The most important impact of the July 14 Iran nuclear deal may be how it affects the overall pace and extent of nuclear-weapons proliferation. Supporters of the deal expect it to confirm the value of sanctions and diplomacy in limiting the spread of dangerous nuclear materials and technologies. Opponents fear that the accord’s defects will encourage other countries to pursue nuclear weapons and further weaken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, the main global treaty against the further militarization of nuclear technologies.
Under the terms of the deal, Iran will reduce by two-thirds its capacity to enrich uranium, export almost its entire stockpile of low-enriched uranium, convert its Fordow enrichment plant into a research center, reconfigure its plutonium reactor at Arak and accept extensive international monitoring of its nuclear facilities. In return, foreign countries will end their nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran, release its frozen financial assets, confirm Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and eventually repeal the UN arms embargo and limits on its ballistic missile program.
The agreement to freeze Iran’s nuclear-weapons program for a limited period might offer opportunities to strengthen the NPT, dispel assumptions of near-term nuclear disarmament and generate a fresh attempt to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The NPT already suffered a serious blow earlier this year when, at its most recent review conference, which ran from April 27 to May 22, the 190 member governments failed to reach a consensus on the final document. Although the conference did not deal directly with the Iranian nuclear issue, one of the main reasons for the deadlock was the inability to agree on a planned conference to make the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction.
Another adverse factor preventing consensus at this year’s review conference was the decreased cooperation among Russia, China and the United States on nuclear weapons issues. Russia and China declined to support the US effort to ensure that the Middle East WMD conference had conditions that Israel, a reluctant participant, found acceptable.
Relations between the governments of Russia and China with that of the United States have clearly deteriorated over the past two years. These differences are primarily related to US resistance to Russian and Chinese regional security ambitions in Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific region, respectively, rather than nuclear issues. Shielding their trilateral nuclear cooperation from collateral damage resulting from their other differences has proven difficult.
The NPT mandates nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. To support disarmament as they eventually eliminate their own nuclear arsenals, Russia, China and the United States have agreed to rely less on nuclear weapons in the foreign and defense policies. For example, they have pledged in their military doctrines not to use nuclear strikes against other states not having nuclear weapons except in extreme circumstances.
However, while China continues to claim it will never employ nuclear weapons first and the Obama administration has been building missile defenses and strengthening US conventional forces to reduce the need for nuclear-weapons use, Russian military and political officials have over the past year repeatedly asserted their capacity and willingness to use nuclear weapons, even against states that do not have them, such as NATO members hosting US missile interceptors. Russia has also jeopardized existing arms-control agreements by violating them. More recently, Russia ignored its 1994 pledge to respect Ukrainian sovereignty in return for Kiev’s renunciation of the nuclear weapons Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union.
In addition, the Russian and Chinese governments have been developing and deploying new nuclear-weapons delivery systems. Indeed, while Moscow and Washington have been slowing the cut back in their number of nuclear warheads in line with their bilateral arms-control requirements, China is the only legally recognized nuclear-weapons state whose nuclear arsenal is growing in terms of numbers, diversity and capabilities. Beijing pursues a policy of nuclear opaqueness that includes refusing to offer even general statements about how many nuclear warheads and delivery system the country possesses. Beijing has also refrained from joining in nuclear-arms control, citing the country’s unenforceable no-first-use doctrine.
Fortunately, despite their differences, Russia, China and the United States have stood firm in demanding that Iran forego nuclear weapons. This solidarity played no small part in compelling Tehran, which has repeatedly if unsuccessfully sought to exploit differences among the great powers, to reach this week’s nuclear-weapons deal.
However unwelcome, any practical harm from the deadlocked NPT conference could be outweighed by progress in preventing Iran and also North Korea from developing nuclear arsenals. The leading forum for these nonproliferation talks is not the bulky NPT. The great powers have established two separate and more flexible mechanisms for multilateral negotiations: the P5+1 talks for Iran and the Six-Party Talks for North Korea. The first includes Germany and the second includes Japan, both countries that have renounced nuclear weapons.
Tehran and Pyongyang represent the immediate state drivers for nuclear proliferation today. If the world can foil their nuclear-weapons aspirations, no other country beyond the existing nuclear-weapons states will likely soon have the intent and capability to acquire nuclear weapons.
Supporters of the Iran deal hope that it will lead North Korea to end its nuclear-weapons program. However, the success of the recent Iran deal is uncertain and depends on continued cooperation among Russia, China and the United States on nuclear-proliferation issues.
Despite their many differences, these three countries could pursue additional practical measures and strategies to improve their nonproliferation cooperation among themselves and with other NPT members:
First, they must implement the Iranian nuclear agreement in a mutually reinforcing manner to prevent Tehran from exploiting their differences. In particular, Russia, China and the United States must cooperate in how they enforce the accord to prevent Iranian cheating. Equally important, they must coordinate how they relax sanctions on Iran to avoid rewarding Tehran too much or too soon and thereby reduce its incentive to comply with the deal.
Regarding the NPT, Russia, China and the United States need to sustain comprehensive discussions among their officials and nongovernmental experts regarding the causes for the deadlocked 2015 review conference and how to overcome them. Although on average only half the NPT review conferences achieve a consensus on their final communique, the disagreements at this year’s conference reflected a disturbing gap in the perspectives and preferences among those states possessing nuclear weapons and those countries without them. Many of the former suggest that the barriers against nuclear proliferation are too weak, while many of the latter consider the rewards for abstention – general security assurance and civil nuclear cooperation – too small.
To address this gap, Russia, China and the United States must cooperate more effectively in countering the unrealistic demands from other NPT states. For example, many non-nuclear-weapons states profess to support a nuclear-weapons convention that would completely prohibit the production, possession and use of nuclear weapons. But achieving universal nuclear disarmament anytime soon would require fundamental world order changes and improbable conditions – an end to regional conflicts, exquisite verification techniques and many other unprecedented developments.
More pragmatically, Russia, China and the United States need to consider how they could draw lessons from the Iran deal to more effectively address a North Korean government that obstinately refrains from renouncing its nuclear weapons, but has, at least during the last two years, restrained from testing another nuclear device.
Although Pyongyang’s relations with Washington remain frozen and its ties with Beijing are terrible, the North Korean leadership has shown interest in developing ties with Russia. Exploiting this perhaps fleeting opportunity, US policymakers need to consider how they might follow their Iran playbook and cooperate with Moscow as well as Beijing in pushing for North Korean nuclear disarmament.
Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia and East Asia as well as US foreign, defense and homeland-security policies.