Nonproliferation Treaties as Unenforceable Pacts


Proliferation of nuclear weapons presents far-fetched threats to international security. In response to such threats, nations look for ways of protecting their territorial integrity. The most effective mechanism for protecting individual national sovereignty entails adopting proactive response to security threats, as opposed to reactive strategies (Nau 81; Robert and Zhu 17). One of such strategies involves preventing nations with nuclear capabilities from using the weapons in response to eroding another nation’s territorial integrity.

This plan can be accomplished by limiting or preventing nations to proliferate nuclear weapons. Corden and Hafemeister define nuclear proliferation as the “spreading of nuclear weapons, fissionable material, and weapons that apply nuclear technology and information to nations not recognized as nuclear weapon states by the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons” (41). Proliferation faces opposition from nations, which already have the weaponry, including those that have not yet developed them.

Opposition of the proliferation of nuclear weaponry is driven by fear that when nations acquire the capability, nuclear warfare may emerge. This situation may have implications on the destabilization of international peace accord to the level of causing infringement of other nations’ territorial integrity. Israel, North Korea, India, and Pakistan constitute four nations that are assumed to have acquired nuclear capability but are not party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (Sakar 933).

In 1985, North Korea assented to the NPT. Nevertheless, it later pulled out in 2003. This move was followed by announcements for having tested nuclear weapons in 2006, 2009, and 2013. One of the major drawbacks of the NPT is that it reluctantly fails to accept a nation as a nuclear state if such a nation had not tested such weapons by 1968. This situation raises the question of whether nonproliferation treaties are enforceable. This paper responds to this question by first dissecting the challenges of nuclear proliferation and the challenges that come with the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The Challenge of Nuclear Proliferation

When World War I ended, the focus of nations that engaged in the war was to enhance international peace through the establishment of the League of Nations. Its primary goal was to prevent the emergence of war by enhancing collective security through disarmament and the settling of probable international disagreements via arbitration and negotiations (Adsera and Boix 231). The organization was also charged with other tasks such as taking charge of labor conditions, addressing issues of human trafficking, trafficking of arms, enhancing global health, and protecting the rights of minorities.

In this regard, the concern of any international organization, and hence the goal of international relations, encompasses creating an international order that fosters peaceful coexistence of states. Organizations that fall in the realm of the United Nations system advance the agenda of international relations. This system constitutes a collection of agencies, programs, administrations, forums, and legal frameworks in which states interact and work together peacefully. Therefore, any statewide policy that is promoted through the intercontinental system when it indeed presents a threat to the international peace raises serious concerns to member states of the international system. One of such policies entails the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The international community has had an objective of preventing the probable use of nuclear weapons. The overall goal is to guarantee abolition of the weapon reserves. This interest has given rise to various international institutions and governmental agencies such as IAEA among other institutions, which seek to ensure that no more nuclear weapons are developed and that the existing ones are dismantled (Alvarez 22).

Developing the capability to deploy nuclear weapons threatens the territorial integrity of nations that constitute an adversary to a given state. For instance, the ‘west’ views the Iranian nuclear program as a means of developing the capacity to mass-destroy people and/or seek the power to control the world. Therefore, nations in the international systems are worried about the capability of nations to develop more nuclear weapons. Besides, any move to destroy the existing arsenals of the weapons may have a significant effect on international peace.

Since the Second World War, peace has been the main precedence of many nations all over the world. Therefore, superpower nations have a noble responsibility to ensure that all nations uphold and follow the peace accord as enumerated in the UN Charter. Indeed, the ‘west’ seeks the world to view Iran’s mission to establish a nuclear power capability as an attempt to threaten the lives of not only the nationalities of the west, but also all people around the globe. With one nation having more superior weaponry capability, the deterrence capability of a likely target becomes incredibly impossible.

Although seeking deterrence against any potential nuclear weaponry attack is important, it has its negative impacts. For instance, the overall consequences of spreading the negativity that Iran is a threat to the international peace, especially on the Gulf region, is making the international community see Iran as being dominated by a population that is strategically prepared to mass-destroy lives. Russian President Putin supports this line of view when he argues, “the western expert community holds that Moscow has exercised fundamental influence of the Iranian nuclear program and passed Tehran on sensitive technologies in defiance of the nuclear proliferation regime” (53).

Consequently, the objective of the west is to make people perceive Iranians as a threat to the international peace without necessarily considering that they took part in the creation of the program. Nevertheless, a negative portrayal cannot be declared an adequate and grounded reason for Iran’s alleged participation in the undisclosed development of nuclear weapons. However, irrespective of whether Iran can acquire nuclear capability, nuclear weapons are a real threat to international peace since they give room for nations to use them to destroy humanity, even after a slight provocation. This situation underlines the agenda of the nonproliferation treaty.

