The Obama administration recently concluded a two-day Nuclear Security Summit, which saw world leaders endorse the U.S.-led initiative to secure all nuclear weapons from terrorists’ grasp in the next four years. The Summit, which followed the renewal of the bilateral START Treaty by the United States and Russia and preceded the May Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, helped keep global attention focused on the nuclear agenda.

While these developments signal progress towards recognizable global standards on nuclear issues, skepticism remains as to their ability to affect national policy. Leading experts from the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program—Shahram Chubin, Pierre Goldschmidt, and Mark Hibbs—discussed the global nuclear agenda in light of recent developments and international politics. Jamie Shea, Head of the Policy Planning Unit at NATO Headquarters, moderated the discussion.

Dealing with Iran

The purpose of United Nations Security Council and IAEA resolutions, Goldschmidt explained, is to ensure Iranian cooperation with the IAEA and provide assurances to the international community as to the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. However, some serious obstacles stand in the way of the full implementation of these resolutions:

  • Enrichment: The International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament has suggested that the international community allow Iran to continue enriching uranium below 5%, under strict and intrusive IAEA safeguards. This would ignore repeated calls from the IAEA Board of Governors, as well as legally binding UN Secretary Council resolutions, both of which require Iran to suspend all enrichment related, and other sensitive nuclear activities.
  • Lack of Cooperation: Iran has consistently ignored both United Nations Security Council and IAEA resolutions. To provide the necessary assurances as to the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, Iran would have to fully implement measures along the lines of the Temporary Complementary Protocol, a measure previously suggested by Goldschmidt, which goes beyond the provision of the Additional Protocol.

To prevent the Iranian nuclear crisis from escalating, Goldschmidt continued, it is important for there to be clearly defined ‘red-lines’ and for the consequences of crossing these boundaries to be made plain to the Iranians. Goldschmidt highlighted a potentially effective way of achieving this:

  • A New Security Council Resolution: The Security Council could adopt a resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, deciding that if Iran were to withdraw from the NPT, refuse to fully cooperate with the IAEA, or be found to be proceeding with further nuclear weaponization activity, then a number of strong and well defined sanctions would automatically be implemented without requiring a further UN Security Council resolution.

There are also other, less coercive measures that could play a key role in obtaining Iran’s full cooperation. If against all expectations, Iran adopts a cooperative attitude, Goldschmidt explained that Security Council members have promised a wide range of benefits, including:

  • The normalization of diplomatic relations.
  • The provision of nuclear power technology and other technical assistance.
  • The abolition of trade and investment barriers.

A Lost Cause

Chubin commented that Iran may well be a lost cause and that the international community may have to start preparing to live with a nuclear capable Iran. He outlined four reasons for the international community’s failure to control the development of Iran’s nuclear program:

  • Iranian Determination: The Iranian regime has grown more determined to pursue its nuclear agenda because it has less to fall back on in terms of legitimacy, Chubin said. The regime can no longer claim to represent the Iranian people, so the nuclear issue has increasingly become one of domestic legitimation.
  • Failure of the international community: The Security Council has failed to take action against violations of the NPT, or its safeguards. A major reason for this failure is that Russia and China have preferred the strategic leverage of an anti-western Iran over non-proliferation.
  • The Iraqi precedent: It is immensely difficult to garner public support for an enforcement action at the moment, given the precedent set by the invasion of Iraq. The manipulation or failure of intelligence with regard to weapons of mass destruction, as well as the imposition of sanctions that were harmful to the Iraqi people but not the leadership itself, have all translated into a public reluctance to take action against Iran.
  • Potential international action: There is a great deal of ambiguity regarding the steps that the international community, and particularly the West, could adopt if Iran were deemed to have gone too far with its nuclear program, and indeed what would constitute ‘going too far’.

At this stage, Chubin explained, it is unlikely that Iran will reverse its nuclear program. With this in mind, he outlined measures the international community can adopt to mitigate the consequences of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon, without necessarily accepting it:

  • De-emphasizing: This is a measure that the U.S. government is currently trying to implement by de-emphasizing the utility of nuclear weapons and reducing its arsenal.
  • Diluting the consequences: The international community should not exaggerate the value and importance of nuclear weapons, or the consequences of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Doing so will only convince the Iranian regime that they possess something of strategic value. In particular, the international community should not encourage Israel’s exaggerated belief that a nuclear Iran would somehow be an existential threat to Israel.
  • Red lines: The international community has been consistently drawing red lines and then retreating from them. Rather than do this, which seriously undermines the credibility of deterrents, the notion of red lines should be dropped all together.

Nuclear Security

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and other developing country states who will be attending the NPT Review Conference in May will make it difficult for the P5 and the western group to pursue the Iranian issue in the review conference, Mark Hibbs explained. The non-aligned countries are likely to support Iranian claims that its rights to uranium enrichment are guaranteed under Article 4 of the NPT, which outlines rights to nuclear cooperation, trade and development.

In general, the NAM sees concerns over nuclear security as a ploy to inhibit their peaceful nuclear activities, and has already objected to efforts by the Obama administration and others to tackle this issue at the Nuclear Security Summit. At the summit, there was intense political opposition to any binding commitments. Hibbs argued that, given the concerns of the NAM, an optimistic result to the NPT Review Conference would be:

  • An endorsement of UN Security Council resolution 1540, which calls on all countries to implement the necessary measures to prevent all non-state actors from obtaining Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) weapons, related materials, and their means of delivery.
  • An endorsement of an amended Physical Protection Convention. The original convention provides a framework for cooperation among states in the protection, recovery, and return of stolen nuclear material, as well as for the protection of nuclear material during international transport.
  • An endorsement of the International Convention on Suppression of the Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, a UN treaty designed to criminalize acts of nuclear terrorism.

The polarization of the issue of nuclear security by the NAM, stemming from the debate on safeguard verifications in Iran, Hibbs continued, has had important consequences:

  • National interest: An opportunity was lost by the advocates of nuclear security to explain and demonstrate to the NAM and other developing countries that a stronger nuclear security regime is in their national interest.
  • Source accidents: The absence of strong, robust, nuclear security practices in the NAM and developing state countries has left a track-record of source accidents (accidents where a radioactive source is lost stolen or abandoned) due to the improper confinement of radiological material.
  • 21st Century threats: The NAM currently stands in the way of efforts by the IAEA and other states to set up an international nuclear fuel bank, and it may also not actively cooperate with other states facing a different suite of threats, coming mainly from terrorists and non-state actors.