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Pyotr Kortunov

Program Assistant at the Russian International Affairs Council

Today, the generation and utilization of nuclear energy is no longer restricted to a small group of countries capable of financing the construction of expensive nuclear facilities. Even though nuclear power plants continue to be extremely costly to build, an increasing number of countries are entertaining plans to construct their own nuclear facilities thanks to technological progress, improved nuclear security guarantees and the objective need for new sources of energy. For example, the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation in Russia has been contracted to build nuclear reactors in a number of countries, including China, Egypt, Hungary, Iran, and Turkey. The list of countries thinking about developing their own nuclear programs continues to grow, especially among those nations that require sources of cheap clean energy. However, the specific nature of nuclear energy is such that its peaceful use poses a threat to non-proliferation.

The existing non-proliferation regime leaves too many opportunities for violations, while not providing for any significant response to the violating state. Seeing as it is difficult to apply appropriate measures against a potential intruder under the agreement, non-proliferation could be guaranteed with the help of preliminary measures aimed at setting up a “buffer” period during which the international community would take over economically and, if needed, enforce sanctions. At the same time, the JCPOA should also significantly expand the powers of the IAEA, giving the organization greater access to nuclear facilities and storages of radioactive material.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we were able to talk with some confidence about the obvious success of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, the foundations of which had been laid by the signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT). Back in the 1960s, the expert community was extremely critical of the regime that was being established, predicting that by the turn of the century, some 30 countries would possess nuclear weapons. Despite these pessimistic forecasts, at present, there are only four countries (apart from the officially recognized nuclear powers) that have the nuclear capability: India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. Now, however, it is difficult to be confident about the reliability of the non-proliferation regime, even though its system of guarantees has been brought up to date by the Additional Protocol.

Today, the generation and utilization of nuclear energy is no longer restricted to a small group of countries capable of financing the construction of expensive nuclear facilities. Even though nuclear power plants continue to be extremely costly to build, an increasing number of countries are entertaining plans to construct their own nuclear facilities thanks to technological progress, improved nuclear security guarantees and the objective need for new sources of energy. For example, the Rosatom State Atomic Energy Corporation in Russia has been contracted to build nuclear reactors in a number of countries, including China, Egypt, Hungary, Iran, and Turkey. The list of countries thinking about developing their own nuclear programs continues to grow, especially among those nations that require sources of cheap clean energy. However, the specific nature of nuclear energy is such that its peaceful use poses a threat to non-proliferation.

Reuters

The problem is that nuclear power generation involves uranium enrichment as one of the stages in the technological process. The danger here is that the same enriching equipment (centrifuges) used to manufacture nuclear fuel can be used to obtain weapons-grade uranium suitable for military use. The difference lies in the enrichment level: 0.7–5 percent is sufficient for loading uranium into most existing reactor models while obtaining a critical mass requires enriching uranium to approximately 90 percent. In fact, states do not need to enrich uranium on their own to provide fuel for their nuclear power plants (off-the-shelf nuclear fuel is available in large quantities on the international market), but many nations insist on maintaining their enrichment facilities as a measure to ensure their energy independence. The very presence of uranium enrichment centrifuges creates the danger of their being used to obtain weapons-grade uranium. The case of Iran indicates that the existing system of curbing nuclear weapons proliferation cannot fully guarantee the exclusively peaceful use of nuclear energy.

One way or another, the risk always remains that countries will actively attempt to create nuclear arsenals under the pretext of ensuring their energy independence. The more countries that turn to nuclear power as their preferred energy source, the higher the likelihood of new nuclear powers emerging. It is evident that the existing non-proliferation regime no longer meets the realities of the 21st century, and that it requires additional guarantees. It appears appropriate to adopt the restrictions stipulated by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to create a new non-proliferation regime.

What the JCPOA is about

The JCPOA was the result of years of negotiations between the international community and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. The plan provides for a broad range of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity, its primary purpose being to prevent the country from obtaining nuclear weapons. The JCPOA was never meant to be the final solution to the problem of Iranian nuclear weapons; instead, it is a temporary solution limited to a period of 15 years. This circumstance caused a wave of criticism on the part of the international community.

The JCPOA sets limits on two categories of radioactive substances that can be used in manufacturing nuclear weapons: uranium and plutonium. Uranium is the most common type of reactor fuel, and it is especially dangerous from the standpoint of its potential as a weapon. To ensure the use of nuclear energy exclusively for peaceful purposes, the JCPOA introduces both quantitative and qualitative restrictions on the use of uranium. For example, Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium to more than 3.67 percent, and its reserves of enriched uranium cannot exceed 300kg. To meet this requirement, Iran had to get rid of 98 percent of its accumulated enriched uranium stockpile and significantly restrict its enrichment activity. In addition, the JCPOA imposes a temporary ban on Iran using advanced centrifuges that are capable of quickly enriching significant amounts of uranium.

