“What's really strikes me about ACA is the potential to shape the next generation of leaders on arms control and nuclear policy. This is something I witnessed firsthand as someone who was introduced to the field through ACA.”
– Alicia Sanders-Zakre
June 2, 2022
Julia Masterson

Work Continues on Middle Eastern WMD-Free Zone

January/February 2022
By Mary Ann Hurtado and Julia Masterson

A UN conference has established an informal working committee to further deliberations on creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.

Mansour Al-Otaibi, Kuwait's ambassador to the United Nations, served as president of the second session of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction during  proceedings in New York in December 2021. (Photo by Kuwait Mission to the UN)Participating states made the decision by consensus at the second annual session of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction, held Nov. 29–Dec. 3 in New York.

Although the action was a modest step, participants expressed hope that the committee would make progress on key issues in the time before the next annual conference and thus advance the long-sought goal of a treaty that would rid the Middle East of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The committee is to meet at least twice during the next year.

Establishment of the committee, which is open to all states in the region, also could help to stave off debate on the zone at the 10th review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which was delayed from this month because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since 1995, debate over a potential WMD-free zone in the Middle East has dominated and at times derailed discussions at NPT review conferences and in other disarmament forums.

The 2000 and 2010 NPT review conferences reaffirmed support for the zone. But in 2015, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States opposed an Egyptian proposal to convene a future meeting to negotiate a Middle Eastern WMD-free-zone treaty, thereby preventing unanimous adoption of a final NPT conference document. (See ACT, June 2015.)

U.S. officials said then that the U.S. decision to block consensus stemmed from “unworkable conditions” and “arbitrary deadline[s]” in the Egyptian proposal.

U.S. views closely parallel those of Israel, which is not an NPT state-party but is the only Middle Eastern country with a nuclear arsenal. Israel has rejected previous proposals to partake in a mandated, time-bound process to create a Middle Eastern zone without due attention to the security challenges facing the region. (See ACT, March 2020.)

In 2018, Egypt introduced a resolution in the UN General Assembly calling for convening an annual UN conference to make progress on the zone in parallel with the NPT process. (See ACT, December 2018.) The inaugural session was held in November 2019, and the second session, set for November 2020, was canceled because of the pandemic, then rescheduled for Nov. 29. (See ACT, January/February 2021.) Israel is the only regional state that did not attend the 2021 conference.

At the conference, participants reaffirmed their commitment to producing a legally binding treaty that would establish a WMD-free zone without affecting any state’s right to research or develop nuclear, chemical, and biological materials and technologies for peaceful purposes. They agreed that a treaty should conform to the NPT and the chemical and biological weapons conventions and recognize the “catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences that would result from any use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.”

States agreed that a treaty should rely predominantly on existing verification instruments, such as those exercised by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but also considered the possibility of a regional mechanism to supplement the multilateral regimes.

The conference's third session will be held Nov. 14–18, 2022, in New York.

A UN conference created a committee to further talks on a Middle Eastern weapons of mass destruction-free zone.

Iran Plays Hardball in Vienna

Iran’s hardline approach to recent negotiations in Vienna raised further concerns about prospects for diplomatic efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Talks resumed Nov. 29 in Vienna after a five-month hiatus, during which Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took office and assembled his team. While the Raisi administration’s rhetoric ahead of the negotiations suggested a harder line than his predecessor, Iran’s demands for "sweeping changes" to the text of the agreement and its disinterest in honoring progress made during the...

Iran’s Failure to Cooperate with the IAEA is Raising Tensions

Iran’s refusal to allow inspectors to access a site in Iran where centrifuge components are produced is escalating tensions ahead of the resumption of talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). According to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) most recent report on Iran’s nuclear activities, finalized Nov. 17, inspectors tried twice in October to access the Karaj centrifuge component manufacturing facility to install new cameras and/or confirm that production of parts had not resumed. On both occasions, Iran refused to allow the...

North Korea Claims to Test Hypersonic Missile

November 2021
By Julia Masterson

North Korea claims to have conducted its first test of a new hypersonic missile, an achievement of “great strategic significance,” according to state media. The Hwasong-8 missile is presumed to be capable of carrying a nuclear or conventional warhead.

North Korea claimed the successful launch on Sept. 28 of a Hwasong-8 ballistic missile with a detached hypersonic glide vehicle. (Photo by KCNA/North Korean state media)Following the Sept. 28 test, North Korean state media said that development of the hypersonic missile was “one of 5 top-priority tasks facing the strategic weapon sector” and released a photograph of the launch, which showed a vehicle resembling the shape of a hypersonic glide vehicle on top of a shortened version of an intermediate-range ballistic missile. Glide vehicles are a new type of hypersonic weapon, which can fly at least five times the speed of sound and are distinguished from traditional ballistic missiles by their ability to maneuver and operate at lower altitudes.

North Korea claimed that “the test results proved that all the technical specifications met the design requirements.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un first alluded to the new hypersonic weapon in January 2021 during the 8th Party Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea. A “hypersonic gliding warhead” featured on a longer wish list of strategic weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons, a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and a military reconnaissance satellite.

Because of their increased speed and greater maneuverability, hypersonic missiles are well equipped to evade ballistic missile defenses. In their analysis of the launch, South Korean military officials assessed that North Korea’s hypersonic missile appears to be in the early stages of development and is unlikely to be fielded in the near future. But once operational and deployed, a North Korean hypersonic missile, especially one paired with a nuclear warhead, could pose significant strategic risks to the region.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that U.S.-South Korean joint military assets remain capable of detecting and intercepting North Korean missiles.

The U.S. intelligence community is still completing its analysis of the launch, but Gen. Glen Vanherck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, said on Sept. 30 that “right now, it would be my assessment that the homeland would be safe and secure from a hypersonic capability as North Korea claims they have tested.”

The Hwasong-8 contains a fuel ampoule, a technology that allows for liquid-fueled missiles to be filled during production and stored in airtight canisters, thus rendering them launch ready. Missile experts have described North Korea’s adaptation of a fuel ampoule as a “big step” and a “significant milestone.” According to a statement released Sept. 28 by KCNA, Pyongyang’s state media, all North Korean missile fuel systems will be transitioned to ampoule use.

The Sept. 28 launch marked North Korea’s third missile test of the month. North Korea also tested new cruise missiles and ballistic missile delivery system in September. (See ACT, October 2021.)

During a meeting of defense officials on Oct. 11, Kim displayed a cache of ICBMs while condemning the United States and South Korea for causing tension in the region. Kim pledged to continue developing advanced strategic weapons systems as outlined during the January 2021 party congress, but insisted they would all be self-defensive in nature.

Pyongyang’s first hypersonic test also came in the wake of a speech by Kim Song, North Korean permanent representative to the United Nations, on Sept. 27 before the UN General Assembly.

“Our state is a growing reliable deterrent that can control the hostile forces in their attempts for military invasion,” he said. But he was careful to note that Pyongyang “would never violate nor endanger the security” of the United States and South Korea and North Korea’s other neighbors.


North Korea claims to have conducted its first test of a new hypersonic missile, an achievement of “great strategic significance,” according to state media.

Iran Signals Vienna Talks to Resume

November 2021
By Julia Masterson

Iranian diplomats met in Brussels with EU officials to review progress on restoring the 2015 nuclear deal. Following the Oct. 27 meeting, Iran said it would return to the talks in late November. Negotiations to revive the deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have been stalled since the sixth round of meetings concluded in June 2021.

EU Deputy Secretary-General Enrique Mora, shown here in Vienna in June, traveled to Tehran on Oct. 14 to meet Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani and discuss Iran's plans to resume negotiations on the 2015 nuclear deal.  (Photo by Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)In an effort to jump-start talks, EU Deputy Secretary-General Enrique Mora traveled to Tehran on Oct. 14 to meet Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani and discuss Iran’s plans to resume negotiations in Vienna with the other members of the deal—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—and the United States.

In a tweet on Oct. 27, Bagheri Kani called the talks with Mora "very serious and constructive" and said "we agree to start negotiations before the end of November."

Mora, together with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, coordinated the first six rounds of discussions aimed at facilitating a mutual return to compliance with the deal by Iran and the United States, which withdrew from the accord and reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018. Iran began to violate the deal one year later, in May 2019, but maintains it will restore limits on its nuclear program imposed by the accord in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

Although the other parties have urged the prompt resumption of talks, Iran has delayed the seventh round, citing a need to restructure its negotiating team and clarify its position after the inauguration of President Ebrahim Raisi in August. In a telephone call with his Russian counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian described the Mora meeting as “positive.”

Meanwhile, Russia and the three European members concur that many issues impeding restoration of the JCPOA were resolved during the first six rounds of talks. As Mikhail Ulyanov, Russian ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, tweeted on Oct. 17, “Of course, talks in Brussels cannot substitute [for the Vienna talks on the JCPOA but]…if the Iranian side needs it, [the Brussels dialogue] can be viewed as a preparatory step towards resumption of real negotiations in Vienna.”

In an Oct. 11 tweet, Ulyanov wrote that “we should not resume the Vienna Talks on [the] JCPOA from scratch” and noted that “during the previous six rounds of negotiations significant and very useful progress has been achieved.”

But Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh remarked on Oct. 17 that the sixth round ended over differences, not compromises, implying that negotiations may not resume exactly where they paused in June.

A senior EU diplomat told Politico on Oct. 17 that Iran is “not yet ready for engaging in Vienna” but Iranian officials have “absolutely decided to go back” to the table. That official said Iran will use its time in Brussels to review the texts discussed during the last round of talks.

There is speculation that Tehran may demand additional concessions from Washington or a gesture of good faith prior to returning to the negotiating table. On Oct. 2, Amirabdollahian declared via a state-run broadcasting network that Washington should preemptively release $10 billion of Iran’s frozen funds as a goodwill sign. He said he “told the mediators if America’s intentions are serious, then a serious indication was needed…by releasing at least $10 billion of blocked money.”

The United States will not offer concessions before resuming talks, Rob Malley, the State Department special envoy for Iran, suggested during an Oct. 13 briefing at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He said the United States will engage in talks on restoring the 2015 deal but if Iran approaches the negotiating table with demands that exceed the original accord, the United States will do the same.

U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that the time to restore the deal is not indefinite, given Iran’s accelerating nuclear activities. On Oct. 10, Iran announced it had produced more than 120 kilograms of uranium enriched to 20 percent uranium-235. Iran’s 2020 nuclear law stipulates that the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran should meet that benchmark by December. Early achievement of that benchmark suggests Iran accelerated uranium-enrichment to that level.

During an Oct. 13 meeting with the Israeli foreign minister, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated that “we are getting close to a point at which returning to compliance with the JCPOA will not in and of itself recapture the benefits of the JCPOA, and that’s because Iran has been using this time to advance its nuclear program in a variety of ways.”

Although reaffirming that a day will come when advances in Iran’s nuclear knowledge could render it impossible to recapture the nonproliferation benefits envisioned by the 2015 accord, Malley said the United States believes that, for now, the window to fully restore the JCPOA remains open.

Iran has said it will resume talks, stalled since June, on restoring the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

North Korea Tests SLBM

November 2021

North Korea has tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) amid rising regional tensions over its missile provocations, marking Pyongyang’s first launch of an SLBM in two years.

A man in Seoul watches a television report, showing a news broadcast with file footage, of a North Korean missile test on October 19. The South Korean military said the test was believed to involve a submarine-launched ballistic missile.  (Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)The South Korean military detected the launch of an “unidentified ballistic missile” from the waters near Sinpo, where North Korean submarines are based, on Oct. 19. The missile flew approximately 430 to 450 kilometers.

The missile launch came hours after the Biden administration confirmed that Sung Kim, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, will soon meet with allies in Seoul to discuss the resumption of negotiations with Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programs.

“Our military is closely monitoring the situation and maintaining readiness posture in close cooperation with the United States, to prepare for additional launches,” the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement Oct. 19.

Analyses of the test are ongoing. It remains unclear whether the missile was launched from the water and whether it was fired from a submarine vessel or from a submersible test barge, as was the case for the last North Korean SLBM test, a Pukguksong-3 missile in October 2019. (See ACT, November 2019.)

According to Reuters, military analysts in South Korea and the United States are investigating whether the missile tested on Oct. 19 is among the new systems displayed at North Korea’s defense exhibition held in mid-October. Ankit Panda, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, described the displayed system as an apparent “navalized version of the KN23 short-range ballistic missile.” That it was staged alongside the Pukguksong-1 and Pukguksong-5 SLBMs strongly suggests the new missile is also an SLBM, Panda wrote in an analysis for NK News published Oct. 19.

Pyongyang confirmed the launch Oct. 20 and said the test was of a “new type” of SLBM.

In response to the test, the United States and the United Kingdom requested a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council, which was scheduled for Oct. 27.—JULIA MASTERSON

North Korea Tests SLBM

Talks in Brussels to Precede Vienna Negotiations

European Union Deputy Secretary-General Enrique Mora traveled to Tehran Oct. 14 to discuss the resumption of negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, but it appears that Iran is still not ready to resume indirect talks with the United States. Mora coordinated the first six rounds of discussions in Vienna aimed to revive the accord, which is also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Negotiations have remained stalled since the sixth round concluded in June 2021. Mora met with Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani to review Iran’s plans to resume...

U.S., UK Pledge Nuclear Submarines for Australia

October 2021
By Julia Masterson

Australia could become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to field a nuclear-powered submarine as part of a new trilateral security partnership with the United States and United Kingdom known as AUKUS. The initiative was unveiled at a joint virtual press conference held Sept. 15.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shakes hands with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as the latter arrives at the Pentagon on September 22. The meeting took place a week after the two countries and the United Kingdom announced the  AUKUS security pact to help Australia develop and deploy nuclear-powered submarines and pursue other military cooperation.  (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) All three nations emphasized that Australia will not acquire nuclear weapons and that they will uphold their commitment to global nonproliferation standards. Even so, the decision by the United States and the UK to equip Australia with nuclear submarines has heightened proliferation concerns because the U.S. and UK submarines are powered by on-board reactors fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU).

The objective of the new trilateral alliance is to ensure “peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific [region] over the long term,” U.S. President Joe Biden said during the joint appearance unveiling the initiative alongside Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on video monitors.

“We need to be able to address both the current strategic environment in the region and how it will evolve because the future of each of our nations, and indeed the world, depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific, enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead,” Biden added.

The United States has shared nuclear submarine propulsion technology only with the UK, a product of a series of Cold War agreements aimed to counter Soviet influence in Europe.

The UK Royal Navy operates three nuclear-powered submarine systems: the Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarine and the Astute- and Trafalgar-class attack submarines. Johnson said the AUKUS partnership will provide “a new opportunity to reinforce Britain’s place at the leading edge of science and technology, strengthening our national expertise.”

Morrison said that Australia will work with Washington and London over the next 18 months “to seek to determine the best way forward to achieve” a conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarine fleet. He also said that the submarines will be constructed “in Australia in close cooperation” with the UK and the United States. The submarines will reportedly be finished in time to be fielded in the 2040s. Early reports suggest Australia may lease U.S. or UK nuclear-powered submarines in the meantime, but the details remain unclear.

At a press conference in Canberra on Sept. 16, Morrison noted that “[n]ext-generation nuclear-powered submarines will use reactors that do not need refueling during the life of the boat. A civil nuclear power capability here in Australia is not required to pursue this new capability.”

A senior Biden administration official appeared to confirm on Sept. 20 that the vessels will be powered with HEU, as UK and U.S. submarines are, when they commented on Australia’s fitness for “stewardship of the HEU.” It remains unclear who would supply Australia with the fissile material necessary to fuel the submarines or whether the nuclear-powered submarines might be provided through a leasing arrangement.

Another unknown is whether the submarine design will be based on existing U.S. or UK attack submarines or an entirely new design. One of the reasons that Australia may lease U.S. or UK vessels in the near term is to “provide opportunities for us to train our sailors, [to] provide the skills and knowledge in terms of how we operate,” Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton told reporters Sept. 19, suggesting the new submarines may share a similar design.

The AUKUS initiative is not limited to the new submarine project. It will also facilitate the sharing of information in a number of technological areas, including artificial intelligence, underwater systems, and quantum, cyber-, and long-range strike capabilities. Morrison said Australia will also enhance its long-range strike capabilities through the purchase of Tomahawk cruise missiles and extended range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles.

The three leaders were careful not to attribute the new trilateral security initiative as a response to concerns about expanding Chinese military capabilities. In February, as part of a growing U.S. emphasis on prioritizing competition with Beijing, Biden announced a new Defense Department task force charged with assessing U.S. military strategy toward China.

Nevertheless, Chinese officials were quick to condemn the AUKUS initiative. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Sept. 16 that “the nuclear submarine cooperation between the U.S., UK, and Australia has seriously undermined regional peace and stability, intensified the arms race and undermined international nonproliferation efforts.”

China also expressed concerns about the proliferation risks posed by the initiative. Lijian warned that “the international community, including Australia’s neighboring countries, has full reason to question whether Australia is serious about fulfilling its nuclear nonproliferation commitments.”

Australian, UK, and U.S. officials have endeavored to assure the international community that the initiative does not pose a heightened proliferation risk. A senior Biden administration official said on Sept. 15 that “Australia, again, does not seek and will not seek nuclear weapons. This is about nuclear-powered submarines.” But they noted the novelty of the circumstance, adding, “[T]his is frankly an exception to our policy in many respects.”

Aidan Liddle, the UK ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, told Arms Control Today in an email Sept. 21 that “[a]ll three parties involved are absolutely committed to the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] and have a long track record of working to uphold and strengthen the global counter-proliferation regime.”

“We have spoken to the [International Atomic Energy Agency] Director[-]General about this, and we will keep in close touch with the IAEA as we investigate the safeguards implications of the programme during the next phase of work,” said Liddle. He added, “[W]e will ensure that we are fulfilling our international obligations and giving absolute confidence that no HEU will be diverted for weapons purposes.”

Most nonproliferation experts, however, say the concern is not necessarily with Australia’s intentions but the precedent that the nuclear-powered submarine-sharing scheme would set. Although Australia’s new submarines would be conventionally armed, they clearly would be deployed for military use and will reportedly utilize HEU, which can also be used for nuclear weapons.

Washington has reached nuclear cooperation agreements for the exchange and transfer of civil nuclear material, equipment, and technology for peaceful purposes with many non-nuclear-weapon states. But military-relevant naval nuclear technology transfers are not covered under these agreements, including the U.S.-Australian agreement for nuclear cooperation that was signed in 2010.

In a Sept. 21 letter to the editor published in The New York Times, Rose Gottemoeller, former U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, criticized the proposal to share HEU-fueled submarines with Australia. The proposal, she wrote, “has blown apart 60 years of U.S. policy” designed to minimize HEU use. “Such uranium makes nuclear bombs, and we never wanted it in the hands of nonnuclear-weapon states, no matter how squeaky clean,” she said.

As recently as May 2021, the UK and United States declared that they wanted to “reinvigorate” efforts to minimize the use of HEU, according to the official statement laying out the goals for the G7 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction. (See ACT, June 2021.) Reducing the production and use of HEU “enjoys broad support but requires more solid political support,” the statement said.

Senior Biden administration officials have called the decision concerning Australia “a one-off,” implying that similar arrangements would not be made with other U.S. allies.

Despite support for the new initiative among the three capitals, the AUKUS partnership risks undermining U.S. and UK relations with allies, particularly France. Australia signed on to the nuclear submarine acquisition scheme after abandoning a $66 billion deal with France for the construction of 12 conventionally powered submarines. Negotiations to establish the AUKUS initiative took place in secret for six months, and the French were not privy to those discussions.

In her Sept. 21 letter to the editor, Gottemoeller criticized the submarine deal’s lack of “strategic imagination” and noted that “what we needed was a three-cornered billiard shot—pivot to Asia, yes, but keep our European allies on board.”

“I suggest bringing the French to the table,” Gottemoeller, who was also NATO’s deputy secretary-general from 2016 until 2019, concluded. The French utilize low-enriched fuel for their naval propulsion, which, if shared with Australia, would pose a dramatically lower proliferation risk than HEU, she wrote.

Following the AUKUS announcement, Paris recalled its ambassadors from the United States and Australia. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain and Defense Minister Florence Parley said in a joint statement that “the American choice to exclude a European ally and partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, whether in terms of our values or in terms of respect for multilateralism based on the rule of law, shows a lack of coherence that France can only note and regret.”

Paris also cancelled a French-UK defense minister’s summit scheduled for the week of Sept. 20.

The controversial deal is designed to counter a more assertive China but many worry it could also weaken nonproliferation norms.

Iran Edges Toward Resuming Nuclear Talks

October 2021
By Julia Masterson

Iran’s new administration appears to be inching toward resuming multilateral negotiations on restoring the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and other major countries, but exactly when that might happen remains an open question. The sixth round of talks concluded on June 20, and negotiations have since remained stalled.

During his first speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 22, President Joe Biden said that although the United States is "prepared to return to full compliance [with the 2015 nuclear deal] if Iran does the same,” it also “remains committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” (Photo by Eduardo Munoz/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)Although Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi used his first speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21 to slam the United States for the sanctions imposed on his country, he remained open to negotiations on the nuclear accord. Raisi made clear that Iranians “don’t trust the promises made by the U.S. government,” but said Tehran considers talks useful if they result in the lifting of all sanctions.

The same day, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh was quoted as saying that talks with world powers over reviving the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would resume in a few weeks, the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported, according to Reuters.

"Every meeting requires prior coordination and the preparation of an agenda. As previously emphasized, the Vienna talks will resume soon and over the next few weeks," he reportedly said.

U.S. President Joe Biden also used the UN meeting to lay down markers. “We are prepared to return to full compliance if Iran does the same,” he said in his first speech to world leaders. But Biden underscored that the United States “remains committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Early posturing by Raisi and his cabinet had cast doubt on the likelihood of the near-term resumption of talks.

The new Iranian government set out to clarify Tehran’s position on negotiations to restore the deal after Raisi was inaugurated Aug. 5. Although pledging a commitment to the deal, the new president said he would pursue “smart engagement” to lift U.S. and international sanctions on Iran, suggesting his administration may take a more hard-line approach. (See ACT, September 2021.)

Officials in Raisi’s government and that of his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, have long maintained that a restoration of the JCPOA should begin with the lifting of U.S. sanctions, which were reimposed after the United States unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018. Washington is also interested in returning to the JCPOA but in mutual exchange for Iran’s return to compliance with its obligations under the accord.

Tehran has cautioned the other parties to the deal, and specifically the United States, against pushing for a prompt return to talks. Iran Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said during an Aug. 31 interview that a two- or three-month process will be necessary for the Raisi government to prepare for negotiations.

Although change is underway in Tehran, including the appointment of Ali Bagheri Kani as deputy foreign minister, there appears to be some continuity from the Rouhani administration. Abbas Aragchi, the former deputy foreign minister who was also Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, will stay on as an advisor to JCPOA talks, the Raisi administration confirmed Sept. 14. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Khatibzadeh, announced on Sept. 19 that further changes to Iran’s negotiating team are being considered but have not been finalized.

In a Sept. 4 interview, Raisi underscored that Iran is interested in negotiations but not with the pressure imposed by the United States and the European parties to the deal (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom). But he confirmed Iran is committed to resuming talks and will not step back further from diplomacy.

Khatibzadeh said on Sept. 13 that Tehran will resume talks in the near future. Amid speculation that Amirabdollahian could meet with his foreign minister counterparts at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September, Khatibzadeh said that no decision has been made but that the Iranian minister will meet with each of the foreign ministers separately and on a bilateral basis.

Other parties to the JCPOA have pushed back on Amirabdollahian’s proposal. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Sept. 9 that “two or three months is a time frame that is much too long for us.” At a Sept. 15 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors, France, Germany, and the UK delivered a statement urging Iran to “constructively reengage in negotiations without further delay.” Mikhail Ulyanov, Russian ambassador to international organizations in Vienna, in a Sept. 17 tweet similarly lamented that talks must promptly resume.

Although all parties to the JCPOA and the United States appear committed to restoring the deal, the window for talks may not stay open indefinitely. Iran has accelerated steps to breach JCPOA limits in accordance with its December 2020 nuclear law, including by boosting its enrichment of 20 percent uranium-235 and producing uranium metal. These provocative moves have shortened the one-year breakout window, or the time it would take for Iran to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb, that was envisioned by the 2015 accord.

In their statement to the IAEA board, the European parties noted that “[c]ollectively, these steps present a pressing nuclear proliferation risk, have irreversible consequences for Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and undermine the non-proliferation benefits of the JCPOA.”

“It is particularly regrettable that Iran has deepened its systematic violations of the JCPOA at a time when all JCPOA participants and the United States are engaged in substantive discussions, with the objective of finding a diplomatic solution to restore the JCPOA,” they said.

Asked about a deadline for negotiations to resume, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sept. 9, “I’m not going to put a date on it, but we are getting closer to the point at which a strict return to compliance with the [JCPOA] does not reproduce the benefits that the agreement achieved,” likely referring to the original one-year breakout window. He added, “[W]e’ve been very clear that the ability to rejoin the JCPOA…return to mutual compliance, is not indefinite.”

Meanwhile, Israeli officials said they have accelerated military planning against Iran's nuclear program.

Laying markers at the UN General Assembly, the U.S., and Iranian leaders reaffirmed interest in restoring the Iran nuclear deal but negotiations remain stalled.

North Korea Rachets Up Nuclear, Missile Activities

October 2021
By Julia Masterson

North Korea may have restarted its five-megawatt reactor, which it has historically used to produce plutonium to support its nuclear weapons program, according to a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Whether it be nuclear weapons or missiles, North Korea is continuing to expand its military capabilities and refusing entreaties from the United States to “meet without conditions.” (Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images)Although the reactor, located at the Yongbyon complex, was inoperative from December 2018 until July 2021, the discharge of cooling water from the reactor suggests it may now be operational, the report, issued Aug. 27, said.

The IAEA does not have an on-site presence in North Korea, but it reports annually on the country’s nuclear activities using information gathered from satellite imagery analysis and other national technical means.

North Korea’s radiochemical laboratory at Yongbyon was also operational during the last reporting period, from February to July 2021. The laboratory houses North Korea’s plutonium reprocessing facility, which is used to extract the weapons-grade fissile material from spent reactor fuel.

According to the agency’s report, “[T]he five-month timeframe is consistent with the time required to reprocess a complete core of irradiated fuel” from the five-megawatt reactor, in keeping with design information provided to the IAEA by North Korea in 1992. It is likely that North Korea’s latest reprocessing campaign involved fuel rods that were removed after the reactor was last operational, in December 2018.

North Korea has conducted three known reprocessing campaigns, in 2003, 2005, and 2009, each of which lasted for about five months.

Although North Korea appears to be continuing its plutonium production, the IAEA report suggests that the production of enriched uranium-235 has stalled. “The reported centrifuge enrichment facility was not in operation” throughout the last reporting period, the IAEA stated.

But some analysts contend that North Korea may be gearing up to boost its production of enriched uranium, as evidenced by apparent efforts to expand the enrichment hall at Yongbyon. Commercial satellite imagery reveals possible steps to construct a new outer wall at the facility, which some analysts predict could allow North Korea to rachet up its enriched uranium production by 25 percent, according to a Sept. 16 report by CNN.

Other analysts disagree, citing commercial imagery that depicts the removal of cooling units from the enrichment hall. “As proper air conditioning and system cooling is essential to the uranium enrichment process—including maintaining a consistent temperature inside the cascade halls—it is unlikely that the [uranium-enrichment plant] is currently operating,” a group of analysts wrote on Sept. 16 on the 38 North website. Any uranium-enrichment activities will remain paused until those cooling units are replaced, they estimated.

Nevertheless, North Korea’s recent nuclear activities have raised alarm. “The continuation of [North Korea’s] nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi wrote in the agency’s report.

Senior diplomats from Japan, the United States, and South Korea called on Pyongyang to return to talks over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Sung Kim, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, met with Noh Kyu-duk, South Korean special representative for Korean peninsula peace and security affairs, and Takehiro Funakoshi, Japanese director-general for Asian and Oceanic affairs, on Sept. 14 in Tokyo. That scheduled meeting took place the day after Grossi told the IAEA Board of Governors that North Korea’s nuclear program is “cause for serious concern” and after North Korea tested new long-range cruise missiles. The U.S. envoy urged Pyongyang to “respond positively to our multiple offers to meet without preconditions.”

North Korea tested the new cruise missiles on Sept. 11 and the next day described them as a “strategic weapon” that had been developed over two years. The missiles will serve as “an effective deterrent ensuring the security of our state more firmly and overpowering powerfully the anti-[North Korean] military moves of the hostile forces,” North Korean state media reported. One of the missiles flew 1,500 kilometers.

Later in the week, Pyongyang also tested a new train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which state media reported could travel 800 kilometers. The testing of the new system, dubbed the Railway Mobile Missile Regiment, was overseen by a top North Korean military official.

State media said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not attend either missile test.


Pyongyang continues to expand its nuclear capability by testing more missiles and reportedly restarting a reactor capable of producing plutonium.


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