The day after the Iran deal: some random thoughts on promoting a global nuclear discourse

by Maurizio Martellini,
Landau Network Fondazione Volta and Insubria Center on International Security, Como, Italy
The Comprehensive Nuclear Deal between Iran and the EU/E3+3 (i.e. France, Germany and the United Kingdom plus China, Russia and the United States, with the EU as facilitator) was finally reached in Vienna on 14 July, 2015. Since November 2013, when the temporary and partial agreement was approved by the same parties in Geneva, a flurry of papers and analyses on the consequences this deal would have on for the whole international nuclear non-proliferation regime have been produced. Without any doubt, this has been the most-analyzed nuclear agreement ever concluded.

But there were two publications in particular which, despite their brevity, struck me as being among the most comprehensive and thoughtful: the statement of Green Cross international, which appeared on their site on 14 July, and the statement by several members of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs a day later. These two statements have inspired this article.

On balance, it looks like the Iran deal will, indeed, strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the regime built around it. It will also reinforce the validity of diplomatic, political approaches to the weak spots that from time to time appear in this regime, of which the Iran case was certainly an important example. Finally, it will also support the case, which is being made by many, that solutions to difficult international situations should be pursued on the basis of principles of equality and reciprocity and through genuine negotiations involving give-and-take by all participating states – without exceptions or exemptions.

While welcoming this remarkable achievement, one cannot but notice that nuclear arms control – as a broader and essential component of global stability and security – is not in good shape. It has been constantly eroded, and the apex of this process has been the failure to achieve a final consensus during the last NPT Review Conference in May 2015. So there exists, in a way, a dichotomy between nuclear arms control, aimed at the disarmament and complete elimination of these weapons, and non-proliferation achievements, of which the nuclear deal with Iran is the most notable.

Here is an analysis of a few key issues in this discourse, following the adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA):

1. The role of nuclear non-proliferation, the global nuclear regime, and future trends. Since the end of the Cold War the nuclear regime has been subject to constant fragmentation, into a sort of “multiple silos approach”. Some examples include the use of multilateral instruments like the Global Partnership against WMD; the Nuclear Security Summits process; the bilateral dialogues among nuclear weapon states; the increasing role and relevance of the IAEA for the NSS agenda and as the “chief monitor” of the JCPOA; etc. True, the fundamental achievement of the New START Treaty between Russia and the US in 2010 opened the possibility of extending the process of nuclear reductions both vertically and horizontally, but those prospects have unfortunately been halted by the revival of Cold War thinking on the relevance of nuclear weapons in military budgets, political discourses, and the military doctrines of the P5. Even the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, successfully negotiated back in 1996, still cannot be brought into force – quite shamefully – almost 20 years on.

There is a need for a more comprehensive and integrated approach to arms control and disarmament, including a fresh examination of the role nuclear weapons play in national, regional and common global security. This has to be done with the involvement of scientific and civil society stakeholders, and include a profound analysis of a whole range of factors, including but not limited to nuclear weapons, which shape today’s security perceptions.

Another important milestone, not new in and of itself, is the increasing role of international civil society in nuclear disarmament – whose peak was the so-called “Humanitarian Initiative”. However, there is still a lot of reluctance and unwillingness to embrace it.

So a question arises: Could successfully solving an important post-cold war nuclear proliferation crisis provide some broader lessons to apply to the task of reviving nuclear disarmament? And which country would be best positioned to do so? Iran, perhaps?

Interestingly, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), currently represented by Iran through its General Secretariat, could launch a series of reflections, at least in a track II format, on the need to avoid nuclear proliferation and sustain the process towards a world without nuclear weapons. Iran in particular – a nation which was a target of massive chemical weapons attacks, and which is and will be subject to the strongest nuclear verification and monitoring system in recent history – could be a champion in the promotion of global nuclear disarmament.

