The Iran nuclear deal agreed on 14 July is helpful to disarmament and to non-proliferation in twelve ways.
1. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) shows the value of diplomacy. Three years ago, there was growing concern that Iran’s increasing nuclear capabilities would put it at the brink of quickly being able produce nuclear weapons. Some called Iran a ‘de facto’ weapons state. There was also real concern that military action would be initiated to forestall Iran getting too close to a bomb. Now, as a result of successful diplomacy, both an Iranian nuclear weapon and war to prevent it are off the table for the next 15 or more years if the deal holds.
2. The various tools of the non-proliferation regime worked as intended, demonstrating their utility. Inspections, resolutions, incentives and disincentives all played an important role, employed to good effect by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN Security Council and the E3/EU+3 (Britain, France and Germany, plus China, Russia and the United States) group that negotiated with Iran. The mechanics of international institutions can often be cumbersome and inefficient; in producing the JCPOA, multilateral diplomacy had one of its finest hours.
3. The outcome strengthened verification tools. With Iran now ready to implement and later to ratify the Additional Protocol, which is already in force in 126 countries, this instrument has become ever more the global safeguards norm. In Iran, the IAEA will be able to employ the most modern safeguards techniques, also making them the norm. In fact, verification under the JCPOA will go beyond the Additional Protocol, to allow for monitoring of centrifuge production and storage, the procurement chain, and all uranium ore concentrate. These ‘Additional Protocol-plus’ measures could become a useful precedent in other cases, including for moves toward disarmament. If nuclear-armed states ever are to relax their guard to allow the world to become nuclear weapons-free, deeply intrusive verification measures will be necessary to provide assurances that potential adversaries are not cheating. The Iran deal will show how the most intrusive verification measures ever negotiated work in practice.
4. The deal further strengthened the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by fortifying the pillar of peaceful nuclear use. It did so in an artful way, not explicitly recognising a right to uranium enrichment, but doing so implicitly. The NPT is similarly vague; it does not explicitly include enrichment as among the nuclear technologies to which states have an ‘inalienable right’, but a textual reading of the treaty implies that this is the case. Iran’s willingness in autumn 2013 not to demand an explicit right to enrichment was an early compromise that set negotiators on the path to success. Iran now has the right to decide on its own whether it really needs the industrial-scale enrichment capacity it is allowed after 15 years. Given Russia’s promise to provide enriched uranium fuel for the lifetime of all reactors it sells Iran, the rational economic answer will be that Iran does not need to fully implement this right.
5. Iran’s agreement to sharply reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) could set a useful example for how fissile-material stockpiles might be dealt with in a future Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). As was mentioned at the informal CD session, Iran’s LEU stockpile was produced under safeguards and inspectors have uncontested knowledge of its size. Dealing with hitherto undeclared larger stockpiles of weapons-fissile material would be far more challenging, of course. There is an important lesson in the Iran case though that countries can agree verifiably to reduce enriched-uranium holdings without loss to their security, sovereignty or self-respect.
6. Prospects for an FMCT were also advanced by Iran’s commitment not to enrich uranium over 3.67% for 15 years, nor to acquire separated plutonium or neptunium for the same period. Iran’s stated intention not to reprocess spent fuel after the 15-year period suggests that this moratorium could be formalised through future negotiations.
7. The Iran deal should also contribute to implementation of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Iran is one of the eight remaining countries whose ratification is necessary for CTBT entry into force. Until very recently, Iran has faced no pressure over the CTBT, since all of the efforts of countries of concern were on limiting and increasing transparency of its nuclear programme. In late June, Lassina Zerbo, Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, began publicly to call on Iran to ratify the treaty in order to demonstrate its non-nuclear bone fides. He believes Iran is now likely to be the first of the eight remaining hold-outs to come aboard.
8. The JCPOA contributed to the goal of a zone in the Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. The agreement showed how verification and enforcement provisions of such a zone might be structured. In addition, by removing for 15 years or more any prospect of Iran acquiring an ability to quickly produce nuclear weapons, the agreement made it marginally more possible for Israel to accept limits on its nuclear programme.
9. The deal reduced any incentive for other states in the region to seek sensitive nuclear technologies. In the absence of a deal that reversed Iran’s march toward de facto nuclear-weapons status, Saudi Arabia and possibly other states would have had a motivation to seek similar capabilities. Some Saudi luminaries have said that the kingdom should in any case now enjoy the same technologies that Iran is allowed to have, but there is little likelihood of this coming to pass in the foreseeable future. There is little basis for an indigenous enrichment programme and no country will legitimately provide this technology. All 48 members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group are enjoined from doing so by the NSG guidelines, which India has also pledged to follow. Pakistan has stated it will not help Saudi Arabia acquire nuclear weapons, and its refusal to join the intervention in Yemen shows that Islamabad and Rawalpindi are under no obligation to Riyadh. This leaves North Korea as the only state-actor option for enrichment technology. Pyongyang, too, should offer a pledge of no onward proliferation.
10. The JCPOA was stronger than the NPT. Going beyond its commitment under the NPT, Iran agreed not to engage in several kinds of activities that could contribute to the development of nuclear weapons, including computer models to simulate nuclear explosive devices and design of multi-point explosive detonation systems.
11. The negotiation process provided a rare point of nuclear-related consensus and common action among the major powers. Given the growing divergence between Russia and the West over so many other fields, including nuclear security, the cohesion of the E3/EU+3 was extraordinary. A similar shared sense of purpose among the major powers will be necessary for steps toward disarmament. It was also important that the powers negotiating with Iran were not just the five NPT-recognised nuclear-armed states. Germany’s role in the negotiations and that of the EU as an independent player in its own regard showed that nuclear-weapons status is not a requirement for inclusion in serious nuclear talks. The role of the EU and the other six powers and Iran will continue with added responsibilities via the Joint Commission that will be established to oversee the agreement.
12. Finally, the Iran nuclear deal is a game-changer in many regards. Among other things, it showed the willingness of states to overcome animosities. Throughout my professional career, which started the year of the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the most disliked state for almost all of my countrymen and women. There is a lesson to be learned here for North Korea, which justifies its nuclear weapons programme on grounds of American ‘hostility’. To the extent that there is any such sense of hostility toward North Korea, it is far greater toward Iran. Yet the United States was willing to negotiate with Iran on an equal footing, showing respect for rights and sovereignty. If North Korea were willing to accept similar limits and transparency, it could enjoy similar benefits.
A rising tide lifts all boats. Diplomats everywhere dealing with multilateral nuclear diplomacy, many of whom have been toiling for years without much to show for it, should be invigorated by the success of the Iran nuclear talks.
Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme.