Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in force since 1970:
Five states are permitted by the NPT to own nuclear weapons: the United States (signed 1968), United Kingdom (1968), France (1992), Soviet Union (1968; obligations and rights assumed by Russia), and the People's Republic of China (1992). These were the only states possessing such weapons at that time, and are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. These 5 Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) agree not to transfer nuclear weapons technology to other states, and the non-NWS state parties agree not to seek to develop nuclear weapons.
The 5 NWS parties have made undertakings not to use their nuclear weapons against a non-NWS party except in response to a nuclear attack, or a conventional attack in alliance with a Nuclear Weapons State. However, these undertakings have not been incorporated formally into the treaty, and the exact details have varied over time. The United States, for instance, has indicated that it may use nuclear weapons in an unprovoked attack on "rogue states".
The United States has also provided nuclear weapons to five additional NATO countries, a practice argued to be illegal under the treaty by many other states.
India, Pakistan, and Israel declined to sign the treaty, arguing that:
[T]he NPT creates a club of "nuclear haves" and a larger group of "nuclear have-nots" by restricting the legal possession of nuclear weapons to those states that tested them before 1967, but the treaty never explains on what ethical grounds such a distinction is valid.
North Korea and Iran, originally signatories to the treaty, appear to have come around to the non-signatories' thinking. North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and in 2005 announced it possessed nuclear weapons. Iran is still a signatory to the treaty but wants to manage its own nuclear power program without interference from what it perceives as a hostile West. Iran's proximity to Israel -- a non-signatory nuclear power that Iran perceives as a potential threat -- contributes to Iran's desire to be able to defend itself in like kind if need be.
"The Israelis were the first who introduced nuclear weapons in the Middle East and they have huge weapon of mass destruction which is very dangerous and [the] U.S.A. does not talk about that," said one Iranian interviewed by FOX News.
But the U.S. government said the two situations can not be compared.
"There is no comparison between the policies of the government of Israel and the policies of the government of Iran," said Nicholas Burns, undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department. "Israel is a democratic, law-abiding state, a country that time and again has indicated its interest in general peace in the Middle East. Iran is an outlaw state."
Mr. Burns' description of Israel overlooks that country's pre-emptive military strikes and other excessses in the region; and his characterization of Iran sounds like propaganda for another attempt at regime change in the Middle East. Thankfully, the American people are awakening to the executive branch's tendency to label regimes as enemies, demonize them, and drag us into armed hostilities against them preemptively.
Tens of thousands of American troops still based in South Korea more than fifty years after the Korean War continue to aggravate North Korea's security concerns. It's time for our troops to come home and to bring China into negotiations, not just to deal with North Korea's nuclear capability but also to provide for lasting peace on the entire peninsula.
Further pressure on Iran not to join the nuclear weapons club, without successful pressure on Israel to give up its nukes, is unlikely to succeed and unlikely to promote peace in the Middle East.
The cat is too far out of the bag for the "haves" to deny nuclear technology for the rest of history to nations whose resources and self-defense concerns lead them to want to join the nuclear club. We must find other ways to achieve peace between all peoples, such as more disarmament -- as urged by most countries party to the treaty -- and by settling -- through concerted multinational influence -- the territorial conflicts that still linger as results of a century of war.
"India must not allow itself to be dragooned into joining the Washington-led nuclear lynch mob against Iran," The Hindu, one of India's most influential newspapers, cautioned Thursday. "Aside from the lack of any legal basis for threatening Iran with sanctions, India should consider what the U.S. pressure on Tehran will do to international oil prices as well as to the overall security scenario in West Asia."
UPDATE: It's the Regime, Stupid
We need to reorient our strategy. Our justifiable fixation on preventing Iran from getting the bomb has somehow kept us from pursuing a more fundamental and more essential goal: political change in Iran. We need to start supporting liberal and democratic change for an Iranian population that we know seeks both.
UPDATE: Cato Institute: Dubious Assumptions about Iran
UPDATE: How to Regulate Nuclear Weapons
If undertaken without formal Congressional declaration, it would be unconstitutional and merit the impeachment of the president.