There are also certain safeguards about plutonium. This element is not often used as fuel for nuclear reactors, so restrictions on its stockpiling are much easier to justify. Nevertheless, controlling the use of plutonium is difficult due to the specific nature of its production. Unlike uranium, plutonium is not extracted but rather synthesized from spent fuel produced by nuclear reactors of a specific type. Heavy-water reactors have a particular capacity for plutonium production, and the JCPOA reflects this by imposing restrictions on Iran’s only heavy-water reactor – the Arak Heavy Water Reactor Facility.

The JCPOA is not intended as the final solution to the problem of the Iranian nuclear program. Its main objective is to temporarily prevent Iran from developing a nuclear capability by handicapping the country’s progress in that area. According to some experts, at the time of signing the JCPOA, Iran had sufficient motivation and resources to create an atomic bomb within three to six months. The terms of the agreement forced Iran to downscale its resources and technical capabilities to such an extent that, if the JCPOA were to be terminated today, the country would need around 12 months to build a nuclear weapon. Thus, the JCPOA does not provide any perpetual non-proliferation guarantees, but it does ensure a buffer period for international actors to apply diplomacy or force to cull the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Andrey Kortunov, Michel Duclos:
Helping Iran to Make the Right Choice

Criticism of the JCPOA

The urgency with which the JCPOA was adopted drew a spate of criticism over the guarantees offered by the new non-proliferation regime. One of the reasons for the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Iranian deal was Washington’s concern about Iran’s actions after the expiration of the NPT. As the United States views it, once the 15-year period stipulated by the JCPOA is up, Iran will be free to go on with its nuclear program without any restrictions, so the sanctions on Tehran can only be lifted on the condition that the JCPOA remains in force indefinitely. This development would certainly secure more guarantees of Iran’s peaceful intentions, and could make the United States reconsider its position as to the reliability of the regime being proposed, but the prospects for prolonging the JCPOA appear to be dubious.

The difficulty of prolonging the treaty indefinitely is primarily linked to Iran’s interests in the Middle East. Tehran is positioning itself as a regional power that is capable of exerting significant cultural and political influence on Middle Eastern countries in general, and on the region’s Shiite population in particular. Iran perceives the current temporary limitation imposed on its nuclear program as a compromise with the West – it is making nuclear concessions in exchange for concessions from the international community in the form of a partial lifting of the sanctions. In this sense, Iran is an equal party to the deal, and it limits its activities proportionately to the concessions offered by its counterparts. An indefinite JCPOA would go beyond that deal and into the category of “requirements,
which would strip Iran of its status as an equal party to the agreement. A situation is emerging in which Iran will have to voluntarily limit its sovereign right to the use of nuclear energy in exchange for an easing of the economic pressure. At the same time, other countries that have developed nuclear weapons by obviating the provisions of the NPT are not being subjected to similar pressure. In addition, prolonging the JCPOA deal indefinitely would put Iran at a disadvantage compared to its regional rivals. The restrictions imposed on the Iranian nuclear sector in no way affect Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and they do not provide Iran with any significant guarantees against the nuclear programs of those countries.

Iran unilaterally waiving its rights can hardly be viewed as the basis of an agreement on limiting its nuclear program. Nevertheless, the problem of Iran’s nuclear potential remains relevant. On the contrary, it is posing an increasing threat to the non-proliferation regime. The renewed U.S. economic pressure is endangering the JCPOA regime, even though all the other parties to the deal have expressed their firm intent to observe it even with the United States withdrawing from it. Should Iran decide that the renewal of the U.S. sanctions makes the self-imposed restrictions futile, its attempts to develop nuclear weapons may continue. This is the most dangerous scenario, and it was precisely to prevent it from happening that the JCPOA was introduced in the first place.

The sanctions pressure being exerted by the United States is increasingly affecting Iran’s economy, meaning that Tehran is even more likely to go back on the JCPOA and resume its nuclear program. In this case, the international community will face a difficult choice between increasing economic pressure, which could provoke the emergence of new nuclear power, and resorting to armed violence to destroy the Iranian nuclear program. Both scenarios are fraught with numerous risks and are highly undesirable for both Iran and the international community. Seeing as there is no acceptable alternative, the only option is to search for other possibilities to preserve the non-proliferation regime established by the JCPOA.

