by Peter Jenkins
Someone asked me last week how President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the July 2015 nuclear deal with Iran would affect the nuclear non-proliferation regime centered on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
One way of approaching the question is to try to imagine what impression the president’s decision will have made on the bulk of NPT parties: the Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) who are members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
This large group (almost two-thirds of all NPT parties) will realize that President Trump had several motives for ditching the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), such as undoing an Obama achievement, pleasing Israel and Saudi Arabia, and creating an opportunity for himself to demonstrate his mastery of the art of the deal. But they will focus especially on the president’s oft-repeated ambition to “fix the flaws” that he perceives in the JCPOA.
Principal among those flaws, to judge from the president’s statements, is that fact that from 2031 Iran will be free to deploy more advanced centrifuges for enriching uranium than those it deployed between 2006 and 2013, to install as many of those advanced machines as it chooses, and to stock as much low-enriched uranium as it wishes. Cumulatively those freedoms could give Iran the ability to produce enough highly enriched (weapons-grade) uranium for a weapon within a very low number of weeks, were it to decide to “break out” of its nuclear non-proliferation commitments.
A newcomer to this field might suppose that NAM parties to the NPT would agree with the president that this prospect is alarming and that a fix is needed. In reality those states are more likely to reflect on what the president’s position implies for their sovereign right to make use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In essence, they will reason, the president is objecting a priori to a NAM member, Iran, exercising one of its sovereign rights, the enrichment of uranium in accordance with the NPT.
These states won’t like that, because they will think of it as a threat to their own sovereign rights. Most of them are very unlikely ever to see advantage in exercising their sovereign right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but they will see the point that the president has raised as one of principle. In their eyes, it will be the United States that has no right to decree that other states may not exercise such rights, especially as over the years the United States has displayed a tendency to try to lay down the law with a remarkable lack of consistency and impartiality.
This NAM view will be influenced by a weakness in the president’s position. He is assuming that Iran is intent on eventually acquiring nuclear weapons and that Iran will move to do so as soon as the current restrictions lapse on uranium enrichment, a technology that has potential for both civil and military use. Not only is this assumption currently unsupported by evidence, it runs counter to Iran’s multiple nuclear non-proliferation pledges, and to all the reasons there are to believe that only in the most exceptional circumstances might it ever be in Iran’s interest to try to become nuclear-armed. In other words, at this juncture there is no good reason for the international community, through the UN Security Council or in any other way, to deprive Iran of its sovereign rights in the nuclear field.
Related influences on NAM reactions to the claim that flaws must be fixed probably include the following:
- Well before 2031, the IAEA is due to report the outcome of its meticulous examination of Iran’s nuclear program. The access that the IAEA enjoys under the JCPOA and the “additional protocol” to Iran’s NPT safeguards agreement with the IAEA will enable it to assess with a high degree of confidence whether or not Iran has declared all of the nuclear activity and material on Iranian soil. That assessment ought to be a crucial determinant of whether the JCPOA needs to be extended or otherwise “fixed,” not unfounded and subjective assumptions about how Iran intends to behave after 2031.
- According to Iranian ministers and diplomats, Iran intends after 2031 that its nuclear fuel needs will determine the amount of low-enriched uranium (LEU) it produces. As a confidence-building measure, Iran will aim to avoid having significant quantities of LEU available for rapid processing to the level required for weapons.
- Signs indicate that the Trump administration intends to ignore the US commitment, under Article VI of the NPT, to move towards a nuclear weapon-free world. Moreover the US has attacked the July 2017 Nuclear Ban Treaty and has continued to shield Israel from pressure to negotiate a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. These failings do not endear the United States to the NAM.
- Iran may be open to other confidence-building measures as 2031 approaches: forming a joint venture with foreign firms to manage Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle needs, for example, and creating a mutual safeguarding agency with Turkey, on a model offered by Argentina and Brazil (in addition to IAEA safeguards).
All of this suggests that President Trump’s decision has not enhanced the NPT standing of the United States. The president’s readiness to withdraw from a valid agreement without good cause will have heightened distrust of the US commitment to a rules-based order. Fortunately, that is more likely to result in a decline in US influence at the next NPT Review Conference in 2020 than in defections from the NPT regime. It is to be regretted nonetheless.