Missile tests, NPT outliers and nuclear non-proliferation in 2012

Why this is the year of ironies for the non-proliferation agenda


Deepshikha Kumari | September 22, 2012

It is quite ironical that 2012, the year which in many ways saw a revival of the non-proliferation norm on issues such as nuclear security with the Seoul Summit in March 2012, the use of sanctions and immense negotiations to curb any Iranian weapons program, has also become the year to witness a series of nuclear-capable missile tests by North Korea, India, Pakistan and Iran. With the exception of Iran, all these states are non-NPT signatory states and that continue to remain outside the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which grounds the norm of nuclear non-proliferation. India, even as a non-NPT signatory, has managed to differentiate itself from the ‘club of outliers’ acquiring the status of being a ‘responsible nuclear state’ with good intentions. However, whether the international community of states is genuinely persuaded of this is quite another question. The point being that India for different reasons, be it security or material factors, is no longer viewed as a pariah state and is far from being seen as a rogue state.  India’s image and status has transformed due to intense nuclear diplomacy that New-Delhi has engaged in since 2005.

North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel continue to remain outside the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is seen at the core of the international nuclear order and which can be said to have a somewhat fuzzy boundary. The international atomic energy agency (IAEA), nuclear suppliers group (NSG) and other informal groups such as the missile technology control regime (MTCR), the Australia group, and the Wassennar agreement formed at different intervals and in response to different state actions, thus broadly outline the contours of the nuclear order and of state interaction on nuclear issues at the international level.

The year 2012 first witnessed the North Korean rocket launch on April 13. The country claimed the launch was conducted merely to put a satellite into the orbit to mark the 100th birth anniversary of their leader and founder Kim II-sung.  Despite their claims and the failure of the rocket launch, it drew negative reactions and condemnation from the international community which raised doubts about both the nature of the test as well the intentions behind it and saw it as a test of a long-range missile technology, which has been banned under various UN resolutions.

Soon after, India conducted its first test launch of the new Agni V inter-mediate ballistic missile on April 19, however, India’s claims were different and it was not apologetic nor needed to mask its motivation behind the test. India in fact claimed its entry into the ‘elite club’ of nations that are known to possess such long-range missile capability i.e. the P5 (China, Russia, France, UK and the US). Israel is also believed to possess such capability.  Moreover, India claimed that its tests were ‘flawless and successful’. Six days later, Pakistan tested the Shaheen IA, also a ballistic missile. The international community, and in particular, the United States was restrained in its response to the Indian test. Mark C. Toner, a US state department spokesman, stated that the United States urges ‘all nuclear-capable states to exercise restraint regarding nuclear capabilities.  That said, India has a solid nonproliferation record.’ Toner noted that India had a ‘no first use’ policy on nuclear weapons.

Most recently, Pakistan's military claimed to have successfully test-fired a cruise missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that was named the Hatf-VII or the Babur missile, tested on September 17. Two days later, India followed suit and test-fired its second-longest-range missile on September 19, 2012.  The defence research development organisation (DRDO) stated that the Agni-IV was tested for its full range of 4,000 kilometers and was a success.

Finally, ironically enough Iran, even though a NPT signatory state, has been at the centre of attention with respect to its nuclear intentions leading to three rounds of intensive negotiations between the P5+Germany and Iran that were first held in Istanbul, Turkey (between April 13 and 14 in Istanbul), Baghdad, Iraq (May 23- 24) and the third and highly anticipated round of negotiations in Moscow (June 17).  However, on August 4, 2012, Iran test-fired a short-range missile, which it named Fateh-110, capable of striking land and sea targets with particular reference to the Strait of Hormuz so as to deter any attack by the US and/or Israel, given the rising pressure on Iran and threats by Israel of a possible attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Given the story so far, it is important to see the commonality in the rhetoric that followed all the missile tests. First is the reference to deterrence as the main purpose of the tests. All the above nations claimed that the tests were not directed towards any particular nation, and thus, were not state-centric but were conducted only for the purpose of deterrence. Second, for obvious reasons there is no reference to any of the UNSC resolutions that ban and prohibit any such nuclear capable missile tests by the above countries. For example the UNSC resolution1695 was adopted in 2006 in response to North Korea’s missile test launches. The UNSC resolution 1172 adopted in response to India and Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests also called for both nations ‘to cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons’. It was excluded in the reactions of important nations such as the United States to these missile tests. The UNSC resolution 1737 and 1929 passed in 2006 and 2010 respectively, also prohibited Iran from undertaking any activity related to ‘ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons’. It said that ‘states are required to take all necessary measure to prevent the transfer of related technology or technical assistance’. 

It is also important to note that the nuclear discourse of these nations lays more emphasis on the motivations of a state, thus allowing a nation to justify its actions but thereby ignoring another important aspect, which is the ‘implications’ of such actions. In other words it is not a mere coincidence that Pakistan followed the Indian tests in April and then Agni-IV test followed Hatf –VII or Babur in September this year.  Moreover, Iran was not too far behind given the restrained reactions to the missile tests by India and Pakistan in April. However, the Iranian tests were perceived more as an act of defiance and aggression by the P5, Germany and Israel. It implies that perceptions are very important in determining the implications of an action irrespective of the nations’ motivations or intentions. As one diplomat in one of my research interviews conducted in New Delhi stated,  ‘perception is politics and politics is perception’.

I believe that these missile tests should not be ignored and overlooked. There has to be some serious and concerted efforts towards nuclear non-proliferation. We must not conflate intentions with implications on the nuclear issue. It is time for a stricter regime with clearer boundaries and tighter norms that are seen as more legitimate and that impose equal obligations on all nations. Thus, efforts have to be made towards reducing the threat and rationality of nuclear weapons themselves rather than placing a stronger belief in their deterrent value. If the latter is what becomes dominant as it has today, then there is little doubt that the norm of non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament will be reduced to an empty rhetoric, which would in my view, be one of the most tragic developments of this year.




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