Russia’s nuclear threat and the future of Gulf nonproliferation

Russia’s nuclear threat and the future of Gulf nonproliferation

Russia’s nuclear threat and the future of Gulf nonproliferation
Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA Mohsen Naziri Asl speaks at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria, Sept. 26, 2022. (AFP)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin last week warned that if the territorial integrity of Russia was threatened, he would “certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. It is not a bluff.” That was interpreted as implicitly referring to nuclear weapons. This is not the first time that Putin has raised this possibility, but now it appears more ominous. It is not clear whether that “territorial integrity” could apply to disputed areas claimed by Russia. In that case, threats to those areas could also trigger a nuclear response.

Putin’s warning got maximum attention as it came at the height of the UN General Assembly’s general debate, the busiest week in the organization’s calendar, in which heads of state and government and other high-ranking officials from around the globe gather to discuss the world’s most pressing problems. In the Gulf, questions have been raised about how these threats are going to affect nonproliferation efforts, which are already under stress.

Adding the prospect of a nuclear war to the week’s busy agenda was akin to bringing back a monster that had been banished to the UN attic since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago. Western powers swiftly responded with threats of their own. US President Joe Biden, in a speech the same day at the UNGA in New York, accused Putin of making “overt nuclear threats against Europe” and of failing to live up to his nuclear nonproliferation responsibilities.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Sunday that Washington would respond “decisively” to any Russian use of nuclear weapons. He revealed that the US had conveyed to Moscow the “catastrophic consequences” of such a confrontation, spelling out “in greater detail exactly what that would mean.”

It is not clear what the US’ decisive response would be if nuclear weapons were to be used by Russia, but it is a positive sign that Russian and US security officials are in regular, direct contact about this issue to avoid accidents or misunderstandings. It is also not clear what Russian action would trigger the US response. While a strategic attack by Russia would be likely to elicit a similar response, would the tactical use of nuclear munitions in Ukraine, for example, also trigger counteraction by the US?

The prospect of a global nuclear confrontation has receded from public discourse for some time, North Korea’s antics notwithstanding. The fall of the Soviet Union and ensuing US-dominated world order gave a false impression that the nuclear threat was no longer genuine. However, the prospect of a global threat from the spread of nuclear weapons remains very real, as several countries maintain huge nuclear arsenals, especially Russia and the US. Nuclear experts continue to warn of the growing potential for nuclear conflicts as superpowers continue to add, not get rid of, new types of nuclear weapons. It is believed that at least 9,000 nuclear weapons are in existence, hidden in silos and bunkers around the world and almost ready to be used.

In the Gulf, the risks of nuclear proliferation are increasing, even as efforts continue around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran. For the past two decades, Tehran has failed to live up to Non-Proliferation Treaty standards, including the safeguards agreement and additional protocol on safeguards. Repeated censures by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Security Council have not succeeded in persuading Iran. The JCPOA, if the P5+1 nations are able to revive it, would be a step in the right direction, but additional steps would be needed to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.

The idea of banning the use of nuclear weapons altogether has been around for some time, but has so far failed to persuade the nuclear powers themselves or aspiring nuclear nations such as Iran.

In 2017, the UN convened a conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading toward their total elimination, or at least making their development and use unlawful, similar to the chemical weapons ban. The result of this conference was the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which included a comprehensive set of prohibitions on participating in any nuclear weapon activities.

Parties to the treaty undertake not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons. The treaty also prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons on national territory and the provision of assistance to any state in the conduct of prohibited activities. States parties are obliged to prevent and suppress any activity prohibited under the treaty, whether undertaken by people or on territory under its jurisdiction or control. The treaty also obliges states parties to provide adequate assistance to individuals affected by the use or testing of nuclear weapons, as well as to take necessary and appropriate measures of environmental remediation in areas under its jurisdiction or control contaminated as a result of activities related to the testing or use of nuclear weapons.

In other words, this would be a comprehensive instrument to deal with the nuclear threat, if it were to be implemented. The treaty was adopted on July 7, 2017, by a vote of 122 states in favor, including all Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and one vote against, with one abstention. Although the vote was overwhelming, it was more of a political statement. And despite the fact that the treaty came into force, legally, in January 2021, its impact is going to be negligible in the foreseeable future. So far, only 91 countries have signed the treaty and just 68 of them have ratified it. None of the known nuclear powers have joined, nor in fact has any major country with a prospect of developing nuclear weapons.

That leaves the NPT as the only globally accepted treaty to limit nuclear proliferation. All countries in the world except four (India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan) are parties to this treaty, but it too is facing challenges.

The Ukraine war and the increasing China-US rivalry mean that nuclear powers themselves are in disagreement.

Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

A regular review of the NPT took place last month after a two-year delay, but it failed to resolve differences between nuclear and non-nuclear powers. The Ukraine war and the increasing China-US rivalry mean that nuclear powers themselves are in disagreement. Putin’s nuclear threats have only sharpened differences around the treaty. Iran is a founding member of the NPT but repeatedly threatens to withdraw from it whenever it comes under pressure by the IAEA. Its 20-year cat and mouse game with the agency continues, especially now as the P5+1 are divided.

If Iran acquires nuclear weapon capabilities, a nuclear arms race in the Gulf is not going to be far behind, with disastrous results politically and economically. This prospect should make it imperative for nonproliferation efforts to continue to try and prevent that sad eventuality.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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