2. Technological fixes are always an “addendum” to the political détente. Unfortunately, there is an excessive and growing belief that the future lies in technological solutions to potential nuclear proliferation – a growing faith in miraculous safeguard systems in preference over the, perhaps old fashioned, political dialogue among states to reduce nuclear dangers. Even the JCPOA has some imprints of this technology-based and technology-focused approach. Surely, the combination of two frameworks, engaged to achieve a positive conclusion to the long standing nuclear negotiations vis-à-vis Iran – namely the EU/E3+3 process (the political framework) and the so-called IAEA-Iran framework agreement (the technical side), has been a useful mechanism to move towards the achievement of the Comprehensive Nuclear Deal with Iran. But the nuclear problem is not only technical, as serious scholars know very well. It is an array of perceptions, realities and technical facts, such that trying to reduce it to a single component, i.e. the technical one, would not work towards a stable long-term solution.

In this context, it should be very important to restart the global nuclear dialogue, especially at the track II level, to deal with the various regional nuclear contexts, and not just in the Middle East. The point is that all regional contexts have, like the EU/E3+3 process, a political and a technical dimension. Even the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula through the (stalled since 2008) Six Party Talks (6PT) process, could have a creative diplomatic-technical solution in the forthcoming years if we learn how to adapt and apply the Iranian nuclear deal recipe to another geographical and strategic context (but, whoever wants to do that, please do not do it mechanically!). This does not amount at all to saying that the trends and/or the mechanisms to deter nuclear threshold states or nuclear armed states are universal, as they depend on the regional and historical conditions, but this does not exclude the possibility of applying innovative and creative nuclear diplomacy efforts, like the EU/E3+3 ones, in other regions of the world.

Now that the Comprehensive Nuclear Deal with Iran has become a reality, the European Union, through the European Commission or the Common Security Defense Policy – or, better yet, both – could think to set up a dedicated forum identify lessons learnt from the Iranian nuclear experience that might be applicable to a global context. In this framework, a consultative dialogue among track I and track II officials and experts could analyze the nuclear challenges and possible solutions for other regions of the world, beyond the Middle East; like the South Asian sub-continent or the Korean Peninsula. Participation in this informal dialogue and experience sharing from non-EU stakeholders and experts should be actively encouraged.

3. The Nuclear Weapons Free Zone concept. Many discussions and seminars have been dedicated to lessons and experience from existing Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (NWFZs) agreements – encompassing five Nuclear Weapons Free Zone regional treaties (plus the Antarctic one, based on a broader non-militarization concept) and an extended WMD free zone concept advocated for the Middle East.

The 2010 NPT Review Conference had mandated a Middle East WMDFZ Conference to be held in 2012, and its non-achievement has provided the main pretext (or reason, depending on how one looks at it) that led to the failure of the recent 2015 NPT Review Conference. But it’s a general opinion among scholars that the main cause of this 2015 NPT RevCon failure has been the inability of the P5 to identify a common roadmap for future nuclear disarmament efforts (even if it is worth remembering that the world’s nuclear weapons stockpile has been reduced by over two thirds since the end of the Cold War). Furthermore, the process towards a Middle East WMDFZ could be facilitated in the aftermath of a Comprehensive Nuclear Deal with Iran.

Another important element could be the establishment of a scientific Working Group to explore setting-up a Regional Monitoring and Verification Agency, complementary to the existing international treaty mechanisms, in order to establish a comprehensive and cohesive verification regime for a possible future Middle East WMDFZ. This last point may be seen as being in contradiction with the age-old and still correct rule which says: ‘first reach agreement on substantive disarmament measures, then, depending on the nature of those measures, design the verification regime’. But this rule has to be applied thoughtfully. While it makes no sense to finalize verification in the absence of substantive measures, nothing should prevent work from progressing in parallel on both tracks. After all, the seismological segment of the CTBT verification system had been under development in the Conference of Disarmament for years before real negotiations on the treaty started in 1994.

