Responsible Steps to Build on the Nonproliferation Value of the JCPOA
Volume 7, Issue 12, September 21, 2015
On Sept. 17, the 60-day period for congressional review of the nuclear agreement that the United States and its international negotiating partners reached with Iran came to an end without Congress passing legislation preventing President Barack Obama from implementing the deal.
The agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), promises to severely curtail Iran’s nuclear program and stop it well short of nuclear weapons for a generation or more. The deal puts in place an unprecedented, multilayered verification and monitoring regime, and includes provisions to help ensure compliance with the restrictions established by the agreement.
If successfully implemented, the JCPOA will be a net plus for nonproliferation and will enhance U.S. and regional security. Implementation of the JCPOA reinforces the rules, norms, and procedures that make up the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.
By blocking Iran’s nuclear weapons pathways, the JCPOA should reduce the incentive of other states in the region to pursue their own nuclear fuel-making programs. The JCPOA also provides an opportunity to strengthen nonproliferation in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, reports indicate that some members of Congress are rushing to finalize counterproductive legislation that would re-interpret the terms of the JCPOA and make additional demands of Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that could complicate or even undermine implementation.
A more productive approach would be to provide the IAEA with the financial support necessary to carry out its additional monitoring and verification responsibilities, and to work with the Executive Branch to augment the JCPOA by pursuing policies designed to strengthen the barriers against further nuclear and missile proliferation in the region and around the world.
As Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) put it in a September 17 speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington: “If the United States leads these changes over the next five years, then in 15 years Iran will leave one set of restraints – the JCPOA—and enter another – the parameters of a world with…a bolstered NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty].”
The JCPOA contains several innovative provisions that go beyond the requirements of the NPT and standard IAEA safeguards. These measures could be applied for a longer period of time in Iran if pursued on a regional basis, and there are additional nonproliferation commitments that would bolster the JCPOA in the years ahead.
Several of these measures could help address concerns about Iran’s potential nuclear capabilities in the post-year 15 period of the agreement when many of the restrictions on uranium-enrichment capacity expire.
Below is set of illustrative potential strategies and policy solutions that would build upon the Iran nuclear deal and further reinforce proliferation barriers vis-à-vis Iran, as well as other states in the greater Middle East.
Increase IAEA Resources and Capacity. The administration and Congress must work together to provide the IAEA with the additional financial resources (approximately $10-15 million per year) it will need to carry out its additional inspection and safeguards responsibilities vis-à-vis Iran under the JCPOA.
Legislation that hampers the IAEA’s ability to carry out its work, or requires the president to compromise the confidentiality of the IAEA investigations in Iran, not only risks the success of the JCPOA, but could also erode confidence in the IAEA globally. Requiring the president to disclose to Congress information about the IAEA’s confidential methods risks the independence of the agency.
Expand Application of the Additional Protocol. The additional protocol is a voluntary measure that Iran has agreed to implement and ratify under the terms of the JCPOA. U.S. policy should be focused on region-wide adoption of and adherence to IAEA additional protocols. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria are among the states that have not concluded an additional protocol agreement with the IAEA.
One approach to expand the application of the additional protocol would be to update Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, which sets the terms for U.S. civil nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries to prevent the misuse of civilian nuclear technology and assistance. Currently Section 123 of the act does not require that a cooperating state have an additional protocol in place with the IAEA. Some members of Congress have introduced legislation to update Section 123 and could pursue a new effort, which would likely win bipartisan support.
Another strategy would be for the United States and other like-minded members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to agree not to engage in any civilian nuclear cooperation with a state in the Middle East region unless it has agreed to implement and ratify an additional protocol and adopt modified Code 3.1 notification requirements relating to its IAEA safeguards agreement.
Presently, the NSG only has a voluntary policy (adopted in 2011) not to transfer the technology and equipment (enrichment and reprocessing technology) needed to produce weapons-usable nuclear material to new states, especially those states in regions of proliferation concern.
Build a Region-Wide HEU and Plutonium Production Ban. A key goal of the United States and other nuclear technology suppliers should be to strongly discourage any additional states in the region from acquiring uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing technology and to ensure that those that do have such technologies only produce low-enriched uranium (LEU) commensurate with their “practical needs.”
In the JCPOA, Iran agreed not to enrich uranium beyond 3.67% U-235 for a period of at least 15 years. Iran has indicated a willingness to extend that restriction beyond 15 years, if other countries in the region abide by a similar restriction. A goal of U.S. policy should be to extend Iran’s commitment indefinitely by pursing a region-wide commitment to limiting uranium enrichment to less than 5% U-235.
Iran also committed not to separate plutonium from spent fuel in its reactors for 15 years and has stated that it has no intention to do so at any point in the future. A similar region-wide ban on reprocessing and shipping out spent fuel should also be encouraged.
Currently Iran and Israel are the only states in the region with uranium-enrichment technology and Israel is the only country in the region to have produced weapons-grade plutonium. Given that Israel has a strategic advantage having already produced plutonium for it undeclared weapons program and because its Dimona production reactor is near the end of its lifespan, Israel might also be encouraged to voluntarily adopt a region-wide policy banning the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and weapons-grade plutonium.
A related strategy would be to accelerate work to phase out the use of reactor fuel greater than 5% U-235 for any purposes by any country in the region and to provide international technical support to convert all reactors to LEU fuel. Six countries in the Middle East currently have research reactors , with a total of seven reactors fueled by uranium enriched to 20% or higher. This region-wide phase-out strategy would be consistent with ongoing U.S. efforts to phase out the use of HEU for civilian nuclear research and naval propulsion reactors worldwide.
If additional countries chose to pursue enrichment in the Middle East region or elsewhere, they should also be subjected to the same continuous IAEA monitoring at key nuclear facilities that Iran is subject to under the JCPOA. Requiring more stringent monitoring and transparency should be included the region-wide limitation on enrichment to reactor-grade levels.
Encourage Lifetime Fuel Supply and Fuel Take-Back Guarantees. Another related longer-term strategy should be to ensure that Iran has the absolute minimum “practical need” for low-enriched uranium production. Iran currently has one operating light-water reactor for electricity production and has a preliminary agreement with Russia for several more. Russia supplies the Bushehr-1 reactor with fuel and will take back spent fuel from the reactor. The current supply contract for Bushehr-1 can be extended beyond 2021—and even further if necessary. According to preliminary Iran-Russian plans, any future Russian-built units at the site will be supplied by Russia for the lifetime of the reactors and all spent fuel will be returned to Russia.
Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran will domestically fuel the Arak reactor, once the reactor is modified and Iran is able to produce fuel assemblies for the reactor. Iran’s enrichment capacity under the first 10 years of the deal—5,060 IR-1 centrifuges—is more than enough to provide fuel for the reactor on an annual basis.
To help negate Iran’s justification for increasing its domestic enrichment capacity beyond the 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges established through the JCPOA for 13 years, any country that enters into a contract with Iran to supply additional power reactors could provide fuel supply guarantees for the lifespan of the reactor, and arrangements to take back the spent fuel so as to deny Iran access to the separated plutonium in the spent fuel.
The United States should also encourage lifetime supply arrangements for any country in the region seeking nuclear reactors.
This approach, combined with a region-wide LEU limitation, would be more likely to dissuade Iran from increasing its uranium-enrichment capacity and/or enrichment levels after years 13-15 of the JCPOA than any “sense of Congress” demand from U.S. legislators that Iran should not be allowed to adjust its uranium-enrichment capacity after years 13-15 of the JCPOA because U.S. legislators do not believe Iran has an “inherent right” to enrich uranium.
Secure Region-wide Agreement to Forego Experiments That May Be Used for Designing Nuclear Weapons. In Annex I, Section T of the JCPOA, Iran agreed to a ban on all such experiments even though some ostensibly have civilian applications. By encouraging other states in the region and elsewhere to voluntarily declare and/or reach a Memorandum of Understanding with the IAEA that such experiments, if conducted, would constitute a violation of their safeguards agreements, confidence in the NPT would be strengthened.
Region-Wide Adherence to the CTBT. A principal element of U.S. nonproliferation policy has been to prevent nuclear testing by any state, particularly because nuclear test explosions enable emerging nuclear weapon states to proof test a warhead design and build smaller, lighter warheads for delivery on ballistic missiles. The United States has not conducted a nuclear test explosion since September 1992 and is a signatory to the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). All of the P5+1(China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and European Union states have ratified the CTBT, except for the United States and China.
Currently, there are three states in the Middle East—Egypt, Iran and Israel—that must ratify the CTBT to facilitate its entry into force.
Senior Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who signed the CTBT in 1996, have more recently expressed their support for the treaty.
In 1999, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, then Iran’s deputy foreign minister, spoke in support of the CTBT and endorsed a UN conference statement calling for cooperation aimed at bringing the treaty into effect.
In a Sept. 12 interview with the Associated Press, Dr. Lassina Zerbo, the head of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, which is based in Vienna, said if Iran doesn’t ratify the CTBT, “it will leave room for the doubt that people have put in this deal and the good intentions of Iran.”
To reinforce Iran’s commitment to a non-nuclear weapons future and increase security and stability in the region, the United States and our allies should also actively encourage all states in the Middle East region that have not signed/ratified the CTBT (including Saudi Arabia) to do so and to fully support the CTBT’s international monitoring system, as well the development of its on-site inspection capabilities that will be available after the treaty enters into force.
Reinforce Legal Obligations In the Event of NPT Withdrawal. If a state decides to leave the NPT and pursue nuclear weapons, there should be tough penalties. One approach is to establish that even if a state decides to exercise its right under the “supreme national interest” clause of the NPT that state remains obligated not to use any of the nuclear material or technology under safeguards, or that has been supplied by other states, for weapons purposes. There have been numerous proposals along these lines that have not been adopted in the context of the NPT or mandated by the UN Security Council.
Regional Ballistic Missile Restraint Measures. Iran has perhaps the largest short- and medium-range ballistic missile arsenal in the region, but there are other states with similar capabilities and ambitions. It could be an objective of U.S. policy to develop a region-wide moratorium on research, development, and flight-testing of medium-range and long-range ballistic missiles or cruise missiles, particularly those capable of lifting WMD payloads. The United States should also work with its partners in the Missile Technology Control Regime to strength and reinforce the norms against transferring technologies for missiles capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction.
Through the years, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have put forward important ideas to strengthen the global nuclear nonproliferation system, some of which have substantially contributed to U.S. national policy.
In 1978, Congress came together to strengthen the standards for U.S. civil nuclear cooperation as first established under the 1954 Atomic Energy Act.
In 1991, Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) put forward the “Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991,” which authorized $400 million to create U.S.-led programs assist the countries of the former Soviet Union secure and eliminate nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and other weapons. This effort became known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, which has successfully liquidated thousands of Cold War-era Soviet weapons.
Another example was S. 1977, “The Nuclear Weapons Threat Reduction Act” of 2007, introduced by then Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). It became the blueprint for much of the Obama administration’s first-term nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament policies.
Given the ongoing proliferation threat posed by North Korea, the increasing nuclear arsenals in Indian and Pakistan, and the need to further strengthen proliferation barriers in the Middle East region, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle should consider how they can work together with President Obama and his successor to bolster U.S. and global nuclear weapons risk reduction strategies.
—KELSEY DAVENPORT, DARYL G. KIMBALL, and KINGSTON REIF
The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.