The Bush administration’s current confrontation with Iran over what it claims is that nation’s nuclear weapons development program raises the question: Can the disarmament of one country occur in isolation from the disarmament of others?

That question seemed to be answered by the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968. Signed by almost all countries of the world, including the United States, it provided that the non-nuclear nations would forgo building nuclear weapons, while the nuclear nations would divest themselves of their own nuclear weapons.

But, upon taking office, the Bush administration quickly abandoned the U.S. commitment to the NPT. It withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, moved forward with the deployment of a national missile defense system (a revised version of the Reagan administration’s “Star Wars” program), and opposed ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (negotiated and signed by President Clinton). Furthermore, it dropped negotiations for nuclear arms control and disarmament and, instead, pressed Congress to authorize the building of new U.S. nuclear weapons—for example, the nuclear “bunker buster” and “mini-nukes.”

Nor are the Bush administration’s more recent actions in line with the U.S. government’s alleged commitment to nuclear disarmament.

This past March, President Bush traveled to India, where he cemented a nuclear deal with the Indian government. India, of course, recently became a nuclear weapons nation, having spurned the NPT, conducted nuclear tests in 1998, and developed its own nuclear arsenal. Yet the agreement rewards India for its defiance of international norms. By supplying U.S. nuclear fuel and technology to India, the agreement facilitates a substantial expansion of that nation’s nuclear weapons complex. At the same time, it does not require India to stop producing nuclear material for weapons or to place Indian nuclear reactors under international inspection. As this U.S.-India agreement flies in the face of U.S. legislation that bans nuclear exports to nations that have not signed the NPT, the Bush administration is now pressing Congress to revoke such legislation. The Republican-led Congress seems likely to do so.

In addition, the Bush administration is promoting legislation in Congress that will fund the development of what is called the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), as well as a sweeping modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons labs and factories. Although the RRW is billed as an item that would merely update existing U.S. nuclear weapons and ensure their reliability, it seems more likely to serve as a means of designing new nuclear weapons. And the quest for new nuclear weapons seems likely to lead to the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing and the final breakdown of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Furthermore, the Bush administration has come out in opposition to a pathbreaking treaty to create a nuclear weapons-free zone in Central Asia. Signed earlier this month by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, the agreement commits the signatory countries not to produce, buy, or allow the deployment of nuclear weapons on their soil. According to Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, the U.S. government’s opposition to the Central Asia treaty is based upon its reluctance “to give up the option of deploying nuclear weapons in this region.”

Another sign of the Bush administration’s double standard when it comes nuclear weapons is its unwillingness to consider the idea of a nuclear weapons-free zone for the Middle East. Israel, after all, has developed a substantial nuclear arsenal, but the Bush administration has studiously ignored it. The contrast with the administration’s reaction to Iraq’s possible development of nuclear weapons is quite striking.

In a letter published in the Washington Post on September 7, Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action—the largest peace organization in the United States–observed that the Bush administration’s nuclear nonproliferation policies were “incoherent and contradictory.” The administration, he charged, “is rewarding India’s nuclear weapons program with a deal to share technology; doing next to nothing about Pakistan’s veritable nuclear Wal-Mart; winking at Israel’s nuclear arsenal; unilaterally dropping out of arms control treaties . . . ; and ignoring our own obligations to pursue nuclear disarmament under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

Certainly, the Bush administration has been quite selective about which nations should have nuclear weapons and which should not. And most nations—including Iran–know it.

The U.S. government would be far more convincing—and perhaps more effective with respect to diplomacy for creating a nuclear-free Iran—if it recognized that nuclear disarmament is a two-way street


Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York, Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).

First published by the History News Network