By Ema Sichmanova.
Nuclear weapons remain the most dangerous armaments in the world. This threat has led to the establishment of a nuclear non-proliferation regime aimed at the prevention of an increase or distribution of nuclear weapons. The cornerstone of this regime is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Although many criticise this regime for not being effective enough, Ms. Nakamitsu, the UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs described the Treaty as ‘one of the most successful treaties’. In the article ‘Is The NPT Still Relevant? – How To Progress The NPT’S Disarmament Provisions’, John Carlson – an international authority on nuclear non-proliferation – emphasises how prior to the negotiation of the NPT it was predicted that there were going to be 25-30 nuclear weapons states by 1990s. However, there are currently only 9 states that are known to be in possession of nuclear weapons.
Under the NPT, there are 5 ‘nuclear-weapon states’: Russia, the United States, China, France, and the United Kingdom. These had developed their armaments prior to the existence of NPT whereas all other countries are identified under the NPT as the ‘non-nuclear weapon states’. The remaining 4 states are North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel; these have developed their nuclear weapons after the signing of the NPT in 1968. The ‘non-nuclear weapon states’ are obliged to conduct separate safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an independent international organisation which reports to the United Nations. These safeguards allow the IAEA to independently verify if states honour their obligations under the NPT.
In 2005, the IAEA determined that Iran had been found to be in non-compliance with its safeguards by commencing to enrich uranium, possibly indicating an aspiration to develop a nuclear weapon. Uranium enrichment and plutonium separation may both be used not just to create fuel for a nuclear reactor but also as a material for nuclear weapons. This gave Iran the potential to produce a nuclear weapon in less than a year. Enrichment activities, however, cannot be banned as they are used to obtain nuclear fuel. Such activity is protected under Article IV of the NPT as the states have a right to enjoy ‘peaceful uses of nuclear technology’. It is only the production of Highly Enriched Uranium, approximately 20% of U-235, which can produce material used for nuclear weapons and is prohibited by the NPT.
As a result of Iran’s activities, the IAEA referred Iran’s nuclear programme to the UN Security Council in 2006. The UN Security Council adopted 7 resolutions which included restrictive measures, such as an embargo on states exporting materials that could be used for Iran’s nuclear programme and placing financial and travel restrictions on certain individuals. Negotiations to settle this dispute had resulted in an agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, China, Russia, and the United States) known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015. Through this deal, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action stated that for 15 years, Iran must reduce its low-enriched uranium from 10,000 kg to a maximum 300 kg and will only enrich uranium up to 3.67%. Further, enrichment will be limited to only a single site. Iran agreed that it will not seek, develop, or acquire any nuclear weapons and will be subject to extensive monitoring. The agreement also included a provision that if Iran is found to be in non-compliance, the sanctions will be re-established. On 16 January 2016, after Iran implemented the JCPOA by restricting the nuclear programme and increasing its monitoring, the nuclear-related sanctions were lifted.
On 8 May 2018, US President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and reintroduced the nuclear-related sanctions which were re-imposed in November 2018. This put further strain on the US and Iran relationship and resulted in Iran cutting back on its compliance with JCPOA in 2019. On 5 January 2020, following the US airstrike that killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, Iran announced that it would no longer abide by the JCPOA. This decision effectively abandoned the deal altogether. They also stated they will continue to cooperate with the IAEA. According to The New York Times, the Iranian government declared that ‘Iran’s nuclear program will have no limitations in production including enrichment capacity and percentage and number of enriched uranium and research and expansion.’
Since Iran had abandoned the JCPOA, relevant sanctions may be re-imposed based on the deal’s conditions. In fact, France, Britain, and Germany already formally triggered the agreement’s dispute mechanism which may result in another UN Security Council Resolution concerning Iran’s sanctions. It is now up to the European diplomats and the Security Council as to what will happen next. If UN Security Council re-establishes sanctions, Iran may refuse cooperation with the IAEA. This would mean a complete lack of information and transparency on Iran’s nuclear activities, allowing Iran to possibly commence the making of nuclear weapons and posing a threat to the entire world. As President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev expressed in a joint statement, ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’.