The nuclear test by North Korea on October 9, 2006 dealt a new blow to the existing nuclear non-proliferation regime. North Korea's announcement for testing its nuclear weapon came out when negotiations with Iran about its nuclear activities ran into a deadlock over the demand to Iran to stop the enrichment. For long, the critics of Iran's nuclear program have insisted that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. Lacking any convincing evidence, they argue that since Iran is threatened by the United States, in order to protect itself she is following the path of North Korea in turn into nuclear, and thereby to become immune to any assault by the Americans. Despite those allegations, Iran insists that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. Iran also maintains that its nuclear program is totally in accordance with the provisions of the Non–Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and under the full safeguards supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Notably, the IAEA on several occasions in the course of its continuous monitoring of Iranian nuclear facilities has confirmed that it had not found any diversions in Iran's nuclear activities. With Iran being out of the checklist the looming question is which country is to be next in testing nuclear weapons after North Korea?

For some time there were speculations about a possible nuclear test by North Korea. The impact of this test on the global and regional geopolitics as well on the current trends of nuclear proliferation caused great concerns in different parts of the world especially in East Asia. The reactions of the countries in this region to the North Korean nuclear test especially those that have the capability or have shown some inclination in the past to become nuclear has been closely monitored. For that matter, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have been under the focus of international attention.

Japan has long had nuclear energy and possesses the latent capability to develop nuclear weapons. By the year 2000 Japan had an inventory of about 55 tones of separated reactor grade plutonium. It should be noted that this is enough plutonium to manufacture 10,000 warheads, perhaps more than the combined nominal arsenals of the U.S. and Russia under the START II agreement.

South Korea, which started to research nuclear weapons in the 1970s, supposedly halted its program by the early 1980s as a result of U.S. pressure. But in 2004, South Korean scientists admitted they had continued a small, experimental nuclear research program for years longer than anyone suspected, even though they disavowed any intention to make nuclear weapons.

Taiwan, which had a nuclear weapons program in the late 1970s and early 1980s, also gave it up in response to U.S. pressure. But "Taiwan still has a fairly active nuclear industry and a lot of talented nuclear scientists,"

Double Standards

Besides North Korea, several other countries in the past have been caught conducting secret and potentially weapons-related experiments. But at least in the cases of the U.S. allies the IAEA have settled for delivering a light reprimand, there was no continued speculation about the existence of "secret" nuclear intentions, and there were no demands that they abandon nuclear technology permanently, as is demanded of Iran.

Israel as a close US ally is a special case study. Israel neither admits nor denies having atomic weapons under a policy of "strategic ambiguity", but most experts believe it has about 200 nuclear warheads. It was first Mordechai Vanunu an Israeli nuclear technician who revealed in 1986 that Israel assembled hydrogen and neutron bombs at its Dimona nuclear reactor. Since then, many state parties to the NPT have repeatedly and especially during Revision Conferences of the NPT have called for Israel to join the NPT and place its nuclear facilities under the supervision of the IAEA. In fact the conference's 1995 resolution on the Middle East was a key factor in securing Egyptian accession to the treaty's indefinite extension. The 2000 document mentions Israel by name for the first time, but Israel enjoyed the protection of America, therefore the conference did not succeeded to sanction further action to encourage Israel's NPT membership.

Recently, at a little-reported session of the International Atomic Energy Agency at its September 2006 session, the US and its allies joined together to block an Arab-Iranian resolution calling for Israel to join the NPT and for the Middle East to be declared a nuclear-free zone. Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, commented that : "For developing and Arab countries to comprehend the concern Western powers express over the Iranian nuclear issue, these Western powers have to convince everyone that they adhere to all that is lawful, and not pick sides." He said that countries should express the same level of interest in the Israeli nuclear threat as they do in other non-proliferation cases. He described Israel's nuclear program as a "direct challenge" to the NPT regime. [Reuters, 24/09/2006]

New Challenges to non-proliferation

There are good reasons that nuclear proliferation is becoming a major concern for international security. On the one hand there is a rapid growth in global energy demand especially for non carbon based energies which nuclear energy for many reasons including environment protection is becoming more attractive. On the other hand there are serious concerns about the diversion of the nuclear materials to produce weapons. In the past 36 years the task of safe-guarding the peaceful use of nuclear technologies has been assigned to the IAEA. Also, the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) made the IAEA safeguards system the verification arm of the NPT. However, major changes in the international environment and advancement of new technologies have made it necessary for needed adjustment in the present provisions and rules governing the non-proliferation regime. But unfortunately several opportunities were missed during the regular five year review conferences of the NPT in the past.

Evidently, the question of nuclear non-proliferation is now challenged by the persistent policies of nuclear power states on maintaining and deploying nuclear weapons as means of furthering their interests and imposing their policies.

