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"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
United States

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...

Nuclear Weapons Policy Experts Praise Biden for Transparency on Nuclear Arsenal

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Statement by Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

For Immediate Release: October 6, 2021

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext.107; Shannon Bugos, research associate, (202) 463-8270 ext. 113

The Biden administration’s decision to declassify updated information on the number of nuclear warheads in the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal is a welcome step that reverses an unwise decision by the Trump administration to classify this information. It also puts pressure on other nuclear armed states that maintain excessive secrecy about their arsenals, and highlights the need for further steps to reduce the number, role, and risk of nuclear weapons in the United States and world’s other eight nuclear-armed states.

The October 5 declassification announcement indicates that the total number of “active” and “inactive” warheads is 3,750 as of September 2020. The stockpile figures do not include retired warheads and those awaiting dismantlement. The updated stockpile number is only 72 warheads fewer than the figure announced in September 2017, after which the Trump administration decided as a matter of policy not to provide any further updates on the size of the U.S. stockpile.

Interestingly, the detailed figures released yesterday show, Donald Trump as the first post-Cold War  that for the first time in 25 years, the United States increased the size of the nuclear arsenal between the years 2018 and 2019. As our colleagues at the Federation of Scientists suggest, this may be due to the deployment of the a new, low-yield warhead on the D-5 sub-based strategic ballistic missile by the Trump administration.

In a democratic society, it is essential that the public and our elected leaders have the information necessary to engage in a fact-based discussion of key issues affecting national and international security—nuclear weapons being among the most consequential.

By being more transparent about the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile size, the United States is on much firmer ground to put pressure on other nuclear-armed states, particularly Russia and China to be more responsible nuclear possessors by providing basic information on the number and types of nuclear weapons in their arsenals. This is essential to understanding whether and how they world’s nuclear-armed states are—or are not—meeting their obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and elsewhere to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament ….”

Agreement on enhanced nuclear stockpile transparency is also necessary if there is to be further progress on arms control and disarmament measures between the United States and Russia beyond the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and with China in the future.

The updated U.S. nuclear stockpile figures do, however, underscore several troubling realities:

  • progress toward serious nuclear weapons stockpile reductions have stalled in recent years, and some states, particularly China and Russia, appear to be increasing the size and/or diversity of their arsenals.
  • an arsenal of 3,750 nuclear warheads, including approximately 1,389 strategic deployed warheads on 665 land-based and sea-based missiles and bombers accountable under New START, is more than enough to deliver a devastating nuclear blow to any nuclear-armed adversary. It would take just a few hundred U.S. nuclear weapons to destroy Russian and Chinese military capacity, kill hundreds of millions of innocent people, and produce a planetary climate catastrophe. And according to previous Pentagon assessments, the United States could further reduce its deployed strategic arsenal even further and still deter a nuclear weapons attack by any nuclear-armed adversary against the United States or our treaty allies. 

The Biden administration has pledged to “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy” and to seek to “head off costly arms races and re-establish our credibility as a leader in arms control.”

As the administration continue to work on its Nuclear Posture Review, we hope and expect it will take further tangible steps to provide the leadership necessary to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons worldwide.

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The Biden administration’s decision to declassify information on the number of U.S. nuclear warheads is a welcome step that reverses an unwise decision by the Trump administration.

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Biden’s NPR Must Reduce the Role of Nuclear Weapons


October 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

Most successful U.S. presidents have actively led efforts to advance arms control agreements and reduce the risk of nuclear war. Although much has been achieved over the years, there are still 14,000 nuclear weapons and nine nuclear-armed states; progress on disarmament has stalled; and tensions between the United States and its main nuclear adversaries—Russia and China—are rising.

A deactivated Minuteman II missile in its silo. (Photo credit: U.S. National Park Service)President Joe Biden clearly recognizes the problem and the value of diplomacy and nuclear restraint in solving it. His Interim National Security Strategic Guidance states that his administration will seek to “re-establish [its] credibility as a leader in arms control” and “take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in [U.S.] national security strategy.” In February, Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and negotiate further nuclear limits.

But it remains to be seen whether Biden’s recently launched Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) will lead to meaningful adjustments in the dangerous Cold War-era nuclear policies and costly nuclear modernization programs he inherited. Earlier this year, Biden blew the chance to meaningfully scale back his predecessor’s bloated $44 billion annual nuclear budget.

Going forward, Biden needs to play a more direct role in the NPR to ensure it reflects his priorities and does not reinforce the dangerous overreliance on nuclear weapons and exacerbate global nuclear competition. As I and other experts recommended in a recent letter to the White House, the president should make important changes in several key areas.

First, the NPR should include a declaratory policy that substantially narrows the role of nuclear weapons, consistent with Biden’s stated views. In 2020, he wrote, “I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As president, I will work to put that belief into practice.”

A “sole purpose” policy that rules out the use of nuclear weapons in a preemptive strike or in response to a nonnuclear attack on the United States or its allies would increase strategic stability, reduce the risk of nuclear war, and help operationalize the principle that Biden and Putin agreed to in July that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” The more options there are to use nuclear weapons, the more likely it is that they will be used.

Second, the NPR should revise outdated targeting requirements that are used to determine how many nuclear weapons are “enough.” Although Russia is modernizing its arsenal and China is rapidly increasing its smaller strategic retaliatory force, including systems to evade U.S. missile defenses, the current U.S. nuclear arsenal vastly exceeds what is and will be necessary to deter a nuclear attack.

President Barack Obama announced in 2013 that the United States could safely reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons by one-third below New START levels, to approximately 1,000 deployed strategic weapons, regardless of what Russia did. The case for such a reduction still holds.

Contrary to the Cold War logic of U.S. Strategic Command, having more bombs and more delivery options does not translate into more effective deterrence. It can fuel arms races and squander funds needed to address higher priority security needs. The sobering reality is that it would take just a few hundred U.S. strategic nuclear weapons to destroy Russian and Chinese military capacity, kill hundreds of millions of innocent people, and produce a planetary climate catastrophe.

By signaling that the United States seeks a smaller, more appropriately sized nuclear force, Biden could help lower tensions, put a spotlight on other nuclear-armed states that are expanding their arsenals, and more credibly claim the United States is fulfilling its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Third, Biden’s NPR should examine options for scaling back the size and scope of the U.S. nuclear modernization plan and put into practice the “no new nuclear weapons” policy he said he would support during his presidential campaign. He should reverse the decisions made by the Trump administration to field a new lower-yield W76-2 warhead variant and to develop a new nuclear sea-launched cruise missile. These weapons invite miscalculation in a crisis by lowering the threshold for nuclear use. New warhead projects, such as the W93 for U.S. and UK submarine-based missiles, are also unnecessary and costly and should be shelved.

In his inaugural address to the United Nations, Biden said, “[W]e stand…at an inflection point in history.” He is right. The actions that world leaders take in the next decade are critical to whether we address massive global threats and challenges, including the existential threat of nuclear war. Biden must do his part by implementing policies that reduce the salience of nuclear weapons and head off a new arms race.

Most successful U.S. presidents have actively led efforts to advance arms control agreements and reduce the risk of nuclear war. 

New Iran Leadership Complicates Negotiations


October 2021
By Sina Azodi

The election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s new president represents a consolidation of power by hard-liners who generally oppose engagement with the West. These forces, who previously worked to undermine President Hassan Rouhani’s engagement agenda, are now in control of all three branches of the Iranian government. Meanwhile, Raisi is grappling with several other major challenges, including a crumbling economy battered by U.S. and international sanctions, high unemployment, and the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which have put the country on its heels.