Making the JCPOA global

Preserving the Iranian deal is closely linked to modernizing the global non-proliferation regime. Taken together, these two issues may lead to the conclusion that their possible solutions would complement each other. On its own, the JCPOA creates an effective system for preventing non-nuclear powers from developing nuclear weapons. This is achieved through significantly limiting the level of uranium enrichment, restricting plutonium production, and giving IAEA experts sweeping rights in terms of monitoring and inspections. The main drawback of the Iranian deal is its limited scope. Iran might agree to it being in place indefinitely, but only on the condition that its provisions are scaled up to the global level to become a world standard for nuclear non-proliferation.

To begin with, replicating the Iranian deal globally would effectively stop Iran from being treated like a pariah state when it comes to the use of nuclear energy. The restrictions on the use of radioactive substances and the IAEA’s extensive rights to carry out inspections at nuclear facilities as provided for by the agreement would become a new norm, adopted by a number of developed states, rather than an instrument specifically aimed at containing Tehran’s nuclear program. Second, if the requirements become global, Iran will get much more substantial guarantees concerning the nuclear programs of its rivals in the Middle East. Applying similar restrictions to Iran’s regional opponents would provide equal guarantees of nuclear energy being used exclusively for peace in the Middle East.

Thus, adopting JCPOA globally could resolve several issues at once. First, indefinite restrictions would be imposed on Iran’s nuclear program (as well as on the other signatories of the planned agreement), thus eliminating fears of Tehran relaunching its uranium enrichment program. Second, promoting the new rules to the international level would update the obsolete global nuclear non-proliferation regime, making it more suited to the realities of the 21st century.

It would certainly be naive to expect the entire global community would voluntarily adopt such a system of deterrence. However, this does not mean that steps should not be taken in this direction. Promoting the JCPOA to the global level should occur gradually and with support of the nuclear states and the world’s leading economies of the world. It should also take the importance and practicability of the JCPOA’s conditions at the global level into account.

The current JCPOA regime, which is geared specifically towards the Iranian nuclear program, may well represent a very reliable system of checks and balances, but it still cannot be brought up to the global level in its original format. Imbuing it with a universal character would require identifying the priority restrictions, with due attention paid to the specific requirements of potential new players in the non-proliferation regime.

The process of establishing such restrictions at the global level will present a serious challenge to the diplomatic capabilities of those countries that are most interested in maintaining the nuclear non-proliferation system (even though, to some extent, the existing regime is essential for all countries). We may assume that this task is a priority for nuclear states seeking to preserve their monopoly on nuclear weapons, thereby minimizing the risk of their use for military purposes. This calls for the process to be led by recognized nuclear powers, namely Russia, the United States, China, France and the United Kingdom (and also by the European Union as an influential political association). If these countries accept the conditions for limiting Iranian uranium enrichment, this could help achieve several goals at once. First, such major and reputable countries could help to establish a kind of “standard” for other nations. Second, such a strategy does not contradict the political vector of the movement of the nuclear powers (they all declare, in one way or another, their desire to reduce their nuclear arsenals). Third (which is particularly important), the recognized nuclear states are permanent members of the UN Security Council. If the Security Council approves a new non-proliferation regime, the issue will be brought to a qualitatively new level of consideration. As practice shows, the recognition of the need for certain actions at such a high level contributes to the creation of a consensus on such issues.

The success of the strategy is directly dependent on the readiness of the members of the Security Council to move to a new stage of the non-proliferation regime. Of particular concern are Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea as states that have acquired a nuclear arsenal despite the non-proliferation regime, as well as non-signatories of the NPT. It is difficult to expect that the international community will be able to convince them to abandon nuclear weapons shortly, and it will be challenging to achieve any restrictions in this area. In this regard, it would seem that the operation of the agreement should not be made dependent on the fact of its signing by these states. Unfortunately, the presence of nuclear weapons among these powers should be viewed as a fait accompli, the reversal of which will require an individual approach. The main goal of the new non-proliferation regime should be to prevent the emergence of new “nuclear” states, and not to correct the mistakes of the past.

The Middle East as a factor in the new non-proliferation regime

Special attention should also be paid to ensuring that the non-proliferation regime covers the maximum number of countries in the Middle East. As a country with colossal military and economic opportunities, and one that has historically played a prominent role in the fate of the region, claims a dominant position among the Middle Eastern countries. In this regard, an agreement that binds Iran’s competitors in the region to accept similar restrictions would be a critical condition for reaching a mutual understanding of the project. As some of Iran’s most fierce opponents in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey should become key signatories to such an agreement, especially because both states have ambitious nuclear plans. It would only be logical to expand this list to include Israel, which, despite the constant denials that it possesses a nuclear arsenal and the numerous reports to this effect, is known to have had nuclear weapons for several decades now.

