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In 2012 the nuclear programme of Iran remained at the centre of international concerns about the spread of nuclear weapons. Little progress was made towards resolving the long-running controversy over the scope and nature of the programme. The resumption of talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (the ‘P5+1’ states) failed to break the deadlock over Iran’s non-compliance with the Security Council’s demands that Iran suspend all uranium enrichment and other sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities.
Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were also unable to agree on a framework plan for addressing the IAEA’s concerns that Iran had pursued nuclear activities with possible military dimensions, in contravention of its commitments under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The impasse led to renewed calls to expand the IAEA’s legal powers to investigate NPT parties suspected of violating their treaty-mandated safeguards agreements, even beyond those set out in the Model Additional Protocol.
The lack of progress in these two separate but closely related sets of talks fuelled speculation that some states—specifically, Israel or the United States—might prioritize extra-legal measures, or even resort to the preventive use of military force, to deal with Iran’s suspected nuclear weapon programme. The renewed attention to military options raised further doubts about the efficacy of international legal approaches, in particular the use of punitive economic sanctions, in dealing with suspected or known cases of states violating important arms control treaty obligations and norms.
The Six-Party Talks on the denuclearization of North Korea remained suspended in 2012, while North Korea reaffirmed its status as a nuclear weapon-possessing state. In an apparent breakthrough, North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes in exchange for humanitarian assistance from the USA. However, the deal soon broke down when North Korea launched a satellite-carrying rocket that the USA and its allies in the region described as a disguised ballistic missile test.
The launch, conducted on 13 April 2012 in the presence of international observers, was a widely publicized failure. The three-stage Unha 3 rocket exploded shortly after lift-off. North Korea’s decision to proceed with the launch elicited a wave of international criticism.
Developments in North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes in 2012 suggested that the new North Korean leadership under Kim Jong Un would prioritize the country’s ‘military-first’ policy underpinned by advances in its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. The year ended with deepening pessimism in North East Asia about the prospects for restarting multilateral negotiations aimed at inducing North Korea to give up its nascent nuclear arsenal in exchange for international assistance.
The issue of the future of non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons in Europe came to the fore with the completion by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of its Defence and Deterrence Posture Review (DDPR) in 2012. The DDPR reaffirmed that nuclear weapons remained a core component of NATO’s overall capabilities for deterrence and defence, as outlined in NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept, and did not recommend any force posture changes regarding US nuclear weapons stationed in Europe. At the same time, by saying that NATO would consider options to further reduce non-strategic nuclear weapons if Russia undertook reciprocal measures, the DDPR left open the possibility of extending nuclear arms control measures beyond the 2010 Russian–US New START treaty.
The prospects for successful negotiated reductions in non-strategic nuclear weapons will require the USA, together with its NATO allies, and Russia to modify what were, in 2012, incompatible positions. At the end of the year there was no indication that such modifications would be forthcoming.
In 2012 the risks of nuclear terrorism and the illicit diversion of nuclear and radioactive materials continued to be discussed at the highest political level. In March, 53 heads of state and government gathered at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, for a meeting aimed at strengthening legal and regulatory arrangements for securing nuclear materials and facilities worldwide.
The leaders reviewed implementation of the voluntary commitments made at the 2010 Washington Nuclear Security Summit and issued a communiqué identifying priority areas for increasing the security of nuclear and radiological materials. They also considered the relationship between nuclear safety and security in the light of the accident in 2011 at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan.
The leaders agreed to convene a third summit meeting, in the Netherlands in 2014, amid discussions about how to sustain nuclear security cooperation. The main contribution of the nuclear security summits has been to focus high-level political attention on the need to implement programmes and projects that have been in development for many years. While the high-level meetings increased the probability that agreed targets would be met prior to the gathering of heads of state and government, future summits may bring diminishing returns as the focus of discussions moves from agreement on broad objectives to more technical issues and specific projects.