"In my home there are few publications that we actually get hard copies of, but [Arms Control Today] is one and it's the only one my husband and I fight over who gets to read it first."

– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
All Together Now

Daryl G. Kimball

Global problems require global solutions, along with effective leadership and cooperation. For years, as leading players have failed to agree on how to bolster the beleaguered nonproliferation system, the threats posed by nuclear weapons have become more complex and difficult to solve.

But in a welcome shift, President Barack Obama won UN Security Council backing last month for a practical and comprehensive action plan to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons. Whether this special Security Council meeting and Resolution 1887 mark a true turning point depends on the steps taken in the next few weeks and months. Nonetheless, it is a rare step forward that comes at a critical time.

Although not perfect, the document should help build support among nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) member states, especially non-nuclear-weapon states, around a balanced set of nonproliferation, disarmament, and nuclear material security initiatives ahead of the pivotal May 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Resolution 1887 builds on Obama’s nuclear risk reduction agenda outlined in Prague in April and further commits those nations with nuclear weapons to reduce them and work toward their elimination. In a welcome shift, the resolution embraces key nuclear risk reduction initiatives weakened by the Bush administration, including negative nuclear security assurances and a commitment to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Obama's call for the treaty and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's participation in a concurrent UN CTBT conference are promising signs of the administration's serious commitment to securing U.S. ratification sometime in 2010.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Obama said he would a pursue a new Nuclear Posture Review that reduces the role of U.S. nuclear weapons and opens the way for deeper nuclear reductions, meaning below the target level of 1,500 strategic deployed warheads set for the current round of U.S.-Russian arms talks. This strongly suggests he intends to transform, not simply tinker with, the outdated U.S. nuclear thinking still prevalent in Washington.

The broad support for the resolution is largely a result of a new and more constructive U.S. approach to dealing with cases of noncompliance. Instead of singling out bad actors, which has led various countries to take sides, the administration is reinforcing a universal set of updated standards that the vast majority of countries can support.

The resolution does not name Iran, North Korea, or Syria, but it reinforces the rules that should apply in those cases. The resolution’s call for adherence to more-intrusive international nuclear safeguards is timely and important, coming a day before new revelations that Iran has secretly built a second uranium-enrichment facility at Qom. Contrary to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requirements, Tehran failed to notify the agency when it began construction of the facility.

Just as importantly, Resolution 1887 clarifies that NPT member states’ right to pursue the peaceful use of nuclear energy is conditioned on compliance with their commitments to forswear nuclear weapons and fully adhere to IAEA safeguards. It also reinforces the principle that if any state withdraws from the NPT and uses nuclear technology acquired under peaceful auspices for weapons purposes, it should return such technology and any special nuclear material produced to the supplier state.

With Resolution 1887 in hand, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States must enter this month’s talks with Iranian leaders with patience, pragmatism, and unity. The Qom facility raises further doubts about whether Iran’s nuclear program is intended purely for peaceful purposes. Iran should explain why such a facility is needed when it is already building a far larger enrichment complex at Natanz. Nevertheless, Iran remains years away from attaining the physical ability to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb and to build a workable device. Neither side should create artificial deadlines for their upcoming negotiations.

Whether Iran has the “right” to enrich or not, it now has more than 8,000 centrifuges that it will not likely be willing to dismantle and will not likely agree to freeze. It must not only accept far more intrusive IAEA inspections and address outstanding IAEA questions about its past activities, but it also should be urged to halt the further expansion of its enrichment capacity, including the construction of additional enrichment plants. Together, such steps could increase confidence that Iran is not pursuing a clandestine weapons program. Combined with a halt to further UN-imposed sanctions and conditional assurances Iran will not come under military attack, such a package could provide the basis for a deal if the respective parties really want one.

Speeches and resolutions are, of course, no substitute for concrete outcomes; along the way, many states will certainly disappoint. But the special Security Council meeting and U.S.-sponsored resolution update and clarify the commitments and responsibilities expected of all states. As Obama said before the Security Council, “[T]he world must stand together” to implement as well as enforce the new nonproliferation and disarmament compact.