Non-proliferation Treaty

Presently, 189 nations have assented to the treaty on nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. This category includes five nations that are recognized as nuclear states, namely, Russia, the US, China, France, and the UK. Other important non-signatory members, which Sakar (933) argues that they might have already acquired nuclear weapons, include India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea. North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 1985.

Its reason for withdrawing or the permission to withdraw raises criticism on whether the NPT is enforceable, especially upon considering that after the withdrawal, North Korea announced to have tested successfully a nuclear device in 2006 (Kristensen and Norris 76). Indeed, this observation suggests that North Korea can make a nuclear weapon. It was noted before that the goal of the NPT is to ensure that a nation that is not recognized as a nuclear state does not develop the capability or pursue technologies that can facilitate the making of nuclear weapons to minimize the threats of nuclear warfare. To what extent then is the NPT enforceable?

Consistent with the goals of the NPT, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established in 1957. One of the mandates of the organization is to ensure that nations develop nuclear energy to meet special purposes. By administrating various safeguards, the IAEA assures member states that all nations remain committed to the NPT manifesto (Kristensen and Norris 77).

Individual member states have the responsibility of submitting credentials that satisfy the status of their nuclear amenities to the IAEA, which then examines them (credentials) to guarantee their correctness. In the verification process, the organization samples, conducts, analyzes, and scrutinizes the nuclear material inventories. The aim is to deter the possibility of diverting any material to any other purpose other than the production of nuclear energy for diplomatic reasons. The goal here is to make early detection to minimize the risk of proliferation.

IAEA’s work receives complementation from controls that are placed on nations that have nuclear weaponry technology, which focuses on preventing the exportation of sensitive technology and knowhow to nations that have not yet developed the capability. The organization also ensures that nations do not enrich uranium beyond levels that allow civil plants application. It also ensures that nations do not refine plutonium (a byproduct of nuclear energy plants rectors) to a form that may lead to the production of nuclear bombs.

Despite these efforts, nuclear technology that can necessitate the production of nuclear weapons continues to pose a major threat to the international peace accord as nations such as Iran and some terrorist groups gain access to the technology (Corden and Hafemeister 43). This situation underlines the significance of evaluating the question of whether the NPT treaty is enforceable.

Enforceability of the Treaty

Nonproliferation treaties are not enforceable. Hence, they are of limited use in preventing nuclear weapon proliferation. In 1995, 175 nations confirmed their renunciation to any effort of pursuing the nuclear weaponry project (Alvarez 24). However, they took this position with the assurance from nuclear weapons states that they would limit the use of their nuclear arsenals and dismantle the existing ones.

Although nations recognize that the treaty has imperfections, it was necessary since it guaranteed their collective safety. What can happen in case a nuclear state decides to use its nuclear weaponry arsenals against an adversary nation without the weapons? Can the nonnuclear states enforce the NPT and prevent it from doing so? This situation may not be the case. Hence, even if the treaty is enforceable, such enforcement may only apply significantly to nations that are currently developing nuclear weapons. Such lack of universal enforceability makes the NPT treaties of limited use in preventing proliferation.

The above arguments are perhaps appropriate, considering the painful experience that Iran has undergone. Indeed, any safeguarding strategies, rules on exportation of nuclear weapons, and/or controls that aim at eliminating the possibility of new developments of nuclear weapon cannot be self-enforced. The path that led towards the nuclear program in Iran was not a one-day decision. The move was characterized by historical chronology.

The program was initiated in the 1950s, with European governments and the US taking a central role (Vladimir 54). It was part of the program of ‘atoms for peace’. The involvement of these two parties did not proceed for long since it was terminated in 1979 when the Shah of Iran was toppled by the Iranian revolution. In indeed, if the NPT is enforceable, one may want to know why the US and the European governments such as Germany and the UK did not enforce the pact to stop the Iranian program right from its early stages.

Despite failing to stop Iranian nuclear dreams in the early stages, in the forthcoming phases, the NPT pacts could not be enforced. In the mid-1980s, Khomeini regime brought up again the idea of a nuclear program in secret.

The plan also encompassed preparing for acquiring the capacity to produce nuclear weapons that were initiated during Shah’s reign. This move was initiated by Iran’s devastation that was inflicted by Iraq due to the move of Iraq to deploy chemical weapons in the war between the two nations. In 1990, Iran endeavored to develop its nuclear power for the mining of uranium and its processing. Part of this energy was also scheduled for being utilized in the production of a large amount of water that was utilized in the production of plutonium. In the same year, Iran also began its secret mission of buying of uranium centrifuges made by A.Q Khan.