Nevertheless, it would be difficult to expect an agreement on disarmament with a state that already possesses nuclear weapons (as is the case with Pakistan, India and North Korea). The importance of paying special attention to the non-proliferation regime in the Middle East is also linked to the region’s specific challenges. The Middle East is more at risk of large-scale military conflicts and terrorist activities than any other region in the world. In this sense, this region needs extra guarantees to prevent the prevention of nuclear weapons.

Besides, this kind of list of restrictions may eventually become the foundation for turning the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone. Such proposals have long been discussed by the international community, but a consensus has never been reached. The specific characteristics of such areas lie in the fact that they do not just ban the production of nuclear weapons, but also their deployment and delivery platforms. Iran’s ballistic missile program is one of the main reasons for the U.S. criticism of the JCPOA’s limitations since the development of such carriers often precedes or accompanies the creation of a nuclear charge. The prospect that the proposed non-proliferation regime will serve as the foundation for the complete liberation of the Middle East from nuclear weapons may contribute to the United States revising its position on the future of the system of guarantees of the JCPOA.

The importance of reaching an agreement on the establishment of new guarantees before the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference is particularly noteworthy. The withdrawal of the United States from the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) system and the temporary suspension of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) between the United States and Russia have jeopardized both the success of the 2020 Review Conference, and the nuclear non-proliferation regime as a whole. In 2015, the NPT suffered significant damage since no visible progress had been made at the conference on improving the non-proliferation regime. The main sticking point was the negotiations on the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East. The conference ended with the adoption of only some procedural documents, and no real progress was achieved in the field of denuclearization. The unwillingness of the international community (especially the nuclear powers) to take steps towards nuclear disarmament and the creation of additional safeguards in the field of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons are a serious threats to the NPT.

The lack of any significant progress towards improving the NPT can be compensated by the adoption, by the international community (or at least part of it), of the limitations set out in JCPOA as global responsibilities in the framework of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. At the same time, successful worldwide promotion of the provisions of the JCPOA would be an important step towards the continuation of negotiations on turning the Middle East into a zone free of nuclear weapons.

A special role in reaching a compromise on the new non-proliferation regime should be assigned to Russia. Over the past several years of its diplomatic and military presence in the Middle East, Russia has been able to establish friendly relations with all the major players in the region, despite the fact that Moscow frequently neglects the interests of some of them. Russia is perceived as a relatively neutral player in the region, one that seeks to maneuver between the interests of the regional states while not giving an obvious preference to any of them. This situation is perfect for playing the role of a mediator between the states of the Middle East, without which reaching a compromising on the issue of non-proliferation in the region would be an almost impossible task.

New non-proliferation regime

It is difficult to talk about accepting the conditions of the JCPOA in full because any non-proliferation regime is a direct attempt on the sovereign rights of the state, which can only be removed by absolute necessity. In this regard, it appears that restrictions should concern only the priority areas of nuclear activity during the early stages of the adoption of a new regime.

The most important (and at the same time fairly achievable) area of limitation would be uranium enrichment. This is because uranium is the most common component of a nuclear charge. At the same time, uranium enrichment is much easier to explain away than plutonium production. Regular operation of a reactor does not require a given country to maintain an expensive enrichment infrastructure since uranium is available in large volumes on the international market. What is more, establishing worldwide limits on enrichment levels should not damage the operation of nuclear reactors, since low-enriched uranium is quite suitable for use as a fuel. It should be enough to put a cap on the enrichment limits for uranium at 5 percent, and this would guarantee that the substance cannot be used in weapons, without interfering with the operation of nuclear power plants. It thus appears that the first stage in the formation of a new non-proliferation regime should be the adoption of uniform standards as applied to permissible uranium enrichment.