Growing demand for nuclear energy

Currently, 19% of the world's electricity is generated by nuclear power plants. According to some surveys, by 2030, that capacity will grow to about 27%. There is a talk about "nuclear power renaissance" every where including in the United States. President George W. Bush in his speech on energy policy in April 2005, placed a high priority on nuclear energy, which he described as "one of the safest, cleanest sources of power in the world." [The New York Times, MAY 5, 2005]. The US nuclear industry has been calling for construction of 50 nuclear power plants by 2020. On the future role of nuclear energy, the IAEA Director General Mohamed El Baradei has remarked that, "The more we look to the future, the more we can expect countries to be considering the potential benefits that expanding nuclear power has to offer for the global environment and for economic growth." [IAEA Press Release, 26 June 2004].

Strangely, in their main argument the critics of Iran's nuclear energy program say that, due to its vast oil and gas reserves, Iran does not need nuclear energy. Yet Great Britain, Canada, and Russia, all oil exporters, rely on nuclear energy for a significant portion of their electricity needs.

Antagonistic Approaches

In the aftermath of September 11, the international atmosphere is overwhelmingly shadowed by the fight against terrorism. The obsession to justify any misperception or wrong policy in the name of the fight against terrorism may divert the campaign against terrorism in to a politico- religious sphere with much wider implications as a "clash of civilizations". Obviously, in an antagonistic atmosphere, any attempt to establish a meaningful dialogue between opposing parties to address key issues with important international security implications like growing demands for nuclear energy and nuclear non-proliferation, becomes more difficult if not impossible. In an apparent move to overcome the present problems facing the NPT and a growing demand for nuclear energy, some western powers are trying to alter some of the commitments in the Treaty by setting ad hock rules that in the view of other members of the NPT namely non-aligned countries is a departure from the spirit of the Treaty. They say those proposed rules will infringe upon their inherent right for peaceful use of nuclear technology as stipulated in the article IV of the NPT.

It is no secret now that some Western powers are planning to override the foundation of the NPT by imposing restrictions on the production of nuclear fuel by others except a few chosen countries that are already enjoying nuclear enrichment capacity. In this endeavor, establishment of a nuclear fuel bank by a handful of countries that have uranium enrichment facilities is envisaged. If that plan comes to reality it would deprive other countries from developing their own indigenous enrichment facilities in the future. This challenge is considered by some countries like Iran as a discriminatory approach against access of NPT members to material, equipment, and peaceful nuclear technology. That policy is perceive by the non-nuclear power states as "nuclear apartheid", in which select states bestow upon themselves nuclear privileges while others are condemned for seeking to enter the elite club of nuclear powers. Interestingly, in the case of Iran's nuclear program, the demands set forth by the European negotiators with the backing of the United States, reveals that there are clear intentions on their part to revise some of the "bargains" in the NPT especially where it relates to the rights of non nuclear weapon states to develop their own nuclear fuel cycle, even though being under the full scope of the safeguards of the IAEA. That is while; the NPT explicitly seeks to make nuclear technology available to non-nuclear-weapon states. The preamble to the NPT affirms that "the benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear technology…should be available for peaceful purposes to all Parties of the Treaty." Article IV of the NPT describes this as an "inalienable right" to all nuclear fuel-cycle technologies including "the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information." Article IV was an essential provision in the "Grand Bargain" that convinced key non-nuclear-weapon states to accept the nuclear constraints of the NPT and has helped foster the near universal acceptance of the pact.

Looking to the future

After the North Korean nuclear test the present non-proliferation regime faces an unprecedented challenge. In this tenuous period it is imperative to address the crucial issues that challenge the present non-proliferation regime. These issues are clustered around two main trends. First, there is a growing demand for nuclear energy; and second, there is a risk involving application of nuclear technology for military purposes. To counter new moves in nuclear proliferation and to facilitate harnessing peaceful nuclear energy, a new approach to this question seems to be in order.

First, decisive measures should be adopted to revitalize and restore the eroded credibility of the NPT. The following are some of those necessary steps:

- The nuclear weapon states that are not party to the NPT should be encouraged to join the Treaty through incentives and if necessary through pressure.

- The nuclear power states in the NPT should honor their commitments under the article VI of the Treaty, for attainment of the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. As a first step they should refrain from use or threat of use of nuclear weapons and to take necessary measures in good faith for the revision of their military doctrines that would guarantee non use of nuclear weapons.

- To uphold the NPT other parallel institutions that overlap the functions of this Treaty should be abandoned.

- The approach of nuclear powers especially the United States toward the nuclear proliferation needs to be revised and an evenhanded treatment of the issue are necessary.

Second, to respond to a the world wide growing demand for nuclear energy, an international organ that would administer different aspects of the energy security with a vision for the future world energy demands should be established. Meantime, technological innovations in energy field should be encouraged with the aim of reaching solutions for endemic problems. It seems imperative to expedite the efforts for the introduction of fourth generation of nuclear power plants that can achieve both higher safety standards and would provide a solution to the problem of diversion of nuclear material to weapon usage. Also, there is a need for a more vigorous research effort in the area of fusion technology. As asserted above, these endeavors may become more successful once it is based on a global platform bringing together all available talents and resources worldwide and by welcoming participation of all countries having interests in the development of these technologies.