Testing of the centrifuges began in 2000. Even though this process was done secretly, in 2002, the fuel cycle of activities reached the public domain, thus prompting the intervention of France, Britain, IAEA, and Germany. Inspection on Iran conducted by these nations and IAEA revealed that Iran had brought to a halt its nuclear weapons program. Even with the heightened worry that Iran could develop nuclear weapons, the NPT pacts were not called into action to prevent Iran from pursuing such a dream in the future.

The presence of the US military in Iranian borders between 2003 and 2004 prompted reconsideration for the development of Iran’s nuclear capability. After the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the EU3’s agreements with the government of Iran to stop the exploration of nuclear weapons collapsed. Indeed, in 2009, Iran disclosed that it had a facility for uranium enrichment located at Fordow. To date, this facility is protected such that it is less prone to missile destruction. The IAEA immensely believes that the facility has been undergoing tremendous expansion and that the enrichment of uranium had already begun as from December 2011 (Corden and Hafemeister 43). Even at this stage, the NPT rules could not be enforced, despite Iran displaying serious threats of nuclear weapon proliferation.

Superpower nations have a noble responsibility to ensure that all nations adhere to the peace pact. Rather than using the NPT to prevent proliferation, the accusation of Iran over its thirst for nuclear proliferation only presents Iran’s mission to establish nuclear power as an attempt to threaten the lives of not only the nationalities of the west but also lives of all people across the globe, rather than preventing the weapon production.

Putin emphasizes, “Iran still does not possess the production capacity to reclaim the spent nuclear fuel and/or extract plutonium on the industrial scale” (65). The most intriguing issue in the attempt to come to a proactive understanding of the capability of Iran to create nuclear weapons rests on the doubt concerning the probability of creating mega infrastructures that enrich secret production of uranium and plutonium. Miller reveals how Iran plans to extract plutonium in surreptitiously built plants (42). However, it is also “doubtful that Iran could extract plutonium on an industrial scale in small, rapidly built, secret facilities” (Putin 67).

In any other case, the NPT could have been called into action to prevent the production process. However, instead of using the NPT to prevent proliferation, economic sanctions are imposed on nations that are suspected of doing the production. Iran is a good example of a case where economic sanctions have been used as a substitute to the NPT.

The current threats to global security amplify the doubts on the enforceability of the NPT. Although the NPT ensured that nations felt safer, the world has now changed in mega ways. Challenges have been witnessed such as nuclear black-markets, the rising terrorism, some nations defying the treaty with some nation, and others such as North Korea seeking acquittal from the pact to develop or test nuclear weapons (Corden and Hafemeister 44).

Enriched uranium coupled with plutonium is also becoming commonplace. Sakar reckons that terrorists can gain accessibility to the material via poorly secured routes, for instance, nations that formed the Soviet Union (942). This observation raises the question, ‘if the NPT was enforceable, why could it not be recalled to seal these loopholes in the exportation of fissile nuclear materials and technologies to groups that would cause havoc to international security?’

Enforceable treaties are well defined in a manner where the subject matter that forms the main tenet of the treaty is well understood by all individual member states. Lack of a concise definition of what entails ‘peaceful’ use of nuclear knowledge and capability creates loopholes for new nations to gain access to nuclear weapons. Nations can develop technologies that can bring them very close to the discovery of nuclear weapons without going against the pacts not to attract any penalty. However, this goal is only achievable based on their interpretation of the terms ‘peaceful use of nuclear knowledge and capabilities’. Therefore, lack of a precise definition of the terms of the treaty may limit the usability of the treaties in preventing proliferation.

New concerns have been raised about the commitment of the five recognized nuclear states to eliminating their nuclear weapon arsenal. Many countries now feel that such nations do not have a clear will and pledge to comply with their NPT commitments (Alvarez 23).

This situation has a bearing on other member states to stay committed to their promises under the NPT. This case may perhaps reveal why North Korea stepped out of the NPT commitment, later to announce having tested nuclear weapons. Perceptions of ill motives in the willingness of nations to hold on to the NPT raise the doubt on whether the NPT is enforceable. Nevertheless, if proliferation must be avoided to prevent the likelihood of a nuclear disaster occurrence, all nations that are unwilling to join the treaty need to be covered. The loopholes through which terrorists and other potentially dangerous sects can obtain fissile materials should also be covered. Therefore, the NPT should also apply to corporations and individuals within a nation for its enforceability to produce fruits. However, this claim is not currently the case.

