty of warning and go through the hoops in terms of getting Security Council approval.

DHANAPALA: Which would be very difficult to obtain.

SPENCER: Always? Suppose, say, Burma comes up with a nuclear weapon. Or suppose they want to give it to terrorists. I think there might be support for strong measures to intercept that kind of process. No?

DHANAPALA: There would have to be clear-cut, unambiguous evidence—unlike what Colin Powell presented to the Security Council in respect of Iraq. Once the rest of the international community is convinced, then there can be collective action taken.

SPENCER: I’m active in the Canadian Pugwash Group, which has an effort underway to promote a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Arctic. I don’t think that came up at the NPT. What prospects do you see for such a thing?

DHANAPALA: I have encouraged the Canadian Pugwash in this very laudable initiative. When I was a visiting professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, I gave a lecture on the subject and convened a conference on the security aspects of the Arctic in April 2008, the results of which have been published. I think if you look at the transformation of the Arctic in the context of climate change, you see a frozen area now becoming a maritime zone of increased activity, both for commercial purposes and probably strategic purposes. At the moment the Arctic Council is only seized of environmental aspects of the Arctic, but the security and strategic aspects have not been addressed. You have NATO countries confronting Russia in that region, and China and Japan also being very interested now in the prospects of the Arctic as a year-round area for maritime activity, you’re going to have nuclear submarines and other activities increasing. Some territorial claims in the Arctic have not yet been defined in terms of the UN Law of the Sea. They are still being drawn up. Norway and Russia only recently agreed on a land boundary, but some territorial waters, even between Canada and the United States, are in dispute. Disputes like that could escalate and, prevention being better than cure, the best thing would be to have an Arctic NWFZ, so you at least prohibit any tension there escalating into a nuclear exchange. There could also be an accident, with so many nuclear submarines going around in the Arctic. So it’s important to obtain the benefit of other NWFZs that have been formed in the world and other treaties, such as the treaty between US and the old Soviet Union.

SPENCER: Wouldn’t the US and Russia have objections? Especially Russia, with the Kola Peninsula being the haven for its nuclear subs. Where would they put them?

DHANAPALA: They can keep them on their own territory. But for them to use the Arctic for patrolling purposes, with nuclear subs and nuclear ships would increase the risk.

SPENCER: How successful have NWFZs been in getting negative security assurances? Do we know that everyone is observing these declarations by certain areas that forbid nuclear weapons?

DHANAPALA: Nuclear Weapon Free Zones have been enormously successful! Antarctica was first, but it is an uninhabited area. The treaty was signed in 1969. And five other areas: Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the South Pacific are all NWFZs. The first of them (the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which made Latin America and the Caribbean a NWFZ) actually was signed before the NPT was signed. It is the only one for which all the nuclear weapon states and the NPT have signed protocols saying that they respect that area as nuclear weapon free, and that they will give those countries all negative security assurances. Even Cuba, which does not have a warm relationship with the US, enjoys negative security assurance from the US because it is a party to the treaty.

SPENCER: So no nuclear subs go prowling around in any of those waters?

DHANAPALA: Not in their territorial waters. Nor can you have the weapons being stationed in those areas. But they can go into the international waters. No country can legislate for international waters.

SPENCER: But isn’t the Arctic also international water?

DHANAPALA: Yes. Remember, Antarctica is a land mass surrounded by water, and there were territorial claims to that land, but they have been suspended because of this concern for conservation, climate change, and NWFZ purposes. Well, the same thing can apply to the Arctic, where the countries can say: “We’ll use it for commercial and other purposes. We can even drill for oil and gas. But we won’t have nuclear weapons in that area.”

SPENCER: Great. You are looking forward to a nuclear summer. Do you foresee breakthroughs?

DHANAPALA: The first thing is to ensure that the new START agreement is ratified, both in the US Senate and the Russian Duma. And then we have been promised that there will be new negotiations for deeper cuts thereafter. Also, Obama has promised to re-submit the CTBT to the Senate for ratification next year. The other countries that are holding out will follow suit and we can have the CTBT enter into force.

SPENCER: What will be the effect of that on other countries?

DHANAPALA: Already Indonesia announced at the NPT Review Conference that they were setting in motion the process to ratify the CTBT. There are eight countries left, including the United States and China, India, Pakistan, DPRK. But it will be very hard for any of those countries to hold back if the US sets the example.

SPENCER: Wonderful. Thank you.

_Metta Spencer is editor of _Peace.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2010

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2010, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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