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2014 Conference on Disarmament: Why Breaking Deadlock on an FMCT is Unlikely (OPINION)

Conference on Disarmament meeting in Geneva

Project on Nuclear Issues, 31 March 2014;

In his 2009 Prague address, President Obama clearly defined nuclear nonproliferation and arms control as issues central to U.S. foreign policy. Following the nonproliferation achievements of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty [New START] with Russia and a landmark interim nuclear agreement with Iran, the Obama administration appears eager to make progress on its next nuclear policy priority – the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT).

At the opening ceremony of the first session of this year’s Conference on Disarmament (CD), Acting Undersecretary Rose Gottemoeller stated that “Negotiation of an FMCT is an essential prerequisite for global nuclear disarmament,” and “the United States will continue to urge negotiation of an FMCT in this body, convinced that FMCT negotiations at the CD will provide each member state the ability not only to protect, but also to enhance its national security.”

The 2014 CD concluded its first session on March 28th without any formal progress on an FMCT, but has two additional seven-week sessions scheduled later this year. Prior to the CD’s second session, a Group of Governmental Experts [GGE] will meet from March 31 to April 11 to make recommendations that could contribute to, but not negotiate, an FMCT.

The most commonly endorsed FMCT by the international community – the 2009 International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) draft treaty – in practice, would achieve three objectives. First, it would limit the size of growing nuclear arsenals by banning the further production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium worldwide. Second, it would render any reductions of fissile material irreversible, either by disposal under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards or transition into non-weapons purposes.

Finally, the IPFM FMCT would mandate state parties to declare all fissile materials in its civilian sector, any excess fissile materials for all military purposes, and their use in military reactors (though exact verification mechanisms have not been agreed upon, and will be determined by the IAEA upon substantive FMCT negotiations).

Theoretically, a verifiably implemented IPFM FMCT would considerably increase the difficulty for new states or non-state actors to acquire nuclear material or weapons through theft or diversion. It would also significantly enhance global nuclear security, as all nine states with nuclear weapons would be subject to increased transparency. Despite the Obama Administration’s high prioritization of this treaty, real progress on an FMCT is unlikely in the near term.

Historically, the FMCT has received wide support from non-nuclear states (who are precluded from producing fissile material under the Nonproliferation Treaty) and the five declared nuclear weapon states (NWS) – or P5 (the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China). Four of the P5 nations (all but China) have publicly issued a moratorium on fissile material production.

It is commonly believed that China has also halted production. Each of these states would benefit from the proposed FMCT by keeping the nuclear club exclusive and reducing the likelihood of their current, and future, adversaries acquiring nuclear weapons. However, the P5 have not agreed on verification mechanisms for a future FMCT, which begs the question of whether they would embrace increased transparency of their nuclear stockpiles, or inhibit a final FMCT agreement.

Regrettably, the proposed FMCT has failed to reach even the negotiation stage as its efficacy is still fiercely debated among the four nuclear nations outside the Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] (Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Israel). At least two of these nations – Pakistan and India – are leading fissile material producers, and it is possible that Israel and North Korea fall into this proliferation category as well. The international community has largely directed blame for FMCT deadlock towards Pakistan, as its single, repeated “no” vote has prevented even initial negotiations on an FMCT in the CD (which operates on consensus) for years.

However, there is no guarantee that other nations would not prevent FMCT negotiations if Pakistan changed its stance. In fact, Israel has also openly declared its opposition to an FMCT because it is unconvinced that an FMCT “would be an adequate safeguard against Iranian development of nuclear weapons.”

Nevertheless, Pakistan remains the most vocal opponent of an FMCT, and any future progress on a fissile material ban must address its concerns. Although Islamabad’s stalling tactics have varied – including disagreement on simple procedural issues and demanding a timeline for complete nuclear disarmament with any cutoff agreement – its primary motivation for obstructing an FMCT is its nuclear asymmetry with India.

To this end, Pakistan has led a small coalition of states who call for a fissile material treaty (FMT) that would not only prevent future production of fissile materials, but would limit existing stockpiles of all nuclear weapons states. Pakistan has ardently backed the negotiation of an FMT over an FMCT “due to its concern regarding India's large stockpiles of weapons-usable nuclear material.”

Pakistani officials have noted “We believe that a wide disparity in fissile material stockpiles of India and Pakistan could erode the stability of nuclear deterrence,” and therefore Pakistan “cannot agree to freeze inequality.”

While current estimates of Pakistan and India’s nuclear weapons are numerically similar (each has around 100 weapons), estimates of fissile material do indeed validate Pakistan’s concern over disparity. Pakistan is estimated to have approximately 2.75 tons of HEU and 90-180 kg of plutonium. India, on the other hand, does not have any known stockpiles of weapons-grade HEU, but has approximately 2 tons of HEU enriched to between 30 and 45 percent, and an estimated 520 kg of plutonium.

This stockpile is enough for 100-130 additional nuclear warheads, not including the 11 tons of reactor-grade plutonium in spent fuel that New Delhi could reprocess to create many more weapons. Islamabad currently has the smallest known fissile material stockpile of the nuclear-armed states, but is rapidly producing fissile material in an attempt to rectify that asymmetry. In fact, Pakistan now has the “world’s fastest-growing nuclear stockpile.”

Given Pakistan’s persistent distrust of India, and India’s sustained nuclear dominance, it is unlikely that Pakistan will suddenly allow the commencement of FMCT negotiations at the 2014 CD. This is not to say that an FMCT is not a worthwhile nonproliferation endeavor for the Obama administration, but rather that Islamabad’s political calculus and motivations remain abundantly cautious. Any future FMCT negotiations must address Pakistan’s concerns, unless the treaty is moved to a venue that does not require unanimity, or the P5 agrees to include current stockpiles and begin negotiations on an FMT. Neither of these options is likely, however.

Changing venues to begin discussions on an FMCT would likely leave Pakistan (and possibly other primary fissile material producers) out of negotiations, resulting in an agreement of dubious worth. Much of the value of an FMCT rests on legally bringing Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea into the international nonproliferation regime through verification procedures. According to a senior U.S. official, because the Conference on Disarmament is “a forum that makes decisions based on consensus,” it “is the only appropriate venue for fissile material cutoff talks because any such ban must be global and comprehensive.”

Negotiation of an FMT in the near term is also unlikely, as most of the P5 nations do not wish to subject their existing fissile material stockpiles to reductions without a verifiable assurance that nations outside the NPT have ceased production. Accordingly, the Obama administration reiterated a long-standing nuclear policy commitment that “As long as these [nuclear] weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.” A safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal necessarily includes retaining a stock of fissile materials.

In conclusion, the decades-old standstill on FMCT negotiations is likely to remain for as long as Pakistan feels an existential security threat from India, and has no strategic incentive to halt its fissile material production. If President Obama (or any future President) wishes to make attaining an FMCT a top policy priority, the first step, among many, is to change Pakistan’s cost to benefits ratio.

This may mean providing a codified security guarantee to Pakistan, or increasing pressure on Islamabad to cooperate, or even assisting a rapprochement between India and Pakistan over territorial disputes in Kashmir. Only if, and when, the United States manages to gain Pakistan’s support for an FMCT, can it begin working on other areas of contention – negotiating verification procedures and ensuring support from other non-NPT members.

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