The JCPOA also sets limits on the amount of enriched uranium that Iran can store at any given time. While these restrictions could strengthen the reliability of the non-proliferation regime, they can hardly outweigh the diplomatic efforts that could make this restriction universal. The only reason this condition was introduced with regard to Iran was that Tehran had already been accused of trying to obtain nuclear weapons. Iran keeps small stockpiles of uranium to offset the creation of a nuclear charge under the international deal. For most countries, the presumption of such a desire does not exist, and the establishment of the maximum amount of a stored substance would unduly limit the sovereign rights of the signatory states. Also, the establishment of such restrictions would require a separate study of the nuclear industry of each state and the development of individual restrictions for each party to the agreement. It appears that, at least in the first stages of the introduction of the new non-proliferation regime, the measures for limiting storage volumes should be applied exclusively to Iran. At the same time, as Iran meets its obligations, quantitative restrictions should be gradually lifted. After having successfully limited the degree of uranium enrichment and created the foundation for a new regime, negotiations can then begin on the introduction of quantitative restrictions. An alternative option would be to consider transferring Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium to independent international institutions (such as the IAEA Low Enriched Uranium Bank).

Certain difficulties may also arise with regard to limitations on plutonium production. As noted above, plutonium can be used both for the manufacture of a nuclear charge and as nuclear fuel. At the same time, unlike the uranium enrichment process, the production of plutonium is much more difficult to track since it is directly related to the normal operation of a nuclear reactor. Moreover, while plutonium may not be among the most popular nuclear fuels, it is still used in a broad range of different reactor types. Russia and some other countries are unlikely to be prepared to limit their domestic production and use of plutonium, as this would severely limit their fleet of nuclear reactors.

Despite the danger of plutonium as a substance with large nuclear potential, the wisest thing to do would be to not extend the Iranian restrictions to the international community. First, the specifics of plutonium production mean that IAEA experts can, given the proper monitoring framework, distinguish between it being manufactured for peaceful or military purposes. Second, it would not be a good idea to overload the signatory states with excessive restrictions as the new non-proliferation regime is just settling in. Such pressure may force the potential parties to the convention to refrain from signing it. In the future, after the proposed system is implemented on a wider scale, plutonium restrictions (both qualitative and quantitative) can be resolved in the course of further negotiations.

Ensuring that states comply with the limitations of the non-proliferation regime will be granted by the broad rights of the IAEA to monitor the nuclear activities of the signatories. The JCPOA pays special attention to the IAEA’s supervisory powers, obliging Iran to provide experts with virtually unlimited access to its nuclear facilities, as well as creating conditions for 24-hour remote monitoring of the implementation of its JCPOA obligations. Granting the IAEA broad rights to monitor the nuclear industry of the signatory states should be a prerequisite for the creation of a new non-proliferation regime.

* * *

Promoting the JCPOA globally could immediately solve two tasks facing the international community: preserving the restrictions on Iran, which would prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons; and generally renewing the global non-proliferation regime, which is not fully capable of responding to modern nuclear threats. The existing non-proliferation regime leaves too many opportunities for violations, while not providing for any significant response to the violating state. Seeing as it is difficult to apply appropriate measures against a potential intruder under the agreement, non-proliferation could be guaranteed with the help of preliminary measures aimed at setting up a “buffer” period during which the international community would take over economically and, if needed, enforce sanctions. At the same time, the JCPOA should also significantly expand the powers of the IAEA, giving the organization greater access to nuclear facilities and storages of radioactive material.

Naturally, the implementation of such a large-scale project will be a long and laborious process. The position of the United States as one of the key parties in shaping the new non-proliferation regime has caused a number of doubts. Despite the fact that the urgent nature of the JCPOA has become one of the main causes for concern on the part of the United States, criticism of the plan is not limited to this. In particular, as follows from the 12 demands voiced by Mike Pompeo, the United States believes that the list of conditions for lifting the economic sanctions against Iran should also include the withdrawal of Iranian troops from Syria, restrictions of Iran’s ballistic missile program, the termination of its support for what the United States sees as terrorist organizations, etc. All this suggests that the United States has a unique vision of the problem, implying a more global consideration of the Iranian topic, without any specific reference to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. For the United States, partially lifting the sanctions on Iran in exchange for restrictions on the latter’s nuclear program would mean a total disregard for the threat Iran poses to the United States’ allies in the region.

Despite Washington’s desire to consider the Iranian issue as a cluster of various threats, it is unlikely that all the existing problems can be resolved at the same time. The current threats Iran presents in the region pale in comparison to the risk of Tehran laying its hands on weapons of mass destruction, which, in addition to threatening the countries in the region, would have a significant potential to destroy the already fragile non-proliferation regime. The main objective for preserving the security in the region, and in the world as a whole, should be to search for ways to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. As time passes and the parties involved refuse to continue to search for a compromise solution, the possibility of a peaceful resolution narrows. The proposed non-proliferation regime may not eliminate all the threats associated with Iran, but it would prevent Tehran from creating a nuclear weapon. This is what the international community should view as its highest priority.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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