President Bush recognized the reluctance in enforcing NPT by states that rectify it. Much of the efforts have been directed to acquiring signatures on the NPT. Little time has been set aside to ensure compliance with the pact. To this extent, Sakar asserts that the NPT has been faced with challenge of “absence of a collective political will to stop bad actors by force if necessary, which has undermined deterrence” (947).

In the case of the US, considering its economic and strategic orientations towards nations such as Pakistan, Iraq, and Israel, doubts arise on whether the proliferation is a primary concern for the nation. Why do superpower nations fail to put their strategic efforts in enforcing the NPT, considering that the pacts cannot be self-enforced? A response to this question reveals why the pacts are becoming so hard to enforce. Hence, they prove less important in the prevention of proliferation.

Sakar argues that countries may fail to support a particular nation’s quest to enforce the NPT in case of deviation from the pacts based on suspicion of illegitimacy (48). Enforcement of the NPT requires among many nations, which have forsworn their capacity to develop nuclear weaponry. This move can broaden while at the same time toughening the NPT rules. Such cooperation requires the depiction of tough and strict nonproliferation rules that benefit all nations while at the same time limiting and constraining all partners.

Superpower nations have to marshal legitimately their authority to encourage and motivate other nations to follow suit. For example, other nations can only emulate the US in showing willingness to the NPT enforcement if they know too well that the nation is legitimate in its quest to prevent proliferation. In case of detection of illegitimacy, other actors in the NPT will oppose, obstruct, and/or resist from cooperating with the US.


Non-proliferation treaties are proving weak to prevent nuclear weapon proliferation. Worldwide security and concerns about the emergence of global nuclear warfare demand the existence of a system for enhancing universal compliance with various rules and norms about the administration of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. A declaration of good motives or intention through signatures should not translate into mean the actual performance in good faith.

The universality of nonproliferation should ensure that even nations that have not heeded to the NPT should comply with tougher rules and regulations on the development and exportation or importation of sensitive nuclear technology. As evidenced by the case of North Korea, reversible nonproliferation pacts are not enforceable. Therefore, they are useless in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Consequently, it is necessary to tighten terms or eliminate the freedom to withdraw from the NPT once a nation ratifies. Withdrawal should be considered a bad motive that may indicate an intention to proliferate nuclear weapons.

For the NPT enforceability to hold, nuclear states should guarantee irreversibility of their commitment to NPT by verifying and demonstrating dismantlement of their nuclear arsenal reserves. Nations need to participate legitimately in the enforcement of foreign policies that aim at preventing nuclear weapon proliferation. Based on the accusation of illegitimacy, nations will never know when an alarm raised by a country such as the US is a sufficient indication of real incoming danger.

Inadequate cooperation, or lack of it, will continue to impede moves to enforce the NPT. Without cooperation among the ratifying member states, the NPT becomes unenforceable to the level that the treaty cannot help in preventing weapon proliferation. Attempts to enforce the NPT will be traded with accusations of ill motive towards a nation that can potentially produce nuclear weapons.

Works Cited

Adsera, Arthur, and Collins Boix. “Trade, Democracy and the Size of the Public Sector: The Political Underpinnings of Openness.” International Organization 56.2 (2002): 229–262. Print.

Alvarez, Robert. “The Nuclear Weapons Dismantlement Problem.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70.6(2014): 22-28. Print.

Corden, Pierce, and David Hafemeister. “Nuclear Proliferation and Testing: A tale of Two Treaties.” Physics Today 6.4(2014): 41-46. Print.

Kristensen, Hans, and Robert Norris. “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2013.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69.5(2013): 75-78. Print.

Miller, Stephen. The Feasibility of Clandestine Reprocessing of LWR Spent Fuel, Arlington, USA: Nonproliferation Policy Education Center booklet, 2004. Print.

Nau, Henry. Perspectives on International Relations: Power, Institutions, Ideas, New York, NY: Palgrave, 2008. Print.

Robert, Ross, and Feng Zhu. China’s Ascent: Power, Security, and the Future of International Politic, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008. Print.

Putin, Vladimir. “West Stereotypes of the Russian‐Iranian Cooperation in the Nuclear Field.” International Politics 3.6(2010): 53-74. Print.

Sakar, Jayita. “The Making of a Non-Aligned Nuclear Power: India’s Proliferation Drifts, 1964-1968.” International History Review 3.5(2015): 933-950. Print.

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