Ebrahim Raisi speaks during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Iranian President on August 5, 2021 in Tehran, Iran.  (Photo by Meghdad Madadi/ATPImages/Getty Images)Although Raisi has expressed a desire to revive the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and to achieve a lifting of U.S. sanctions, he has repeatedly refused any modifications in Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional activities, two other areas on which the United States and its partners in the nuclear deal—China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom—have demanded action. Historical factors and a complicated geostrategic environment are also driving Iranian decision-making, thus making compromise with the West even more unlikely. The United States still has some policy options for dealing with Iran’s regional activities and missile program, but they are likely to fall far short of what was once envisioned.

The JCPOA, signed in 2015, was a diplomatic achievement that ended decades of tensions over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. From the onset, however, critics undermined the deal by claiming it did not cover such critical issues as Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional involvement in places such as Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Ultimately, President Donald Trump used these shortcomings as a pretext to withdraw the United States from the agreement, reinstate previously lifted sanctions, and impose even tougher new ones on the Iranian economy, all in an attempt to force Tehran to submit to a “better” agreement. This “maximum pressure” campaign failed miserably as Iran responded first by exercising restraint, then by expanding its nuclear program. Today, Iran is enriching uranium to a level of 60 percent uranium-235 and has much more advanced centrifuge machines compared to where things stood when the JCPOA was being fully implemented by all signatories.

The Consequences of Choices

Critics ignore that exclusion of Tehran’s missile program and regional activities from the nuclear agreement was a deliberate choice. Both sides preferred to focus attention on the more dangerous issue—the nuclear program—and neither was ready to accept a compromise on the ancillary issues. In January 2021, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif contended during the negotiations that “[w]e agreed from the beginning [of nuclear negotiations] that regional and missile issues will not be negotiated in the JCPOA…. This [missile] issue was raised, but we refused to negotiate over it, and we paid a price for not talking [about it]."1

After he took office, Trump cited the agreement’s “near total silence on Iran's missile programs”2 as a pretext for the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. The Biden administration, although committed to reviving the agreement, has expressed its intention to eventually seek follow-up talks with Tehran on the missiles and regional topics. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken observed last February, the United States, working with its allies and partners, “will also seek to lengthen and strengthen the JCPOA and address other areas of concern, including Iran's destabilizing regional behavior and ballistic missile development and proliferation.”3 Similarly, in March, he told members of Congress that “[w]e have fundamental problems with Iran’s actions across a whole series of things, whether it is support for terrorism, whether it is a ballistic missile program.”4

The View in Washington

Given that ballistic missiles are a primary method of delivering nuclear weapons, Iran’s large and diverse inventory of short- and medium-range missiles, in conjunction with its quest for nuclear capability, has raised many concerns among U.S. officials, intelligence analysts, and think tank experts. Shortly after the nuclear deal was implemented in April 2016, President Barack Obama criticized Iran for undermining the “spirit” of the agreement by testing ballistic missiles.5 Two successive intelligence directors also raised alarms: James Clapper argued in 2016 that Iran’s ballistic missiles are “inherently capable of delivering” weapons of mass destruction,6 and three years later, Daniel Coats warned that Iran’s missile program continues to pose a threat to the countries of the Middle East.7

Such comments reflect a strong consensus in Washington that because Iran’s ballistic missile program jeopardizes the national security interests of the United States and its allies, the United States must somehow contain the program.

Meanwhile, in 2018, Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief who played a pivotal role in the JCPOA negotiations, made clear that the EU shares some of the U.S. concerns over Iran’s ballistic missiles.8 Similarly, in June 2021, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council states urged that the revived nuclear negotiations also encompass Iran’s “sponsorship of terrorist and sectarian militias” and missile program.9

The View From Tehran

For the Iranians, however, ballistic missiles are the backbone of the country’s national defense strategy and a symbol of its power projection capabilities in a hostile and unstable neighborhood. Although much attention has been given to Iran’s missile development, it is noteworthy that the country’s quest to acquire indigenous ballistic missile technology dates back to the time of Shah Mohammed Reza Palavi, who was then a close ally of the United States. After Washington refused to sell nuclear-capable Lance surface-to-surface missiles to Iran, the shah joined Israel in a secret multibillion-dollar project code-named Project Flower to develop missiles capable of carrying 1,650-pound warheads a range of up to 300 miles.10 Although the project was abandoned after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the backbone of Iran’s defense strategy remained its U.S.-supplied air force with state-of-the-art fighter aircraft.

The fall of the shah, the subsequent taking of U.S. diplomats hostage by Iranian student radicals, and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 fundamentally reshaped Iran’s national defense strategy. The hostage crisis destroyed the U.S.-Iranian relationship and deprived Tehran of its primary source of weapons. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in September 1980 and the systematic use of chemical weapons on Iranian troops and population centers taught bitter and important lessons about the nature of regional threats that left an indelible mark on the Iranian political psyche.

Official UN documents reveal that the Iraqi army began systematically using chemical agents against Iran as early as October 1983,11 and by the end of the war, up to 100,000 Iranian civilians and soldiers had been exposed to these weapons.12 These atrocities were largely ignored by international organizations and world powers, some of whom actively supported Saddam Hussein’s war machine. The United States, for instance, reportedly gave Iraq intelligence on Iranian positions.13

These memories are still raw. As Zarif stated in 2016, “We really wish and hope for the day when nobody spends any money on weapons…. [W]e spend a fraction of others’ expenditure. We are entitled to the rudimentary means of defense, which we need to prevent another Saddam Hussein around the corner to attack us with chemical weapons.”14 In 2018, Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, recalled that “[w]e still remember the French Super Etendards [fighter jets], British Chieftain tanks, German chemical weapons, U.S. AWACS planes and Saudi dollars…[which aided Iraq during the war]. Our missile program is defensive.”15

The Value of Missiles

The brutal eight-year conflict also taught Iranians an important lesson on the strategic value of ballistic missiles and their retaliatory function against an adversary’s population centers. Similar to World War II tactics, Iraq during the conflict with Iran launched a variety of ballistic missiles on Iranian population centers, including Shiraz, Isfahan, and Tehran, with the aim of breaking the Iranian will to fight. Over the course of the conflict, Iraqi military units reportedly launched 533 ballistic missiles on Iranian cities, resulting in nearly 14,000 deaths and injuries among Iran’s civilian population.16 Iran initially lacked a ballistic missile capability, but illicitly acquired a small number of Soviet-made Scud missiles from Libya, North Korea, and Syria.17 These missiles set the foundation for Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Equally important for Iran’s security calculations is the country’s current strategic environment and the ongoing military imbalance in the region. To the west, Iran faces an existential threat in nuclear-armed Israel. Because of the decades-long international arms embargo, Iran’s conventional military has been unable to modernize and procure new weapons systems, but its Arab neighbors are among the top customers of advanced U.S. and European military equipment. Iran’s estimated defense spending in 2020 was $12 billion, while Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, spent $55 billion dollars in that same period.18 Iran has compensated for its lack of access to an array of modern weapons systems by heavily investing in an arsenal of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which can target large population centers and, with improved accuracy, can conduct precision strikes almost anywhere in the Middle East.

In addition to its defensive qualities, the missile program symbolizes Tehran’s power projection capabilities in the Middle East. After a terrorist attack by the Islamic State group in Ahvaz in October 2018, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which controls the country’s ballistic missile arsenal, showcased its capabilities by launching six ballistic missiles into Syria targeting Islamic State bases. More significantly, in January 2020, after the United States assassinated General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC Quds Force, the IRGC launched a dozen ballistic missiles at the Al-Assad base where U.S. forces were stationed. This strike marked the first state-sponsored attack on U.S. military bases in decades. Although no U.S. personnel died, the attack sent a strong political message that Tehran is willing and capable of directly targeting U.S. military in the region.