In the case of a Middle East WMDFZ, one should not forget that while the three categories of WMD (chemical, biological and nuclear) are intrinsically different, and thus in need of different mechanisms of monitoring and verification, the international community must explicitly recognize that all of them have a common denominator – namely the fact that they are genocidal weapons. They have highly doubtful utility in military battles (unless you measure success by degree of degradation of the living environment), and, in the nuclear case, the use of these weapons is very likely to result in total global annihilation. Last year was the centenary of the start of the First World War. Among the several analyses and historical publications which have emerged, one was of particular interest in this regard: it contained a recognition of the fact that the chemical weapons used during WWI did not produce any military achievements on the battlefields for the using side, except to cause mass casualties and untold suffering to survivors.

So the moral of this discourse is that the main driver to the NWFZs and the Middle East WMDFZ could be above all the ethical considerations – centered, for instance, on the consequences of using these weapons in regions of the world already affected by famines, draughts, public health deficiencies, overpopulation, etc.

4. Scientific diplomacy. Another lesson learnt from the Iran nuclear negotiations has been the benefit of the pro-active role played by knowledgeable scientists in recent months, especially of the two Chiefs of the US and Iran nuclear agencies – Dr. Ernest Moniz, the US Secretary of Energy, and Prof. Ali Akbar Salehi, Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization. This is not strange, since nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation diplomacy requires both international foreign relations expertise, and very sound and deep technological know-how. This requirement was very well understood since the early days of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. And indeed, during the Iranian nuclear negotiations, a lot of damage was done by certain think-tanks focusing only on geopolitical dimensions while having insufficient knowledge of real scientific facts concerning nuclear fuel cycle activities.

Thus, the pro-active involvement of the scientific community as part of the solution and not of the problem could advance many open nuclear files and negotiations.

5. Towards a nuclear arms race in the Middle East? There is too much hype, in many discourses, regarding security and strategic stability in the Middle East – especially between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries mainly represented by Saudi Arabia. In simple terms: these days we often read nonsense about Saudi Arabia going nuclear in the near future to counter-balance the fact that Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme has not been eliminated by the JCPOA. These speculations, on the one hand, ignore the fact that Saudi Arabia itself may be interested in a peaceful nuclear programme to reduce consumption of its oil for internal needs, for desalination of water and other requirements. On the other hand, one should not forget that several years are required to develop a nuclear programme capability, nuclear fuel cycle expertise and the cumulative knowledge necessary to achieve a threshold nuclear state condition. So it is quite difficult to imagine that a GCC country not currently possessing nuclear reactors and expertise could create any sort of “nuclear balance” with Iran. And if at some point in time Saudi Arabia does indeed develop a civilian nuclear programme similar to what is envisaged under JCPOA with Iran, there should be no reason to worry about that.

There could be, however, a more “subtle” and realistic scenario apparently not frequently envisaged in the literature: namely, the possibility of deploying strategic non-nuclear precision-guided weapons systems as an instrument of “strategic deterrence” of Iran. Due to absence of any Treaty or arrangement to limit these weapons, globally or regionally (and taking into account that restriction on missiles and missile technology transfers to Iran will continue for eight more years under JCPOA), a potential consequence of the Iranian Nuclear Deal could be an attempt by the GCCs to procure and deploy long range offensive non-nuclear weapons. These could be bought with annexed expertise. The world today is multi-polar, and this brings many challenges to nuclear deterrence due to advanced offensive technologies, cyber warfare, hybrid warfare and the re-emergence of sub-strategic nuclear-weapon battlefield doctrines.

Major private foundations should launch a think-tank or a project on the role of strategic non-nuclear weapons systems and non-conventional war-fighting capabilities on the strategic stability of nuclear deterrence and prevention of war in a polycentric post-Cold War security order.

Professor Maurizio Martellini is an expert in non-proliferation and disarmament issues. He has been closely involved with issues surrounding the Iranian nuclear programme since 2003 and has written extensively on this subject (as well as providing consultations on track II capabilities to EU – and some non-EU – states). He is Secretary General of the Landau Network-Fondazione Volta (LNFV) and Scientific Director of the Insubria Center on International Security (ICIS) at the State University of Insubria, both based in Como, Italy.