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US Lawmakers: Iran, North Korea Are Biggest Threats to Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

People watch a TV showing a file picture for a news report on North Korea firing two unidentified projectiles, in Seoul, South Korea, March 2, 2020.

U.S. lawmakers stressed that Iran and North Korea pose the biggest threats to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), in a hearing Tuesday marking the 50th anniversary of the treaty.

Democratic Congressman Theodore Deutch, chairman of the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, “Congress must understand how to protect the treaty from two immediately looming challenges: Iran and North Korea.”

Deutch pointed out North Korea is the only state that has withdrawn from the NPT and the U.S. must work with the international community to ensure that Iran does not go down the same path.

Iran’s threats

Republican Congressman Joe Wilson was among many who expressed concerns over Iran’s repeated threats to quit the NPT.

“The North Korean case has served as a model for the mullahs in Iran. They learned that through threatening to leave the NPT they can hold the international community hostage and extract important concessions. The Iranians have also learned that the violations or abrogation of NPT come with absolutely no penalties,” said Wilson.

Iran first threatened to exit the NPT in May 2018 following President Donald Trump’s announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran also has taken incremental steps to reduce its compliance with the nuclear deal it forged with the U.S., China, France, Russia, Britain and Germany.

Despite Iran’s threats, experts who testified at the hearing held views that Iran will not easily drop out of the NPT.

FILE - In this photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor's secondary circuit as officials and media visit the site, near Arak., Dec. 23, 2019.
FILE - In this photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor's secondary circuit as officials and media visit the site, near Arak., Dec. 23, 2019.

“I am a slight optimist in this regard only because the strength of the treaty is such that other countries like Russia and China would take great alarm at Iran following the path of North Korea. So I think there’s some pressure that can be used multilaterally,” said Richard Johnson, senior director for fuel cycle and verification at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Stephen Rademaker, former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, pointed out Iran is playing games to get a better deal from the Europeans.

“I think it’s much easier for them to break out of the JCPOA but to break out of the NPT would be a dramatic step. That would cost them dearly,” said Rademaker.

Real global danger

North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems also raised alarms — especially in light of North Korea’s first weapons test of the year Monday.

“Yesterday, meanwhile, North Korea sent two short range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. There’s so much going on we don’t even hear about this activity anymore,” said Republican Congresswoman Ann Wagner.

Republican Congressman Ted Yoho noted North Korea is “a real danger to the international community.”

Yoho said “threats posed by an unstable North Korea directly endangers our allies in the Asia Pacific region including South Korea and Japan and others. … Moving forward, it is imperative that we purpose NPT discussions with our regional partners to ensure the containment of a nuclear North Korea, and prevent the further sophistication of their missiles development program.”

Experts also warned North Korea’s nuclear weapons deployment will trigger a cascade of proliferation.

New START Treaty

Democratic members of the committee expressed frustrations over the looming expiration of the nuclear deal with Russia.

“Do you see any evidence of the Trump administration moving expeditiously or with any kind of sense of urgency to renew, or at least extend the new START treaty?” Congressman Gerald Connolly posed a question to one of the experts.

Congressman David Cicilline also said, “I’m particularly interested in your assessment of the United States’ action as it related to disarm, particularly with our failure to extend the new START treaty.”

Experts expressed divergent views on the U.S.’s nuclear disarmaments efforts.

Bonnie Jenkins, former coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs at the State Department, said U.S. actions to withdraw from the JCPOA and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and not ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty “have violated the spirit if not the letter of the U.S. obligations under the Article 6 of the NPT.”

“I would like to see for the Trump administration to support and reaffirm global nonproliferation norms,” Jenkins noted.

On the contrary, Stephen Rademaker, former assistant secretary of state for arms control, said he disagrees with the idea that continued existence of America’s nuclear deterrent induces others to want to have nuclear weapons as well.

"It is primarily the U.S. nuclear umbrella” that has persuaded countries like South Korea and Japan from developing nuclear weapons, according to Rademaker.

The 2020 NPT Review Conference will take place at the U.N. headquarters in New York from April 27 to May 22.