These factors can explain the widespread domestic popularity of Iran’s missile program. An Iranian public opinion survey in October 2019 found that 92 percent of respondents believed it is important for Iran to develop its missile program, while 60 percent of respondents view the program as an effective deterrent.19 By February 2021, that number had increased to 66 percent, demonstrating steady support.20

Raisi and the Future of Talks

For the moment, the talks to revive the JCPOA are stalled, primarily due to the transition of power in Tehran and the new administration’s apparent ambivalence about resuming them. Although Raisi and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have spoken in favor of the nuclear negotiations and the lifting of sanctions, several factors have chilled Tehran’s appetite for follow-up talks over Iran’s missile program and its regional activities, as the United States and its European partners are demanding.

In 2016, Hossein Amirabdollahian, then Iran's deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, met in Tehran with UN Envoy to Syria Steffan de Mistura to discuss Syria peace negotiations. Amirabdollahian was just promoted to foreign minister by new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)Unlike the Rouhani administration, Raisi and his cabinet are more aligned with Iran’s deep state which works in parallel with the elected bodies, often undermining their efforts to engage the West.21 One example is newly approved Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, a career diplomat with ties to the IRGC. Because of his support for Iran’s regional activities, including Iran’s intervention in Syria and support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, he is often referenced as Diplomat-e Movaghemat, or the Resistance Diplomat, a reference to Iran’s “axis of resistance” in the Middle East.22

Amirabdollahian has an academic background in regional affairs and previously served as deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs. He speaks fluent Arabic and halting English, meaning that, unlike his predecessor, he likely will find it more difficult to effectively communicate with officials in Washington and Europe. His linguistic skills, regional expertise, and close relationship with the IRGC could enable him to focus on improving Iran’s relations with its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia.

Regarding ballistic missiles, the Raisi administration’s approach is quite similar to its predecessor’s. The new president has stated that Iran will not negotiate on the program or its regional activities.23 His foreign minister has asserted that “American dreams for negotiations over Iran’s missile program will never come to realization…. Iran’s missile capability is a strategic asset for regional stability.”24 It bears noting that Amirabdollahian, who holds a Ph.D. in international relations, shares the view with “realist” scholars that the essence of foreign policy and international relations is “power.”25 As a result, one should expect Iran’s new chief diplomat to be even more hawkish than Zarif in support of the country’s ballistic missile program.

More importantly, Khamenei, who has the final say on Iran’s national security decisions, deeply distrusts the West and has repeatedly rejected any negotiations beyond the nuclear program. He reinforced this point in July when he said, “In this government, it became clear that trust in the West does not work and they do not help, and they strike a blow wherever they can, and if they do not strike somewhere, it is because they cannot.”26 Two years earlier, he warned that Iran “will not negotiate over the issues related to the honor of our revolution. We will not negotiate over our military capabilities. Negotiations means a deal, meaning that you need to compromise over your defense capabilities.”27 In short, Iran’s key national security decision-makers all favor the country’s missile program and regional interventions, which they perceive to be in the vital interests of the state.

Nevertheless, there may be some wiggle room. Notwithstanding his strong opposition to negotiations over the missile program, Khamenei claimed in June 2021 that he ordered the IRGC to limit the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles to 2,000 kilometers. “At a time we could only produce two types of artillery shells, now we have ballistic missiles with the range of 2,000 kilometers; they [the military] wanted to go to 5,000 kilometers, but I didn’t allow it…. [T]hese precision-strike capabilities are notable,” he said.28 This view has been echoed by Iranian military commanders and reflects the leadership’s threat perception. Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of IRGC Aerospace Force, noted in December 2018 that although Iran has no technical limitation on increasing the range of its missiles, the current range satisfies Iran’s existing security needs.29

Reaching a Consensus

The U.S. decision to unilaterally renege on its JCPOA commitments in May 2018 has deepened Iran’s distrust of Western countries. Iran is unlikely to participate in any negotiations that would jeopardize the backbone of its national defense strategy; no sensible country would. Meanwhile, credible reports have indicated that the United States plans to impose new sanctions on Iran’s drone and precision missile capabilities.30 Sanctions alone, however, will not prevent Tehran from advancing its national defense, as security concerns always trump other issues.

An Iranian medium range missile passes by the official reviewing stand in Tehran during the annual military parade in September 2017, marking the anniversary of the outbreak of Iran's devastating 1980–1988 war with Iraq. Iran's diverse and growing missile arsenal concerns the United States and its allies. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)Nevertheless, a face-saving missile compromise might be achievable. Under favorable circumstances, the United States and Iran could agree to codify Tehran’s self-imposed 2,000-kilometer-range into a formal agreement. That is far less than what the United States has advocated, but at least it would restrain the program somewhat. Washington must be willing, however, to reciprocate Tehran’s concessions and recognize its legitimate security concerns. In the words of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “[E]very agreement generally reflects reciprocal concessions rather than unilateral satisfaction.”31 Washington has a number of options in its foreign policy toolbox. These concessions could include a U.S. commitment not to prevent other countries from selling conventional weaponry to Iran or a commitment to lift sanctions on Iran’s missile program, if such a framework is reached.

With regard to Iran’s regional activities, the United States should take a hands-off approach and instead throw its diplomatic and political support behind a regional dialogue that offers the possibility of a favorable outcome for all regional powers, including Iran. Washington, for example, could support the ongoing talks between Riyadh and Tehran, which aim to mend relations between the two regional powers. Recently, Amirabdollahian attended the Iraqi Neighboring Countries Conference, which was aimed at supporting Iraq.32 He also met with a number of Arab leaders, including Kuwait’s foreign minister and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, emir of Dubai. “What we need more than ever today is sustainable regional security…. Security can only be achieved through mutual trust between the countries of the region…strengthening communication and good neighborliness,”33 Amirabdollahian observed. Such initiatives can create a platform for regional leaders to meet and discuss their outstanding issues, including the devastating war in Yemen. A framework for considering the interests of all parties could advance regional peace and stability and enable the United States to focus more of its attention on the rise of China.

Raisi’s inauguration marks a hostile takeover by hard-liners in all three branches of Iran’s government. Given the alignment of views among Raisi, Amirabdollahian, and Khamenei, in addition to the IRGC, the resulting synergy is certain to create a more homogenous and effective decision-making environment within national security circles, potentially leading to a more assertive Iran. In other words, Raisi’s tenure fills the gap between what Zarif once dubbed “diplomacy and field,”34 a reference to the struggle between the Foreign Ministry and the IRGC in determining and executing Iran’s foreign policies in the region.

To produce the economic results so vital to Iran’s survival, the Raisi administration is certainly interested in and requires a revival of the JCPOA and the termination of what has been effectively the economic strangulation of Iran. Even so, the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA has left very little appetite or political capital in Tehran to negotiate with Washington and European capitals. Perhaps the best approach for the Biden administration is first to revive and then implement the nuclear agreement in good faith, allowing Iran to see the benefits of negotiations. Only after that is Tehran likely to be amenable to follow-on negotiations to reach a broader framework agreement with Washington.

ENDNOTES

1. “Iran’s Missile Program Not Subject to Negotiations, Zarif Says,” Tehran Times, January 20, 2021.

2. “Iran Nuclear Deal: Trump’s Speech in Full,” BBC, October 10, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41617488.

3. “Antony Blinken on Iran,” The Iran Primer, June 25, 2021, https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2021/jan/21/antony-blinken-iran.

4. Rachel Oswald, “Blinken Tells House Panel to Expect Firmness Toward China,” MSN, March 10, 2021.

5. Julian Hattem, “Obama: Iran Not Following the Spirit of the Deal,” The Hill, April 1, 2016.

6. James R. Clapper, Statement on the worldwide threat assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, February 9, 2016, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Clapper_02-09-16.pdf.

7. Daniel R. Coats, Statement on the worldwide threat assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, January 29, 2019, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR---SSCI.pdf.

8. “Iran Deal: EU United in Keeping Iran Nuclear Deal in Place for European Security,” European Union External Action Service, May 29, 2018, https://eeas.europa.eu/topics/multilateral-relations/45352/iran-deal-eu-united-keeping-iran-nuclear-deal-place-european-security_en.

9. “Gulf States Want Iran Deal Talks to Address Tehran’s Missiles Program, Support for Proxy Groups,” Al-Monitor, June 16, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/06/gulf-states-want-iran-deal-talks-address-tehrans-missiles-program-support-proxy.

10. Elaine Sciolino, “Documents Detail Israeli Missile Deal With the Shah,” The New York Times, April 1, 1986.

11. UN Security Council, “Letter Dated 9 November 1983 From the Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General,” S/16140, November 10, 1983.

12. Marcus George, “Insight: After Syria, Iran Laments Its Own Chemical Weapons Victims,” Reuters, September 13, 2013.

13. Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid, “CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,” Foreign Policy, August 26, 2013, https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/08/26/exclusive-cia-files-prove-america-helped-saddam-as-he-gassed-iran/.

14. “Iran FM Javad Zarif Responds to a Reporter's Question Regarding Ballistic Missiles,” YouTube, April 20, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejudkZgs5Vg.

15. Sina Azodi, “U.S. Should Offer Incentives for Iran Missile Testing Moratorium,” Atlantic Council, February 20, 2018, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/us-should-offer-incentives-for-iran-missile-testing-moratorium/.

16. Ali Khaji, Shoadin Fallahdoost, and Mohammad Reza Sorush, “Civilian Casualties of Iranian Cities by Ballistic Missile Attacks During Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988),” Chinese Journal of Traumatology, Vol. 13, No. 2 (April 1, 2010).

17. “Shahab-1 (Scud B-Variant),” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 31, 2021, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/shahab-1/.

18. “SIPRI Military Expenditure Database,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex (accessed September 14, 2021).

19. Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), “Iranian Public Opinion Under ‘Maximum Pressure,’” October 2019, https://cissm.umd.edu/sites/default/files/2019-10/Iranian%20PO%20under%20Maximum%20Pressure_101819_full.pdf.

20. CISSM, “Iranian Public Opinion, at the Start of the Biden Administration,” February 2021, p. 28, https://cissm.umd.edu/sites/default/files/2021-02/CISSM%20Iran%20PO%20full%20report%20-02242021_0.pdf.

21. Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, “Iran’s War Within,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2021-08-05/irans-war-within-ebrahim-raisi.

22. “Naagofte-haye Diplomat-e Moghavemat az Nabard-e Shaam,” Islamic Republic News Agency, January 7, 2017, https://www.irna.ir/news/82787902/.

23. Erin Cunningham and Kareem Fahim, “Raisi Says Iran’s Ballistic Missiles Are Not Negotiable, and He Doesn’t Want to Meet Biden,” The Washington Post, June 21, 2021.

24. “Ro’yaye kelid Khordan e Moazekereh Moushaki Iran Hargez Ta’bir Nemisahavd,” Iranian Students News Agency, September 21, 2018, https://www.isna.ir/news/97063014707/.

25. Iran Documentary, “Hossein Amir-Abdollahian Interview With Dast-Khat Documentary,” YouTube, June 24, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=fUWe8g3F1X4.

26. Rick Gladstone, “Khamenei Adds to Doubts in Iran Nuclear Deal Talk,” The New York Times, July 28, 2021.

27. “Ali Khamenei: We Will Not Negotiate Over Issues Related to the Honor of Revolution,” Radio Free Europe, May 29, 2019, https://www.radiofarda.com/a/f4_ali_khamenei_statement_iran/29970492.html (in Farsi).

28. Ali Javid, “Iran Ayatollah Khamenei: Missile and Range,” YouTube, June 17, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cdk0VqG7Ni4.

29. “Iranian General Says Nation Can Extend Missile Range Beyond 2,000 kilometers,” The Times of Israel, December 10, 2018.

30. Ian Talley and Benoit Faucon, “U.S. Plans Sanctions Against Iran’s Drones and Guided Missiles,” The Wall Street Journal, July 29, 2021.

31. Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1994), p. 740.

32. Sara Masoumi, Twitter, August 14, 2021, https://twitter.com/SaraMassoumi/status/1430200197972381702?s=20.

33. “Deepening Ties With Neighbors a Priority of Raisi’s Foreign Policy,” Tehran Times, September 6, 2021.

34. Parisa Hafezi, “In Leaked Recording, Iran’s Zarif Criticises Guards’ Influence in Diplomacy,” Reuters, April 26, 2021.

 


Sina Azodi is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and a lecturer of international affairs at the Institute for Middle East Studies in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in international relations at the University of South Florida, where he studies Iran’s nuclear program.

New leadership in Iran, historical factors and a complicated geostrategic environment are driving
Iranian decision-making, thus making compromise with the West on the nuclear deal unlikely.

Iran Deal Scenarios and Regional Security


October 2021
By Farzan Sabet

The Iran nuclear deal is on life support. A major blow came in May 2018 when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and launched a diplomatic, economic, and military “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. Despite expressing support for the agreement, President Joe Biden has delayed reentering it since taking office in January and instead retained the sanctions on Iran in a somewhat diminished form, thereby sustaining the deal’s precarious status.

With meetings like this gathering of the JCPOA Commission in July 2019 in Vienna, Iran and the other participants in the nuclear deal tried to keep the agreement alive after the United States pulled out. (Photo by Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images)Iran initially exercised “strategic patience” regarding its nuclear activities after Trump’s withdrawal in the hopes that other participants in the nuclear deal—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom—could compensate for the economic loss wrought by the U.S. pressure campaign. When this support did not materialize as expected, Tehran shifted to “maximum resistance” in May 2019 by incrementally reducing compliance with the deal and increasing grey-zone military pressure on the United States and its allies in the Middle East.1 It is not known if Iranian policy will change under newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi. On one hand, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently concluded another temporary agreement to implement agreed verification measures and Iran’s foreign minister stated his country will return to nuclear negotiations “very soon.” On the other hand, Raisi has signaled that his government may take an even tougher approach.2

Although the other JCPOA participants have had limited success in reducing the effects of sanctions on Iran, they have played an important intermediary role by facilitating indirect negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Nonetheless, it is apparent that unless the United States is an active and full member of the deal, the other participants cannot continue to prop it up by themselves.

Yet, all is not lost. With political will, diplomatic skill, and some luck, the JCPOA could survive in some form and become an important component of future regional weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and security agreements. If the nuclear deal is not reinstated, the region will not benefit from the political and security breathing space that it could provide, but there will still be opportunities to address regional security, proliferation, and other challenges.

The Situation at Year Six

The Iranian government, despite benefiting from one of the world’s largest petroleum reserves, embarked on an ambitious nuclear energy program in 1974 that it claims is for peaceful uses.3 Since the outset, there have been accusations that Iran is secretly developing nuclear weapons, and this issue was pushed back onto the international stage in August 2002 when an Iranian opposition group revealed the existence of previously undeclared Iranian nuclear facilities.4 The JCPOA was intended to address the international community’s proliferation concerns by placing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for significant sanctions relief for Iran and cooperation with Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities.

The restrictions were designed so that, during the deal’s first decade, if Tehran wanted to cheat, it would take a year to break out and produce enough uranium-235 fuel for a nuclear weapon. In theory, that would be long enough for the IAEA to find out and the other JCPOA participants to take timely preventive action. The deal also dismantled Iran’s plutonium research and production capabilities, although Iran would eventually be permitted to reconstitute this infrastructure after 15 years if it so chose. It imposed very strong and intrusive monitoring, safeguards, and verification measures to ensure compliance. In addition, a key related UN Security Council resolution enshrined the JCPOA in international law, keeping in place an arms embargo on Iran for the first five years of the deal’s implementation, until 2020, and restricting ballistic missile development for eight years, until 2023. Furthermore, until 2025, the other JCPOA participants retain the option to snap back international sanctions on Iran in case of a significant violation.5

It remains to be seen if Iran and the United States will ever fully reimplement the deal. After taking office, the Biden administration, representing the participant that reneged on the agreement, had an opportunity to take the first step to return to the deal and encourage Iran to take reciprocal steps to resume its own commitments. Instead, the new U.S. government demanded that Tehran again fully comply with its commitments and raised new demands that go beyond those in the JCPOA. The Iranian government responded with its own set of demands.6

In this photo, released by Iran's Atomic Energy Agency and dated 2019, technicians work at the Arak heavy water plant, one part of the country's vast nuclear infrastructure.The demands by the two sides generally fall into three categories. The first is the type and level of concessions required by both sides before they are willing to fully reimplement the JCPOA. The United States has asserted that Iran has made unacceptable nuclear advances since 2019 and that compensatory nuclear restrictions are now required to get back to the one-year breakout time. A corollary issue is how to address Iran’s reduced compliance with enhanced IAEA monitoring, safeguards, and verification measures under the JCPOA and its refusal to answer questions about past nuclear work, although a recent agreement between the two sides to reset monitoring equipment may be a step in the right direction.7 In the past, Iran has demanded compensation for the economic damage done by the Trump-imposed maximum pressure campaign, which its foreign minister once claimed cost up to a trillion dollars.8 It also wants to keep some of the nuclear gains it has made.

The second issue relates to what guarantees the two sides need to reenter the JCPOA. A key demand of the Biden administration has been that following U.S. reentry, Iran should agree to follow-up missile and regional security talks. Iran has demanded a commitment that the United States will not withdraw from the JCPOA in the future. It has also sought limits on the ability of the United States to trigger the snapback of sanctions.

The third issue centers on the sanctions on Iran. Tehran is seeking the removal of more than 1,500 Trump-era sanctions covering nuclear- and non-nuclear-related entities and activities and a process verifying their removal. The Biden administration is believed to have divided these sanctions into three baskets depending on their perceived inconsistency with the deal, including those to be lifted, those to be negotiated, and those that would remain.9

Three Future Scenarios

The current impasse suggests there are at least three possible scenarios for the JCPOA. Each would open different possibilities for how future Middle East security talks and agreements could unfold and represent a spectrum along which events could develop. There are many possible permutations; only a few are elaborated here.

Return to an agreement. In this first scenario, the two sides would simply return to the agreement as it existed before Trump’s withdrawal. With each passing month and as greater complexities emerge, this seems less likely. The expressed desire of both sides for a “better” deal indicates they may aim for a “JCPOA-plus” that incorporates some new compromises and trade-offs. Alternatively, they could take a page from the original JCPOA negotiations between Iran and the five major nuclear powers plus Germany by agreeing to a preliminary deal, such as the Joint Plan of Action concluded prior to the JCPOA, that meets some of the most urgent requirements. That could lessen tensions and create room for future talks and eventually, a JCPOA-plus deal that offers both sides more for more.

The Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction held its first session in November 2019 at the United Nations in New York. The second session, set for Nov. 29 to Dec. 3, affords an opportunity for regional states to cooperate. (UN photo)A JCPOA-plus could make a renewed agreement more durable in Washington and Tehran, at least for the remainder of Biden’s tenure, as both sides could claim they got a better deal. It also has the benefit of taking the nuclear issue off the table for now as a major source of U.S.-Iranian tension and could build confidence and space for talks on WMD and regional security issues. This scenario would not be as reassuring for the Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf who are more concerned about Iran’s regional proxy network and ballistic missile program. Finally, it would give Raisi’s government an early political win and economic gains that enhance the new president’s legitimacy with the Iranian public and bolster his credentials abroad.

The road to a JCPOA-plus is strewn with perils. Such additional demands by the two sides would make reaching an agreement more difficult. Iranian principalists, labeled conservatives or hard-liners in the English-language press, who dominate the new government, have a tough negotiating style harkening back to the last time they were in power, in 2005–2013.10 If talks drag, the politics of the JCPOA could become more toxic for the Biden administration, which may be eager to avoid further criticism of its foreign policy ahead of the 2022 midterm elections after what many viewed as the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.11

Status quo. In the second scenario, Iran and the United States would fail to restore full compliance with the JCPOA, but restrain their activities so the agreement does not fall apart entirely. The result would be a de facto “JCPOA-minus” that could limp along until the expiration of the snapback mechanism or the possible election of a new U.S. president, both in 2025, after which the Iran nuclear deal would be in renewed danger of complete dissolution.

No JCPOA. In the third scenario, one or both sides take steps to terminate the Iran nuclear deal, perhaps with the intention of gaining leverage for a JCPOA-plus or grand bargain that addresses issues beyond the nuclear file, although such outcomes would not be guaranteed.

Scenarios two and three carry greater risk of retaliatory economic, military, and nuclear escalations by the two sides and their respective allies. They also open the door to U.S. or Israeli military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. In contrast to its predecessor, the current Israeli government has signaled it would prefer a restored and fully implemented JCPOA to the status quo or no JCPOA. It also has indicated that, in the absence of such results or action by the international community, it is prepared to take military action.12

When Biden took office, a return to the original JCPOA appeared possible. Iran faced a grave economic situation, severely exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and sanctions relief would have given the country’s economy and health sector a shot in the arm. The Rouhani government and the so-called moderate coalition that backed it could have used a return to the JCPOA to improve their political fortunes in the 2021 Iranian presidential election. The Biden administration, in turn, could have distinguished itself from its predecessor in Iranian eyes, lowered tensions with Tehran, and further freed the United States to reduce its military presence in the region.13

Yet, both sides had reason to slow-walk JCPOA reimplementation. Biden and his team needed time to review and articulate a policy toward Iran and the deal. In addition, they made clear they would seek to redress certain perceived JCPOA shortcomings and reduce opposition to the agreement at home and abroad, but this approach effectively kept in place key elements of the Trump-era policy. Rouhani hinted that the sides were close to a deal but that a domestic law prevented it.14 As a result, scenario two, in which the de facto JCPOA-minus status quo continues for the foreseeable future, has become more likely.

This situation could continue to become more dangerous. The U.S.-Iranian nuclear dispute has not only heightened regional proliferation concerns, but spilled over into other domains. The U.S. maximum pressure campaign has raised doubts among Iranian elites about the utility of negotiating with Washington and will make achieving and sustaining future agreements more difficult. U.S. and Israeli overt and covert military actions against Iranian nuclear, missile, proxy, and other targets may have perceived security benefits for the perpetrators, but such actions also strengthen Iranian resolve to advance these programs and eventually retaliate.

Bank Melli is among the Iranian financial institutions that have been under U.S. sanctions. (Photo by Alessandro Rota/Getty Images)U.S. attempts to strangle the Iranian economy through sanctions have arguably been a key driver of Tehran’s reduced compliance with the JCPOA and worsened humanitarian conditions in Iran amid the global pandemic.15 On the other hand, any demonstration of Iranian capabilities in the nuclear, missile, and proxy domains risks military, economic, and political consequences while the country is coping with domestic unrest, economic stagnation, a worsening pandemic, water shortages, and a deteriorating environment. Finally, the conflict between the two has contributed to a deterioration of maritime security in regional waters. The United States and Iran are liable to remain in the status quo or sleepwalk into having no JCPOA at all due to overconfidence in their respective positions and the dubious belief that time is on their side.

The JCPOA and Middle Eastern Security

One less politically sensitive challenge that could lend itself to cooperation among Middle Eastern states is combating climate change.  The Zayandeh Rud river in Isfahan, shown in this image from 2018, now often runs dry due to water extraction before it reaches the city. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)The Iran nuclear deal’s uncertain future looms as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and its reduced presence in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq underscore a shift of U.S. military and political interests from the Middle East to Asia. Although the region is likely to remain important for U.S. foreign policy, it is likely to be less of a focus as international relations move back toward great-power competition and global issues such as climate change and pandemics consume more attention and resources. Countries in the region are already looking inward and, by virtue of shared history and geography, to one another to address pressing issues.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring, if not earlier, Middle Eastern countries and their nonstate associates have formed new coalitions as alliances with the United States and traditional groupings were perceived as less reliable or insufficient to meet present challenges. These new coalitions include the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance,” mainly composed of Shia and anti-U.S., anti-Israeli states and nonstate actors such as Syria, Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and the Houthis; the anti-Axis alliance, composed of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; and the Turkey-Qatar partnership.16 There is also a principally nonstate Salafi-jihadi movement whose fortunes have ebbed and flowed since 9/11, but which may have gained a new center of gravity in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s claims to the contrary notwithstanding. These groupings have altered the old regional balance of power in the context of the U.S. pivot to Asia. These groupings and processes, such as the Abraham Accords, Iranian-Saudi talks,17 Turkish-UAE talks,18 the Saudi-Qatari reconciliation,19 and the Baghdad Conference,20 are in their infancy. Given the security challenges requiring cooperation among neighbors, their durability is uncertain.

Should the JCPOA be restored, as in scenario one, the momentum for Middle Eastern states to engage in negotiations and reach agreements on arms control and other security issues could increase. For example, regional states concerned about the deal’s sunset provisions on Iranian fuel-cycle capabilities could use the JCPOA’s reimplementation as a foundation on which to build. The Middle East is experiencing an increased interest in nuclear energy.21 Because parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty benefit from the right to the peaceful uses of nuclear technology, regional states could collectively decide to adopt their own measures to ensure the peaceful application of this technology. That could be one way to arrest the region’s long history of nuclear proliferation and counterproliferation conflicts.

There are many ways to do this. Given Iran’s negative experience with the JCPOA, the Raisi government may not be eager to quickly negotiate a follow-up agreement that extends nuclear restrictions or puts in place more stringent monitoring, safeguards, or verification measures. Even so, concerned regional states could cooperate with Iran to implement key elements of the JCPOA on a wider, more permanent basis by adopting bans on reprocessing, limits on uranium enrichment, and an additional protocol to their safeguards agreements. Persian Gulf states could also address nuclear issues on a more comprehensive basis as part of a subregional security dialogue. Several such proposals exist.22 Another possibility involves addressing nuclear issues as part of a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone. The Second Session of the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction will take place November 29 to December 3 and could be a forum where regional states consider how to build on the JCPOA.23

Reimplementing the JCPOA could create momentum for bilateral, subregional, and regional dialogues on conventional arms control aimed at decreasing tensions between Iran and other regional states and allowing them to shift focus to other issues. Western and regional proposals for follow-on talks to the nuclear deal largely have focused on Iran’s ballistic missile program and militant proxy network so far. Talks that single Iran out and focus exclusively on its military capabilities will be a nonstarter for the Raisi government, which has promised a more assertive foreign policy.24 Regional states that advocate reductions or limits on Iranian capabilities must be willing to accept similar reductions or restrictions on their own capabilities. These states, which are building up their arsenals,25 feel vulnerable to perceived threats from Iranian capabilities and are unlikely to accept restraints now. Despite the limited prospects for this kind of conventional arms control, the various ongoing, ad hoc security dialogues and more ambitious proposals, such as one for a subregional security process, could still decrease tensions, facilitate confidence-building measures, and address conflicts such as those in Libya and Yemen.

Such arms control and security dialogues could take place under a JCPOA-minus, albeit with longer odds. Iran may still want to normalize its nuclear program with the international community and benefit from some U.S. sanctions relief and improved ties with neighbors. In turn, the United States and its allies may still be reassured somewhat by a JCPOA-minus, not want to fuel the deal’s further disintegration through maximum pressure-style tactics, and thus be open to talks on terms that are more palatable to Iran. Progress is more difficult to envisage with no JCPOA.

Cooperation on Nontraditional Security Issues

Under all three JCPOA scenarios outlined above, regional states should still discuss and act on nontraditional security issues that could be less sensitive right now but loom large for the future of the Middle East. For instance, most states have experienced major domestic unrest in the last decade driven primarily by the lack of economic opportunity for young people. The causes are legion, ranging from the structural to idiosyncratic. As in the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a major blow to Middle Eastern economies. The region is burdened by a legacy of exploitation, mismanagement, and corruption. Some states have been the persistent target of U.S. and international sanctions. The more affluent petroleum-exporting economies have experienced lower oil prices in recent years due to growing capacity, stagnant demand, and mounting global pressure to reduce the use of fossil fuels to combat climate change.26

The most attainable way to address the lack of opportunity is by improving economic relations among states in the region, which has long been underutilized due to a legacy of colonial boundaries, interstate conflict, and ethnosectarian divides. It would require negotiations to reduce barriers to stimulate cross-border trade, investment, and migration to drive growth. Regional states could work on joint projects from transportation to energy to education to meet critical needs while reinforcing the Middle East’s status as a nexus of global and Eurasian commerce. Although improving economic ties might raise fewer security sensitivities, there would still be obstacles, including patronage systems and protectionist forces. Furthermore, states may be reluctant to encourage economic ties in the absence of improved political relations. Even so, limited economic initiatives could eventually give way to long-term integration by increasing interdependence and people-to-people contact, thus strengthening common interests and personal bonds that mitigate future conflicts.

Smog, like this hazes engulfing Tehran in January 2021, is another climate threat facing Iran that could lend itself to regional remedies. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)There are other nontraditional, potentially less sensitive areas where cooperation could become necessary and possible, starting with climate change, the environment, and water resources. Local ecosystems often do not neatly conform to state borders, straddling many sides. Climate change is already making the region less livable due to rising temperatures, power shortages, drought, desertification, and sandstorms.27 By establishing better formal and informal lines of communication and working relationships, regional states could ameliorate some of the worst effects of climate change. For instance, preserving and sharing finite freshwater resources could meet people's basic needs and prevent conflicts over water. Meanwhile, the region’s increased interest in nuclear energy means its leaders must find cooperative ways to establish and uphold strong safety and security standards to prevent nuclear incidents, accidental or otherwise.

The same goes for the COVID-19 response. As with other parts of the world, no state in the Middle East is truly safe from pandemics unless its neighbors are. At a regional level, that means developing protocols to facilitate the movement of essential goods and people, even amid an outbreak, while stopping the spread of disease, including through exchanging information and vaccine sharing.

Although global powers have frequently been negative forces in the Middle East through military interventions, economic sanctions, and political pressures,28 they would be wise to support regional states in addressing these nontraditional security challenges. Failure to make inroads in promoting regional economic growth, arresting environmental degradation, and minimizing the ravages of pandemics will certainly hurt the people of the Middle East and destabilize their governments. Global powers will also be affected by these developments in the form of pressure to intervene in the region militarily, economically, and diplomatically and to help cope with the large waves of migration already hitting their shores and influencing their domestic politics.29

Looking Ahead

Whether the result of U.S.-Iranian negotiations is a JCPOA-plus, JCPOA-minus, or no JCPOA, regional cooperation on traditional and nontraditional security issues is still possible. The Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab states signed during the Trump administration and recent cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean on natural gas are just two examples of what the regional states can do even amid seemingly intractable conflicts. The Abraham Accords may exist at least partly because of the specter of the JCPOA’s demise and the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Even so, conducting negotiations and reaching agreements will be more difficult with a weakened or nonexistent JCPOA. Since Trump blew up the Iran deal, the renewed nuclear challenge has fueled conflict and mistrust among regional states, needlessly drained governance capacity and diplomatic bandwidth, and made progress in other areas more elusive. A restored JCPOA or a JCPOA-plus, especially in the context of a receding U.S. footprint in the region, could flip these unfavorable conditions and become a cornerstone on which countries in the region can build a new security architecture and determine their own fates.

ENDNOTES

1. Javier Jordan, “International Competition Below the Threshold of War: Toward a Theory of Gray Zone Conflict,” Journal of Strategic Security, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2020): 1–24; Farzan Sabet, “A Fraught Road Ahead for the JCPOA?” UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), August 20, 2020, https://unidir.org/commentary/fraught-road-ahead-jcpoa.

2. Radio Farda, “Iran Ready to Resume Talks on Nuclear Deal, but Not Under Western 'Pressure,' Raisi Says,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), September 4, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-nuclear-raisi-jcpoa-negotiations-us/31443879.html.

3. Farzan Sabet, “The April 1977 Persepolis Conference on the Transfer of Nuclear Technology: A Third World Revolt Against U.S. Non-Proliferation Policy?” The International History Review, Vol. 40, No. 5 (2018).

4. “Iran,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, June 2020, https://www.nti.org/learn/countries/iran/nuclear/.

5. “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” July 14, 2015, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/122460/full-text-of-the-iran-nuclear-deal.pdf.

6. John Krzyzaniak, “Iran and U.S. Still Far Apart on Reviving the JCPOA,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, August 23, 2021, https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2021/08/iran-us-jcpoa.

7. Laurence Norman, “Iran Pledges to Cooperate With UN Atomic Agency, Easing Nuclear Talks Threat,” The Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2021.

8. Maziar Motamedi, “U.S. Sanctions Inflicted $1 Trillion Damage on Iran’s Economy: FM,” Al Jazeera, February 21, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/21/us-sanctions-inflicted-1-trillion-damage-on-irans-economy-fm.

9. Steven Erlanger and David E. Sanger, “U.S. and Iran Want to Restore the Nuclear Deal. They Disagree Deeply on What That Means,” The New York Times, May 9, 2021.

10. Saeid Jafari, “Saeed Jalili: The Former Nuclear Negotiator That Rubs Diplomats the Wrong Way,” Atlantic Council, June 11, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/saeed-jalili-the-former-nuclear-negotiator-that-rubs-diplomats-the-wrong-way/.

11. Jackie Calmes, “What Will the Disastrous Fall of Kabul Mean for Voters in 2022?” Los Angeles Times, August 18, 2021.

12. Anshel Pfeffer, “They Once Called It the New ‘Munich.’ But Can Israel Now Live With a Nuclear Deal With Iran?” The Jewish Chronicle, September 23, 2021; Neri Zilber, “Israel Can Live With a New Iran Nuclear Deal, Defense Minister Says,” Foreign Policy, September 14, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/09/14/israel-iran-nuclear-deal-defense-minister-gantz/; Judah Ari Gross, “As Bennett Meets Biden, IDF Ramps Up Plans for Strike on Iran’s Nuke Program,” The Times of Israel, August 25, 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/as-bennett-meets-biden-idf-ramps-up-plans-for-strike-on-irans-nuke-program/.

13. Gordon Lubold, Nancy A. Youssef, and Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Military to Withdraw Hundreds of Troops, Aircraft, Antimissile Batteries From Middle East,” The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2021.

14. “Rouhani Says Hopes Iran's Next Govt Can Conclude Nuclear Talks,” AFP, July 14, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210714-rouhani-says-hopes-iran-s-next-govt-can-conclude-nuclear-talks.

15. Grégoire Mallard, Farzan Sabet, and Jin Sun, “The Humanitarian Gap in the Global Sanctions Regime: Assessing Causes, Effects, and Solutions,” Global Governance, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2020): 121–153.

16. Michael Stephens, “Israel and Normalisation: Is a New Middle East Order Emerging?” Center for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, October 30, 2020, https://chacr.org.uk/2020/10/30/israel-and-normalisation-is-a-new-middle-east-order-emerging/.

17. “Iran Plans New Round of Talks With Saudi Arabia - Iranian Envoy,” Reuters, August 31, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-plans-new-round-talks-with-saudi-arabia-iranian-envoy-2021-08-31/.

18. Amberin Zaman, “Iraqi Kurdish Leader Helps Ease Turkey-UAE Tensions,” Al-Monitor, August 31, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/08/iraqi-kurdish-leader-helps-ease-turkey-uae-tensions.

19. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, “Analysis: Has the Gulf Reconciled After the Qatar blockade?” Al Jazeera, June 3, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/6/5/has-the-gulf-reconciled-after-the-end-of-the-qatar-blockade.

20. Ali Mamouri, “Baghdad Conference to Establish Cooperation, Partnership in Region,” Al-Monitor, August 30, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/08/baghdad-conference-establish-cooperation-partnership-region.

21. Dania Saadi, “Middle East Nuclear Ambitions Stymied by Financial Constraints, Enrichment Fears,” S&P Global Platts, November 11, 2020, https://www.spglobal.com/platts/en/market-insights/latest-news/electric-power/111120-middle-east-nuclear-ambitions-stymied-by-financial-constraints-enrichment-fears.

22. UN Security Council, “Concerned About Lasting Conflicts, Terrorism, Sectarian Tensions Plaguing Persian Gulf, Speakers in Security Council Stress Need for Coherent Approach to Collective Security,” SC/14333, October 20, 2020, https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14333.doc.htm.

23. Chen Zak and Farzan Sabet, eds., “From the Iran Nuclear Deal to a Middle East Zone? Lessons From the JCPOA for an ME WMDFZ,” UNIDIR, 2021, https://unidir.org/sites/default/files/2021-06/UNIDIR%20-%20Lessons%20from%20the%20JCPOA%20for%20the%20ME%20WMDFZ%20essay%20series.pdf.

24. Golnaz Esfandiari, “What Iranian Foreign Policy Could Look Like Under President Raisi,” RFE/RL, June 17, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-presidential-election-raisi-foreign-policy/31313258.html.

25. “International Arms Transfers Level Off After Years of Sharp Growth; Middle Eastern Arms Imports Grow Most, Says SIPRI,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, March 15, 2021, https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2021/international-arms-transfers-level-after-years-sharp-growth-middle-eastern-arms-imports-grow-most.

26. Anjli Raval, Chloe Cornish, and Neil Munshi, “Oil Producers Face Costly Transition as World Looks to Net-Zero Future,” Financial Times, May 26, 2021.

27. Anchal Vohra, “The Middle East Is Becoming Literally Uninhabitable,” Foreign Policy, August 24, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/08/24/the-middle-east-is-becoming-literally-uninhabitable/.

28. Ahmed Rasheed and Louise Heavens, “Iraq at Risk of Power Shortages After Iran Reduced Gas Supply,” Reuters, September 1, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/iraq-gas-iran/iraq-at-risk-of-power-shortages-after-iran-reduced-gas-supply-idUSL1N2Q30K8.

29. Bassem Mroue, “Aid Groups: Millions in Syria, Iraq Losing Access to Water,” Associated Press, August 23, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/middle-east-business-syria-environment-and-nature-lebanon-e21f41e6a2b8d277b2547ce1e4b5b130.


Farzan Sabet is a researcher in the Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone Project at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. He holds a Ph.D in international history from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

With political will, diplomatic skill, and some luck, the JCPOA could survive in some form and become
a cornerstone for future regional weapons of mass destruction and security agreements.

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.

Missile Defense Review Begins


October 2021
By Kingston Reif

The Biden administration has kicked off a review of U.S. missile defense policy, according to the Defense Department.

