The wonderland of nuclear non-proliferation has a treacherous history; it is full of fantasies, rhetoric, dilemmas, deceit and duplicity. The third nuclear test by North Korea, a statement by the Speaker of Iranian Majlis about the status of his country’s nuclear programme, and the imposition of US sanctions on four Chinese and two Belarusian entities for their alleged violation of Missile Technology Control Regime indicate that nuclear politics continues to revolve around the selective application of discriminatory laws. Apparently, the nuclear scenario at the global level has to attain maturity; it is yet an emerging scenario that is going through the pangs of evolution.

From a global perspective, we are living in an environment of nuclear apartheid perpetuated by numerous legal regimes and instruments, starting with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The persistent state of denial to grant de jure status to de facto nuclear weapons states casts shadow on the prospects of continued viability of the NPT regime in its current form.

Against this backdrop, North Korea has set the precedence of walking away from the NPT and going ahead with its bold nuclear pursuits to address its perceived national security concerns, since every state has the right to determine the threat to its security and muster a matching response.

At the same time, there have been some positive developments. A number of countries have given up their nuclear arsenal when they felt that threat to their national security had receded; some countries have also surrendered their fissile material. The approach of switching over to health, engineering, agricultural facilities and power reactors from the usage of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched uranium (LEU) is also a welcome step; it would certainly reduce the demand for weapons-grade material.

Nuclear arms control and disarmament areas have always been premised on two parallel tracks. Of these, the arms control regimes are pursued by the nuclear haves, possessing piles of nuclear warheads. The arms control instruments play around with numbers without slashing the capability.  The disarmament approach is looked up to by the nuclear have-nots; it calls for the retirement and destruction of nuclear weapons aimed at qualitative down gradation of nuclear capability. Both approaches have exclusive proponents.

Unfortunately, the laws pertaining to nuclear transactions are porous and their application is politically and ideologically motivated, as well as selective. The attitude of counties having access to advanced nuclear technologies is not favourably poised toward the countries striving to have access to civilian application of nuclear technology, even in benign fields like health, agriculture, power generation, etc. The terms and conditions of the US agreements signed with India and the UAE present two extremes:

i   A non-NPT state has been allowed to pile up large amounts of weapons-grade material.

i   An NPT member has been denied all opportunities to have an enrichment option.

The ongoing efforts to have a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) regime negotiated for the across-the-board stoppage of fissile material production without accounting for the existing stockpiles of bomb making material ,too, aims at freezing yet another asymmetry.

The handling of nuclear-related knowledge, doctrines, machines, materials, expertise and trade have all along been fussy domains. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the only UN organ having legal authority to handle proliferation matters. However, the latest trend indicates that though lip service is paid to its central role, ways and means are continuously being sought to settle the nuclear issues by circumventing the IAEA framework.

Over a dozen entities try to assert their claims over nuclear matters in a piecemeal and self-righteous fashion. Despite the mushrooming of such a large number of claimants, the monitoring and indexing of nuclear security, safety and trafficking-related incidents portray a horrible picture. Most of the times, the commercial interest of countries having control over nuclear materials and expertise override the non-proliferation concerns.

Notwithstanding the fact that the heavy menu of existing treaties, conventions, UN Security Council resolutions and structures is unable to work with requisite synergy, the emphasis continues to be on creating new structures, protocols and treaties. The forum of Nuclear Security Summit, for instance, has been mobilised to serve this purpose.

While bypassing the principle of global consensus, a number of multilateral understandings, pledges and treaties have evolved during the two summits to handle the nuclear security issues piecemeal. This has resulted in a wheels-within-wheels sort of working pattern. 

In the post-9/11 setting, the threat of nuclear terrorism has been overplayed for shaping the nuclear narratives that suit the nuclear haves; and make a case to attack some of the nascent nuclear programmes and even pursue the ambition of disarming some nuclear states.

The setting up of missile shields is another emerging trend. This, indeed, weakens the deterrence in regional contexts and has the potential of triggering an arms race in various conflict-prone regions.

In the global context, some of the mind-boggling queries are: could the nuclear arms race ever be stopped? Is the concept of ‘Nuclear Energy for All and Nuclear Weapons for None’, suggested in the conference held in Iran in 2010, an achievable objective and is it synonymous with Obama’s concept of ‘Global Zero’? Is a nuclear-weapon free world likely to emerge or is it an utopian rhetoric? Will the setting up of LEU fuel bank reduce the chances of nuclear terrorism or stop further nuclearisation of states? How would the American and Indian missile defence shields impact the arsenals of other countries?

At the regional level, asking Pakistan and India to sign the NPT as non-nuclear weapon state is untenable; none would give up its capability. However, there is ample space for a solution through proactive diplomacy and concerted effort for an ‘additional protocol’ to the NPT, which would recognise the two nations as nuclear-weapon state parties. By blocking this approach, the NPT is being undermined by its proponents.

The point further carried forth, asking Pakistan to do anything that India is not asked to do, in the nuclear regime is certainly a non-starter. Likewise, asking Iran to give up its nuclear programme, while doing nothing concrete for establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East is unsustainable.

Pakistan has successfully neutralised India’s ‘cold start’ doctrine by testing tactical nuclear missile - Nasr. Its development with 60 km range was necessary and a well-timed move. It demonstrates that Pakistan has acquired the requisite technology and capability to counter India’s ‘cold start’ and ‘second strike’ capabilities. Nasr is not a battlefield weapon and, therefore, does not signal Pakistan’s shift from deterrence towards war mode. Moreover, the development of cruise missiles was a compulsion, keeping in view India’s development of missile defence capability.

Needless to say, Pakistan continues to follow its doctrine of “minimum credible deterrence” and “strategic restraint”. It continues to act responsibly, cautiously and wisely; surely, this approach has paid off.

Over the years, Pakistan has maintained deterrence and is determined to offset any development in the region, which could disturb the nuclear balance between the two countries. It also pursues an agreement with India on the “strategic restraint regime”. However, India has been reluctant for such a regime in both nuclear and conventional areas.

As a final word, unless and until a sincere effort is made to establish a universal, across-the-board nuclear disarmament regime on the pattern of Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention, the objective of non-proliferation is likely to continue haunting the comity of nations.

The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University. Email: