On July 14, 2015, Iran, the European Union, and the P5+1 states—Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States plus Germany—agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), crowning a diplomatic process that had stretched over twelve years. The JCPOA is intended to resolve one of the most serious international security problems of the past two decades. Both the form and the content of the current document remain complicated. This article reviews the background and political aspects of the Iranian nuclear problem from a Russian perspective, analyzes the technical and military-political dimensions of the JCPOA, and evaluates the likely impact of the agreement and key implementation challenges. 

Alexey Arbatov
Alexey Arbatov is the head of the Center for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
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Of particular value for Western readers is the analysis of Russia’s conflicting interests regarding the implications of the nuclear deal with Iran and the rationale that lay behind Moscow’s ultimate choice to support the conclusion of the JCPOA. Those motives are all the more important because they provided a workable framework for U.S.-Russian cooperation on this singular problem even amid an atmosphere of increasingly tough confrontation and competition in Europe and beyond in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis. Another point of interest is the insights into the substance and motives of the Russian position on the applicability of the Iranian deal as a precedent for other possible proliferation cases and global nonproliferation regimes in general. 

In addition to analyzing Moscow’s experience with the negotiations on the JCPOA, the article provides an assessment of various loopholes in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As indispensable as this treaty is, its terms were formulated almost half a century ago for a very different world. The scale of economic, technological, and political changes since this era is readily apparent. These loopholes should be closed via concerted diplomatic efforts by responsible states without revising the NPT’s basic articles. 

The Iranian Nuclear Program and the Sanctions Regime

Vladimir Sazhin

Vladimir Sazhin
Vladimir Sazhin is a professor and senior fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences

The UN Security Council adopted six resolutions on the Iranian nuclear program between 2006 and 2010. Four of these resolutions imposed international sanctions against Iranian companies and private individuals suspected of violating the NPT.1  Moscow supported these steps. However, the resolutions did not have a tangible impact on the Iranian economy; rather, they mostly affected Tehran’s international reputation.

But in 2010, the European Union, the United States, and a number of other actors escalated their unilateral economic sanctions against Iran. Sanctions on oil exports, bank services, and sea cargo transportation and insurance dealt the hardest blow to the Iranian economy. From January 2012 to March 2013, Iran’s oil output declined from 3.8 million to 2.7 million barrels per day, while oil exports fell from 2.4 million to almost 1.0 million barrels per day, bottoming out at 700,000 barrels per day in 2013. Because of the sanctions, Iran’s loss of revenue from oil sales averaged $35–$50 billion annually. Some estimates reached as high as $70 billion.2 According to a January 2015 report from the World Bank, oil revenues comprise some 80 percent of Iran’s total export revenues, and 50–60 percent of total state revenues.3  At the time, the World Bank predicted that Iran’s oil export revenues would sag to $23 billion in 2015, a significant decrease from the 2011–2012 peak of $120 billion.

Iran’s exclusion from the international system for interbank payments (SWIFT) was especially painful. According to 2012 estimates from the International Monetary Fund, the sanctions that year caused the Iranian economy to grow at only 0.4 percent; the rial-to-dollar exchange rate decreased by 40 percent in one week that year. By March 2013, Iran’s inflation had increased to between 30 and 41 percent, according to various estimates, while over 6,000 manufacturing enterprises—approximately 67 percent of Iran’s total—were nearly bankrupt.

The World Bank believed that continued sanctions in the absence of the agreement on the nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1 states would stop the country’s economic growth dead in its tracks and foster a deep economic crisis. In light of this prediction, then U.S. under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence David Cohen stated in 2013 that Iran would not be able to restore its national economy if the sanctions continued. For his part, U.S. President Barack Obama threatened to impose additional sanctions if Iran failed to agree to an acceptable resolution.4

The economic situation in Iran escalated social tensions, created demands from below and among the elite for change, and had a significant impact on the June 2013 presidential election. By that time, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei almost certainly realized that socioeconomic tensions in the country might jeopardize the entire political regime. Therefore, he made the lifting of sanctions the cornerstone of his country’s national policy. In 2013, he refrained from exercising his vast powers on Iran’s elections, allowing the relatively liberal Hassan Rouhani to win the presidency. Aside from his liberal credentials, Rouhani, who led the Iranian negotiations with the West in the early 2000s, was well known due to the depth of his knowledge on nuclear issues. 

Iran made its first concession shortly thereafter, on November 24, 2013, when it consented to an interim agreement with the P5+1 in Geneva.5 According to the arrangement, entitled the Joint Plan of Action, Iran promised to refrain from enriching uranium above the 5 percent level, liquidate its stockpiles of 20-percent-enriched uranium, halt the construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor, stop deploying new uranium enrichment centrifuges, and allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors greater access to its nuclear sites.

In return, the P5+1 group agreed to unfreeze $4.2 billion in Iranian assets and soften the sanctions regime on Tehran. The group allowed Iran to increase its oil outputs and exports, which quickly generated $30–$50 billion in revenue. Iran was also permitted to acquire parts for civilian aircraft and sell its petrochemical products.

As the Geneva agreement stipulated, the parties pledged to reach a comprehensive final accord by July 20, 2014. The deal was supposed to guarantee the peaceful use of Iran’s nuclear energy in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions. However, the negotiations dragged on until July 2015. While the negotiations lasted, Iran received approximately $700 million a month from its frozen assets. Nonetheless, a number of extremely complicated political, economic, and technical problems delayed a final resolution.

Formidable forces in both Iran and the United States opposed the agreement. During the negotiations, Iranian and U.S. diplomats found themselves between the hammer and the anvil—they had to make concessions at the negotiation table and present them as diplomatic victories to the domestic opposition at home.

Tehran was clearly interested in resolving the nuclear issue in order to remove sanctions and ensure regime survival. As for Washington, in addition to strengthening the nonproliferation regime, the Obama administration wanted to improve relations with Tehran, especially in the wake of Iranian interventions in the Iraq and Syria conflicts, as well as the surprise victories by forces from the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Another U.S. motive was its desire to avoid getting sucked into another war in the Middle East—for example, if Israel launched air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities in the event that negotiations failed. 

The European Union as a whole, especially France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, also wanted to lift the sanctions for economic reasons. Iran’s oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, stated that certain Western oil giants were waiting for the sanctions to be lifted so they could return to Iran.6 This interest certainly entailed considerable logistical, economic, and institutional challenges, but it was generally in line with the European Union’s goal to avoid another war in the region and diversify its energy dependence on supplies from Russia.7 As the world’s largest hydrocarbon importer, China was also quite interested in the resolution of the Iranian nuclear problem.8 Thus, Beijing’s economic interests were in line with the prevailing political position that favored strengthening the nonproliferation regime. Russia’s position was more controversial.

These preconditions set the foundation for all parties to reach an agreement, which was codified on July 14, 2015, as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear program.9 

Assessing the evidence, it is reasonable to assert that the economic sanctions were the most important factor for this success in reaching the final agreement. Intensive multilateral diplomacy and the relative unity of the leading powers in their efforts to bring the negotiations to a close despite the serious crisis in Ukraine also played a crucial role.

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

Alexey Arbatov

The implementation of the JCPOA began ninety days after its adoption by all parties. In its most general form, the agreement has five main parts.

Restricting Iran’s Uranium Enrichment

First, the main cluster of restrictions applies to Iran’s gas-centrifuge uranium enrichment potential. From a technological standpoint, the enrichment of uranium is the shortest route for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. The centrifuge cascades are capable of enriching natural uranium in the form of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) to the low-enriched-uranium level to fuel power plants (3–4 percent of the uranium-235 isotope) or to highly enriched uranium (HEU), the weapons-grade level (over 90 percent of uranium-235). When the JCPOA was concluded, Iran had about 19,000 centrifuges at its Natanz and Fordow sites, as well as approximately 10 tons of low-enriched uranium (LEU) that had been produced there. Experts concluded that this enrichment capability and LEU stockpile would allow Iran to produce around 25 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium, sufficient for a single nuclear weapon, within two to three months after the respective political decision was made.10

Most importantly, the 2015 agreement directs Iran to reduce its Natanz enrichment capacities to a maximum level of 6,104 first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, of which no more than 5,060 can enrich uranium during the first ten years. The rest of the centrifuges will be removed and stored under constant IAEA control (including 1,000 modernized IR-2 centrifuges). Iran will continue scientific research and testing in the area of uranium enrichment for eight years without accumulating enriched uranium. Other isotope separation uranium enrichment technology—for instance, the laser isotope separation method—will not be developed for ten years. After that time, Iran will gradually phase out the IR-1 centrifuges, replacing them with the new generation of this technology.

For the next fifteen years, Natanz will be Iran’s only uranium enrichment site; Iran is prohibited from constructing other enrichment facilities or enriching uranium over 3.67 percent. Its low-enriched uranium stockpiles should not exceed 300 kilograms. This provision was hotly debated because, due to the physics of the matter, accumulating a large stockpile of LEU is a long and expensive process, while turning it into HEU through further enrichment is much faster and cheaper. Excessive quantities of low-enriched uranium (over 9 tons) will be diluted to the natural uranium level or exported to another state—for instance, Russia11—in exchange for natural uranium that will be imported by Iran.

Another critical set of restrictions on uranium enrichment has to do with the Fordow deep underground facility. This was clearly a military nuclear site because it was supposed to survive conventional bombing raids and continue producing weapons-grade uranium even in conditions of war. It would be senseless to protect it if it had been a peaceful facility, since the remainder of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was totally vulnerable to conventional attack. It is noteworthy that, at Fordow, enrichment to 20 percent was conducted, which is a major step toward making weapons-grade uranium. According to the JCPOA, Fordow cannot be used for uranium enrichment or for nuclear material storage for fifteen years. The site is to be transformed into an international physical and technological research center. It will retain 1,044 out of its 2,700 IR-1 centrifuges, some of which will be reoriented toward stable isotope production (as part of Russian-Iranian cooperation). The rest will be removed to separate storage sites and kept in non-working condition.

On the whole, the implementation of these measures will significantly reduce Iran’s capabilities to create nuclear weapons. The predominant estimates among nuclear experts indicate that after the agreement is fully implemented, it would take Tehran twelve to fourteen months—instead of two to three months—to produce the quantities of weapons-grade uranium sufficient for a nuclear weapon.12

Blocking Plutonium Production

The second key part of the JCPOA deals with the other possible route to nuclear weapons, accumulating weapons-grade plutonium. This material is produced by uranium transmutation during the reactor’s operation and then separated from spent nuclear fuel. While Iran lacks separation technology, the construction of an IR-40 heavy-water reactor at Arak would enable the production of plutonium from the spent fuel waste. If the Iranians constructed a reprocessing facility, plutonium could be harvested from the reactor fuel waste and used for military purposes. (Despite Iranian assurances to the contrary, the initial design of this reactor was not suitable for medical isotope production.)

According to the new agreement, Iran must restructure the Arak heavy-water reactor so that it would utilize 3.67-percent-enriched uranium instead of natural uranium. This restructuring would produce a smaller quantity of plutonium. The restructured reactor would yield 1 kilogram of plutonium per year instead of the previously planned 10 kilograms. The reactor will be used for peaceful research as well as medical and industrial radioisotope production.

Spent nuclear fuel from Arak and all other future and current research reactors will be shipped outside Iran as long as the reactors are in use. For the next fifteen years, Iran will not construct any additional heavy-water reactors or accumulate heavy water. Also, Iran promises not to reprocess spent nuclear fuel during the same time period, and will refrain from building reprocessing facilities, except as it relates to medical and industrial isotope production.

All of these conditions effectively block the plutonium route to a nuclear bomb for the specified time period, provided that they are fully complied with.

Iran also committed not to develop an explosive nuclear device, which includes uranium or plutonium metallurgy projects. To make a nuclear weapon, the uranium gas produced in the centrifuges or the plutonium separated from spent nuclear fuel must first be converted into metallic form. In November 2011, the IAEA accused Iran of having conducted research in this sphere prior to 2003.

Trust, but Verify

The third extremely important facet of the JCPOA relates to the regime of monitoring and verification of Iran’s compliance with its obligations, which can truly be regarded as a diplomatic breakthrough.

Primarily, it was agreed that Iran will temporarily comply with the IAEA Additional Protocol (AP-97) to the IAEA Safeguards Agreement. The creation of this document in 1997 was a crucial step toward strengthening the NPT. The protocol allows the IAEA to check whether a state has any undeclared—that is, secret—nuclear installations and capacities, rather than whether the declared ones correspond to the actual ones, as the earlier safeguards criterion specified. Iran signed the protocol in 2003 but failed to ratify it as the international tensions around its nuclear program mounted. According to the JCPOA, Iran promised to ratify it at some future time.

It is also important that Iran agreed to comply with the modified Code 3.1 in the IAEA’s Subsidiary Arrangement to the Safeguards Agreement. This code requires that the states inform the IAEA about all future nuclear activities immediately after their respective plans are adopted, instead of one hundred eighty days before the nuclear materials are brought to the sites, as the past code specified. Iran refused to honor this condition before the July 2015 agreement, claiming that it did not have a legal obligation to do so. This position served as a cover for building secret nuclear facilities like Fordow, something that takes many years. If it was caught red-handed, Iran could declare that it planned to inform the IAEA at a later time (half a year prior to activating the facility by introducing nuclear material for enrichment, UF6).

The Path Forward

The fourth substantial element of the JCPOA has to do with Iran’s obligation to fully implement the “Road-Map for the Clarification of Past and Present Outstanding Issues Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program,” a move agreed to with the IAEA. These issues are related to suspicions that Iran may have conducted the type of military research activities associated with a nuclear weapon program. Iran claimed its nuclear program had always been an entirely peaceful civilian energy endeavor, which caused disagreements with the IAEA. The six UN Security Council resolutions on Iran adopted between 2006 and 2010 called for the settlement of these contentious issues surrounding the possible military dimensions of the nuclear program. The JCPOA stipulates that Iran and the IAEA must agree on joint clarification of all outstanding issues, which then must be officially evaluated by the IAEA’s director general and submitted to the agency’s board of directors.

On the whole, Iran agreed to an unprecedented level and duration of monitoring and verification of its entire nuclear program, which included the twenty-five-year-long monitoring of uranium ore concentrate production at all Iranian production facilities, the twenty-year-long storage supervision of the main centrifuge components, the real-time use of cutting-edge IAEA technologies and electronic seals, and the creation of mechanisms for resolving possible IAEA concerns about its access to nuclear sites within the next fifteen years.

The Joint Commission

Finally, the fifth major part of the JCPOA details the P5+1’s obligations toward Iran. Pursuant to the UN Security Council resolution, upon the approval of the new agreement, all previous Security Council resolutions on the Iranian nuclear question—1696 (adopted in 2006), 1737 (2007), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), 1835 (2008), 1929 (2010), and 2224 (2015)—are to be rescinded.

After the JCPOA is implemented, the United States and the European Union must lift all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions against Iran, including sanctions against individuals and corporate entities. The implementation of the agreement will be monitored simultaneously. The P5+1 group must also allow Iran to rejoin the global economy by permitting access to the trade, technology, finance, and energy sectors, including export loans to facilitate trade and investments in the country.

The Joint Commission is designed to resolve possible contradictions in the implementation of the JCPOA and consists of representatives of the European Union and of the seven countries party to the agreement. A formal dispute resolution process is codified in the agreement: If the Joint Commission cannot come to a satisfactory resolution within fifteen days after a claim is submitted, the claim is forwarded to the foreign minister level for further resolution for another fifteen days. If a resolution is still not reached, the aggrieved party may appeal to the UN Security Council or stop complying with the agreement altogether. In this case, the sanctions will be automatically re-imposed in thirty days unless the Security Council decides otherwise. (Permanent members of the Security Council may veto such a decision.)

The Joint Commission is entitled to control Iran’s technology, nuclear, and dual-purpose material imports, which is intended to block clandestine violations of the agreement and ensure transparency of Iran’s international cooperation in this sphere. This move was an unprecedented condition for a nuclear deal. There are a number of states and private companies in the world that are eager to export nuclear technologies and materials, but if Iran is caught importing prohibited equipment this will be considered a violation of the whole agreement, with all the implications that carries. 

Two more issues were resolved besides the framework of the agreement: Iran’s arms imports and the Iranian missile technology program. Iran will be allowed to selectively import conventional arms and military equipment for five years, but the imports will have to be approved by the UN Security Council. The council extended the embargo on the sale of missile technologies to Iran for eight more years. However, Iran will be able to further develop its missile technology independently—which was illustrated soon after the conclusion of the deal by high-profile Iranian missile tests that provoked angry reactions in Washington and other Western capitals. Both regimes may be removed earlier if the IAEA presents expanded conclusions on the absence of undeclared technology and activities in Iran.

The JCPOA and Its Implications for Nuclear Nonproliferation 

Alexey Arbatov

The JCPOA was a significant breakthrough after more than a decade of diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem. Furthermore, under certain conditions, the JCPOA may end up strengthening the NPT and the entire nonproliferation regime. But this positive impact will only be possible if all the parties comply with the agreement and resolve any potential conflicts that will inevitably arise during the implementation process.

The JCPOA has implications both narrow and broad: the former concern the Iranian nuclear program itself, while the latter have to do with regional and global nuclear nonproliferation issues.

The Effect on Iranian Nuclear Capacity 

In the narrow sense, the agreement substantially limits, reduces, and curtails Iran’s nuclear complex, its development program, and the quantity and quality of nuclear materials. Likewise, the agreement prohibits activities that have potential military use. The agreement institutes unprecedented transparency and IAEA control systems that extend well beyond the agency’s traditional practices. Thus, regardless of Iran’s actual intentions, the country is essentially deprived of the capacity to secretly produce nuclear weapons over the next ten to fifteen years. In this sense, the JCPOA significantly expands the NPT limitations, since the treaty does not prohibit or limit member states’ enrichment and reprocessing capacities or activities, nor the accumulation of any quantity of nuclear materials of any enrichment level—provided that the IAEA is informed and able to monitor such programs.

At the same time, the agreement represents a diplomatic compromise. There is little doubt the Iranian position was influenced by the sanctions-induced economic crisis. This dire situation helped usher into power a new Iranian president and political leadership, who campaigned on resolving the nuclear crisis to lift sanctions. Additionally, the international situation has drastically changed since the interim agreement of 2013: the coalition that negotiated with Iran split at the start of the Ukraine crisis. Soon after the interim agreement, relations between Russia and the United States and the EU were torpedoed by economic sanctions, restrictions on nearly all avenues of cooperation, and military exercises directed against each other. Taken together, these developments propelled Russia and the West into a period of political confrontation unseen in the past few decades.

Nonetheless, despite this crisis, Russia and the West preserved one important channel of cooperation: negotiations with Iran. The United States and its allies accepted maximum limitations on the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. China also had no conflicts of interest.

The Russian approach, however, was far more complicated. A peaceful resolution would reduce Tehran’s political dependence on Moscow. A wave of Iranian petroleum projects on the global market could hurt Russia’s raw material exports and further reduce oil prices, dealing a double blow to the Russian economy. (After all, oil and gas exports accounted for nearly 70 percent of Russian exports in 2013 and 50 percent of federal budget revenues.) Indeed, this is precisely what happened: world oil prices plummeted in 2015–2016, with the expectation of increased Iranian oil exports helping drive prices downward. 

Yet Moscow was swayed by other motives: it wanted to play a role in the critical multilateral negotiations, prevent a new war in the Persian Gulf, and expand its cooperation with Iran, including the exports of arms and military equipment. Although the United States played the main role in the final stage of dialogue with Iran, Russia contributed to resolving a number of issues, such as restructuring the Fordow enrichment plant, removing excessive quantities of low-enriched uranium, aiding in transparency details, and adopting the Security Council Resolution 2231 that endorsed the JCPOA, among other aspects.13 Military advances by the Islamic State became another political factor. Iran found itself on the same side as the West as well as Russia in the struggle against Islamic extremism. Tehran understandably saw this situation as conducive to its negotiation objectives, which aimed at weakening limitations on both its nuclear program and IAEA control to the largest extent possible. 

Several of the conditions set forth in the November 2013 interim Joint Plan of Action are unlikely to be implemented anytime soon. For example, Iran is supposed to conclude an agreement with the P5+1 and the IAEA on the future parameters of its peaceful uranium enrichment program. But in light of Iran’s current and anticipated demand for nuclear fuel, there is no clear economic rationale for a domestic fuel enrichment program. The needs of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant will be met by a foreign supplier—Russia—while the Tehran research reactor can be supplied with 5-to-20-percent-enriched uranium through outside market-price purchases.

The agreement allows Iran to preserve 5,060 working centrifuges at Natanz, out of a total of 19,000, for the next ten years, but this was a purely diplomatic move that bridged the gap between the parties’ initial negotiating positions. In reality, this number of centrifuges is insufficient for supplying the nuclear power plant, even if Iran relied on its own fuel production. However, given the necessary quantities of low-enriched uranium and the time required for turning it into weapons-grade material, these centrifuges would be sufficient to produce an atomic bomb. Thus, Iran was allowed to keep the technological potential that may later be used for expanding and modernizing its enrichment capacities.

One more aspect concerns the Fordow site: under the agreement, Iran will keep the hardened underground plant, will be able to use its centrifuges for experiments and training but not for enrichment after ten years, and will be able to resume enrichment to any level after fifteen years.14

Iran will temporarily comply with the 1997 IAEA Additional Protocol, which means that the scope of inspections will depend on Tehran’s goodwill. Moreover, the time frame for the ratification of the Additional Protocol remains uncertain. It is also still unclear whether IAEA inspectors will be allowed access to the sites that do not relate to nuclear infrastructure but can nonetheless be used for the production of nuclear weapons. The inspectors were recently allowed access to a site at Parchin, for example, where conventional explosive devices for nuclear charges had allegedly been tested. They discovered that the site had been substantially altered recently, most likely to conceal its past purposes. The process of resolving such conflicts by the Joint Commission and the UN Security Council is rather lengthy. Moreover, there is no certainty whatsoever about the direction of the Iranian nuclear program following the expiration of the terms of the deal in ten to fifteen years’ time. It is quite possible that the program will be resumed on an even larger scale than in 2015. Such a scenario would presumably precipitate a new crisis in the Persian Gulf. This possibility should be considered by the P5+1 and prepared for well in advance. 

Nevertheless, these flaws in the JCPOA do not negate its overall positive net impact. The realistic alternative to the agreement was not an even better document but, rather, the failure of diplomatic negotiations. The remaining issues should be treated as possible triggers of future disputes and the subject of additional agreements on implementation of the JCPOA.

Yet caution is necessary when evaluating the agreement in the broader regional and global context. The very fact that diplomacy succeeded in producing an agreement strengthened the nonproliferation regime; a new war in the Persian Gulf would have had unpredictable and dire consequences, while Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would have dealt the NPT a fatal blow.

At the same time, because Iran can retain its enrichment program, this may serve as a precedent for other countries, including some in the region. They now have grounds for creating their own nuclear reactors and sensitive nodes of the nuclear fuel cycle, independent of economic or programmatic nuclear energy requirements. This was a key argument against the agreement from opposition voices in the United States, as well as from the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.15

If the JCPOA model is used to set a precedent, it may be possible to avoid the proliferation of sensitive nuclear technology around the world. But then another contentious issue arises, pertaining to how universal the limitations and the transparency regime set forth in the agreement actually are.

Russia, for one, takes the position that the JCPOA model applies exclusively to Iran and not to any other states. Russia insisted that this condition be included in the agreement and IAEA documents. High-ranking Russian officials who have commented on the agreement have identified their country’s interests as preventing a new war in the Persian Gulf and expanding cooperation with Iran; they did not mention strengthening the NPT at all.16 This attitude is not surprising—even the new edition of the Russian Military Doctrine puts nuclear proliferation in sixth place on the external threats’ priority list.17 Besides having initiated an international uranium enrichment facility and fuel bank in the Siberian city of Angarsk—which allegedly should have brought in certain revenue—Moscow opposes adding more restrictions and control measures to the NPT,18 such as the concept of state-level safeguards and using information from state parties’ intelligence agencies to alert the IAEA of possible NPT violations and to provide the agency with grounds to demand additional inspections. Moscow also seeks to increase its civilian nuclear exports to the greatest extent possible.19

This is generally in line with Russia’s present overall negative stance on all nuclear issues, including follow-on negotiations to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the enhancement of NPT norms and regimes, and fortifying nuclear materials’ safety and security. There is a strong perception in Moscow of the indispensable importance of Russia’s military and civilian nuclear energy for its global status, defense, economic development, and foreign trade. Lagging behind the United States in advanced strategic defensive and offensive conventional systems—and being the subject of Western economic and political sanctions—Russia treats nuclear arms, nuclear deterrence, and arms control as its major remaining bargaining chips in relation to other great powers and alliances. Thus, a cooperative stance on the Iranian problem was a unique exception to Moscow’s current foreign policy overall. (The Russian military intervention in Syria that began in October 2015 was justified as an attempt to forge a joint front with the West against terrorism, but it created more controversies than cooperation.) This wholesale position will be very hard to change without a major turnaround in U.S.-Russian relations. 

China’s position is less clear-cut, but it is probably somewhere between that of Russia and the West, as is the case on many issues. Chinese officials have stressed Beijing’s role in helping to reach the agreement and expressed cautious hope that it would contribute to solving the North Korean nuclear problem.20

The United States and its allies will probably try to apply parts of the agreement to other countries that develop nuclear energy and science. The agreement’s regional and global influence on nuclear nonproliferation will depend on how successfully its principles and norms will be used elsewhere.

Of course, NPT articles are not subject to revision. At the same time, coming to mutual understandings and interpretations of the agreement’s provisions would strengthen both the JCPOA and the entire regime. This is relevant given the projected growth of nuclear energy use across the globe—capacities for which are set to increase by 45 percent by 203521—as well as the spread of nuclear technologies and materials to unstable Middle Eastern, Asian, and African regions.22

To enhance the NPT norms and institutions, the great powers and key non-nuclear states should speak in unison. Many key NPT terms formulated about half a century ago require clarification, starting with the term “nuclear weapons.” Without a proper understanding of this term, there can be no understanding of what the phrases “not to transfer” and “not to . . . acquire,” as they pertain to nuclear weapons, mean (in Articles I and II).23 The meaning of “cessation of the nuclear arms race” is not clear, let alone “nuclear disarmament” (in Article VI). Nor is it obvious how “nuclear-weapon states” (in Article IX) should be determined when dealing with potential NPT violators; that is, is such relation defined by an actual test, or merely through information about secret weapons production? Besides, the treaty provides no details on withdrawal procedures and does not specify which “extraordinary events” would justify a withdrawal (in Article X). Most importantly, the NPT does not clearly differentiate between peaceful and military use of nuclear energy, especially as it relates to fuel-cycle technologies and materials.24

The principle that all is permitted unless explicitly prohibited should not apply to the NPT—the cases of Iran, North Korea, and a number of other problematic countries bear out such an assertion. The treaty was created almost fifty years ago under a very different world order, economic situation, and state of technology. Its limitations require serious adjustment to the current conditions: while the major articles should remain intact, the treaty should be enhanced with additional norms and procedures. NPT member states must present a convincing case for the peaceful need for any potential dual-purpose nuclear works and programs, which have to be approved by the IAEA—and, if necessary, the UN Security Council. In this respect, the July 14, 2015, agreement created a useful precedent, although one not necessarily fully realized in the agreement itself. It appears reasonable that many of the JCPOA provisions, as they relate to nuclear program limitations and an enhanced transparency regime, must serve as the foundation for strengthening the global nuclear nonproliferation system and regimes. 

Vladimir Sazhin is a professor and senior fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.


1 Arms Control Association, “UN Security Council Resolutions on Iran,” last modified October 2015, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Security-Council-Resolutions-on-Iran.

2 Yuri Belobrov, “Iranian Nuclear Issue: Resolution Underway,” Russian International Affairs Council, March 24, 2014, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=3364#top-content.

3 World Bank, “Iran: Overview,” last modified September 29, 2015, http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/iran/overview.

4 David Cohen, “Testimony of Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen Before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs on ‘Iran Sanctions: Ensuring Robust Enforcement and Assessing Next Steps,’” press release, U.S. Department of the Treasury, June 4, 2013, https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl1969.aspx.

5 “Joint Plan of Action,” European External Action Service, November 24, 2013, http://eeas.europa.eu/statements/docs/2013/131124_03_en.pdf.

6 “Iran gotov rezko narastit’ dobychu nefti posle otmeny sanktsiy” [Iran is ready to drastically increase its oil production after the sanctions are lifted], Gazeta.ru, October 19, 2015, http://www.gazeta.ru/business/news/2015/10/19/n_7789061.shtml.

7 “Iran predlozhil transportirovku gaza iz Azerbaydzhana v Evropu” [Iran offered to transport Azerbaijan’s gas to Europe], RIA Novosti, February 2, 2015, http://ria.ru/economy/20150202/1045445976.html.

8 “Pri realizatsii soglasheniya po iranskoy yadernoy programme neobkhodimo uchityvat’ zainteresovannost’ vsekh storon—glava MID KNR” [The North Korean foreign minister: interests of all sides have to be taken into account in the implementation of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program], Xinhua News Agency, September 15, 2015, http://russian.news.cn/2015-09/15/c_134626886.htm.

9 “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” European External Action Service, July 14, 2015, http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/docs/iran_agreement/iran_joint-comprehensive-plan-of-action_en.pdf.

10 George Perkovich, Mark Hibbs, James M. Acton, and Toby Dalton, “Parsing the Iran Deal,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 6, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/08/06/parsing-iran-deal/iec5. 

11 Center for Energy and Security Studies, “Transcript of a Meeting With Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov,” August 14, 2015, accessed November 27, 2015, http://ceness-russia.org/data/page/p1494_1.pdf.

12 Perkovich, Hibbs, Acton, and Dalton, “Parsing the Iran Deal.”

13 Center for Energy and Security Studies, “Transcript of a Meeting With Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov.” 

14 Perkovich, Hibbs, Acton, and Dalton, “Parsing the Iran Deal.”

15 Alina D. Sharon, “Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs: Iran Deal a ‘Huge Blunder,’” JNS.org, July 17, 2015, http://www.jns.org/jns-blog/2015/7/17/f8x9oov6xcyvyynwxute75727su754#.Va0dX_lViko=.

16 Center for Energy and Security Studies, “Transcript of a Meeting With Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov.”

17 President of the Russian Federation, “The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation,” press release, Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, June 29, 2015, http://rusemb.org.uk/press/2029.

18 Grigory Berdennikov, “Statement by the Head of the Delegation of the Russian Federation, Ambassador-at-Large, Grigory Berdennikov, at the Symposium on International Safeguards: Linking Strategy, Implementation, and People,” International Atomic Energy Agency, October 20–24, 2014, https://www.iaea.org/safeguards/symposium/2014/images/pdfs/Russian_Statement.pdf.

19 Vladimir Putin, “Meeting With Russian Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives in International Organizations,” July 9, 2012, transcript, Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/15902.

20 Chen Mengwei, “Iran Deal ‘Not Right Blueprint’ for Korean Peninsula,” China Daily, July 29, 2015, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2015-07/29/content_21440075.htm.

21 Nina Chestney, “World Nuclear Capacity Set to Grow by 45 Percent by 2035,” Reuters, September 10, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/10/us-energy-nuclear-idUSKCN0RA14220150910.

22 According to November 2015 data, 438 nuclear reactors are in use across the globe; 65 are under construction; 165 are projected to be built; and project proposals have been submitted for 324 more. See World Nuclear Association, “World Nuclear Power Reactors and Uranium Requirements,” accessed November 2015, http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/facts-and-figures/world-nuclear-power-reactors-and-uranium-requireme.aspx.

23 For instance, Russia believes that the United States has violated the NPT by deploying its tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and training its allies to use them.

24 William J. Burns, “The Fruits of Diplomacy With Iran,” New York Times, April 2, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/03/opinion/a-good-deal-with-iran.html?ref=opinion&_r=0.