This intercontinental ballistic missile was the target for a test of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system from the U.S. Army's Reagan test site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands on May 2017. (Photo by U.S. Department of Defense)The review comes as the United States pursues new programs to defend the homeland against limited long-range ballistic missile attacks and Russia continues to insist that new arms control talks address U.S. missile defenses.

“The Missile Defense Review is currently underway,” Lt. Col. Uriah Orland, a Defense Department spokesman, told Arms Control Today on Aug. 13. “The review started in late June, and it will be finalized in conjunction with the National Defense Strategy early next year.”

The Trump administration’s review, published in January 2019, proposed a significant expansion of the role and scope of U.S. missile defenses. (See ACT, March 2019.) But it did not result in any immediate changes to U.S. defense deployments.

As a senator during the George W. Bush administration, Biden raised concerns about the administration’s disdain for the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and plans to accelerate the fielding of an initial capability to defend the United States against long-range ballistic missile attacks.

“Are we really prepared to raise the starting gun in a new arms race in a potentially dangerous world?” he said in a speech on Sept. 10, 2001. “Because make no mistake about it, folks, if we deploy a missile defense system that is being contemplated, we could do just that.”

But Biden was largely silent on his views on missile defense during the 2020 presidential campaign.

His administration’s first budget request, released in May, would continue the Trump administration’s plans for missile defense. (See ACT, July/August 2021.)

The most significant early decision made by the Biden administration on missile defense was to continue with plans to build a new interceptor to counter long-range ballistic missile attacks. (See ACT, June 2021.)

The missile, known as the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI), emerged during the Trump administration after the Pentagon in 2019 cancelled the program to design an upgraded kill vehicle, the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, for the already existing 44 interceptors that are part of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system.

An independent Defense Department cost estimate published in April put the estimated cost of the interceptor at $18 billion over its lifetime.

The department plans to supplement the existing 44 ground-based interceptors with 20 NGIs beginning not later than 2028 to bring the fleet total to 64. In the meantime, the Biden administration’s budget request would continue to fund a service life extension program for the existing interceptors to keep them viable until the NGI is fielded.

Although the Missile Defense Review is certain to endorse development of the NGI, it remains to be seen whether the administration will bless, beyond this year, plans to supplement U.S. homeland missile defenses by modifying existing systems to defend against longer-range threats.

The Missile Defense Agency is in the early stages of developing a layered homeland missile defense approach to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, designed to defeat short- and intermediate-range missiles, to intercept limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats.

Congress has been skeptical of the plans, and the Government Accountability Office has raised technical concerns.

The Pentagon conducted a successful first intercept test of the Aegis Standard Missile-3 Block IIA missile against an ICBM target last November. (See ACT, December 2020.) Among the decisions the Biden administration will need to make is whether to pursue more such tests of the interceptor.

Other key programmatic issues likely to be considered in the review include the future of U.S. efforts to build a defense against hypersonic glide vehicles and cruise missiles and how best to augment the defense of Guam.

The Missile Defense Review will also address several policy issues, including the role of missile defenses in U.S. security policy and how to deal with defenses in arms control talks.

Traditionally, the United States has pursued long-range missile defenses to defend against a possible limited nuclear ICBM attack from North Korea or, in the future, Iran and relied on nuclear deterrence to defend against the larger, more sophisticated Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals.

The Trump administration’s review endorsed this declaratory approach, although President Donald Trump said the goal of U.S. missile defenses is to “ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States—anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”

Whether to accept negotiated limits on U.S. missile defenses is likely to be among the most contentious issues considered in the review and as part of broader policy development conversations within the administration about arms control diplomacy with Russia and possibly China.

Since the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002, long-standing U.S. policy has been to reject negotiated constraints on the development and deployment of U.S. missile defenses.

Amid the resumption of a strategic stability dialogue with Russia, the administration has expressed its desire to bring additional types of Russian nuclear weapons into the arms control process, namely so-called tactical nuclear warheads, and bring China into the arms control process for the first time. (See ACT, September 2021.) But it has not commented on whether it would be open to discussing missile defense in formal arms control talks and, if so, to what extent.

Russia, meanwhile, wants to focus on developing “a new security equation” that addresses all nuclear and non-nuclear, offensive and defensive weapons that affect strategic stability. That would include U.S. missile defense systems.

 

Among other issues, the Biden administration’s review will consider whether missile defense should be part of arms control negotiations with Russia.

U.S. Mustard Agent Destroyed at Army Depot


October 2021

The last U.S. projectiles containing mustard agent at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Blue Grass, Kentucky, were destroyed on Sept. 4, marking the third of five destruction campaigns completed at the site.

A munitions handler guides a 155mm projectile containing mustard agent into a box to begin the destruction process at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Blue Grass, Kentucky. The last mustard-agent projectile was processed on Sept. 4. (U.S. Department of Defense photo)To date, about 32 percent of the chemical agents stored at Blue Grass, or about 170 tons, has been destroyed. The destruction process began in June 2019. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

The Program Executive Office, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, which was created by Congress in 1997, is responsible for the destruction of the remaining U.S. chemical weapons stockpiles.

After signing and ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention, the United States endeavored to destroy its approximately 3,500 tons of chemical agents. Today, only two U.S. chemical weapons destruction facilities remain operational; the rest are closed. The Blue Grass Army Depot originally stored more than 523 tons of mustard gas and nerve agents, while the Pueblo Chemical Depot, in Colorado, stored more than 2,600 tons of mustard agent.

Destruction remains ongoing at both sites. At Pueblo, 78 percent of the agents have been destroyed since the process began in March 2015.—JULIA MASTERSON

U.S. Mustard Agent Destroyed at Army Depot

U.S. Advances Nuclear Security Goals


October 2021

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) took domestic and international strides toward securing and eliminating nuclear materials over the past two months.

The NNSA, a semiautonomous agency within the Energy Department, on Aug. 27 awarded $37 million to the Wisconsin-based company NorthStar Medical Technologies to advance the domestic supply of a vital medical isotope, molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), that is used daily in tens of thousands of medical procedures and cancer diagnoses.

In the past, U.S. medical facilities obtained Mo-99 from foreign sources that primarily produced the isotope by way of highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can be used to fuel nuclear weapons and thus presents a nuclear proliferation risk if stolen or diverted. Congress called on the NNSA in 2012 to establish the Mo-99 Program in order to promote a reliable domestic supply of the isotope and to reduce the potential use of HEU for nuclear weapons proliferation.

In addition, the NNSA launched on Aug. 30 the RadSecure 100 initiative aimed at enhancing domestic radiological security. Through partnerships with local businesses, medical centers, and law enforcement, this initiative aims to remove high-priority radioactive material from some U.S. facilities while boosting security at the remaining facilities in 100 U.S. cities. It will also focus on ensuring secure transportation of high-risk radioactive sources.

Overseas, the United States and Norway cemented a plan to fully eliminate Norway’s HEU by blending it down to low-enriched uranium. Down-blending the concentration of HEU to a level below 20 percent uranium-235 prevents its weaponization. The project will begin in 2022, announced Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry Iselin Nybø on Sept. 1.

This agreement “lays an important foundation for Norway to get rid of its nuclear weapons-usable material,” said Nybø. “We are thus delivering at home what Norway and the United States have worked towards globally for several years: reducing the use of HEU in the civilian sector.” Once the down-blending is completed, Norway will become the 34th country to be considered HEU free.—MARY ANN HURTADO

U.S. Advances Nuclear Security Goals

Iran, IAEA Reach Access Agreement

Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reached an agreement Sept. 12 that will allow agency inspectors to access remote monitoring equipment at certain nuclear facilities in Iran to service the units and install new data storage. The agreement likely staved off an IAEA Board of Governors resolution censuring Iran for failing to cooperate with the agency. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi warned Sept. 8 that “unconstructive” action from the board could “disrupt” negotiations in Vienna to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Talks...

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