“Iran is Not on the Path to Nuclear Arms”: The View from Moscow on Nuclear Disarmament

Russian tactical nuclear warhead in the field during the 1990s (Credit: http://www.energy-dimension.com/soviet-nuclear-weapons/)

2012-09-23 by Richard Weitz

Given the statements of the Russian speakers at the 2012 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference, Moscow is laying down some tough if often understandable conditions for making further progress in nuclear arms control.

Thanks to the Carnegie Corporation in New York, I had the opportunity to attend and speak at the conference, which met from September 6-8. It was organized by the Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS), whose energetic Director, Anton Khlopkov, has great connections in the nonproliferation realm. Some two hundred people attended, including a number of prominent Russian and Western nonproliferation experts.

The conference included several Iranians and North Koreans, who one rarely meets in DC conferences!

The Iranians offered flexible and interesting perspectives on their nuclear dispute with the West, whereas the North Koreans made clear that they planned to keep their nuclear weapons potential indefinitely to guard against U.S. “aggression.”

Sergey Ryabkov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, keynoted the address. He stressed the importance of strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and insisted that what he called its three core principles—nuclear nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful use of nuclear energy– still represented the optimal balance of interests and means for resolving all current nonproliferation issues.

Russian tactical nuclear warhead in the field during the 1990s (Credit: http://www.energy-dimension.com/soviet-nuclear-weapons/)
Russian tactical nuclear warhead in the field during the 1990s (Credit: http://www.energy-dimension.com/soviet-nuclear-weapons/)

In the area of nonproliferation, Ryabkov saw value in expanding the geographic scope of regional nuclear-free zones pending the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The problem is that the CTBT has become a politicized issue in Washington and so Senate ratification will no soon occur, while the United States, along with Britain and France, has serious objections to some of the declared Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zones such as the one in Central Asia.

Another Russian priority, shared by the Obama administration and other governments, is the convening of the WMD Middle East Conference as agreed to at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. The Russians logically argue that all the key countries need to attend, including Iran and Israel.

The problem here is that the Arab Spring is derailing this timetable. The Russians made clear they considered postponing the conference until 2013 “undesirable,” though this would help de-politicize the issue among the U.S. electorate.

In the case of Iran, Ryabkov reaffirmed that he saw no “signs” that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons.

He insisted that Iranian had made an effort to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA). Indeed, the agency has repeatedly stated that they have detected no diversion for military use of Iran’s growing stockpile of declared enriched uranium. But even Ryabkov was forced to confirm that the IAEA shared Western concerns that Iran was manufacturing and storing undeclared nuclear material, which could help construct nuclear weapons. He similarly acknowledged concerns about alleged Iranian studies about how to manufacture a nuclear warhead.

Ryabkov concluded that Iran needed to take steps to address these concerns that its program is not exclusively peaceful. He said Russia was trying to use its god offices to help Iran and the West reach a settlement through a step-by-step process favored by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The end goal Moscow has in mind would be that the international community would recognize Iran’s rights to all peaceful nuclear activities, including enrichment, and would remove all its sanctions. In return, Iran would allow for the full and complete international supervision of its program, including by Iran’s adopting the IAEA Additional Protocol.

The Lavrov plan envisages a step-by-step approach with reciprocal actions to rebuild confidence among the parties. The problem is that none of the initial steps in recent years have yielded sufficient momentum to secure additional progress. In addition, Western governments refuse to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich uranium, which is prohibited by UN Security Council resolutions adopted by Russia itself.

Ryabkov reaffirmed Russia’s support for the peaceful development of nuclear energy with enhanced safety and security mechanisms, including those designed to prevent the misuse of nuclear technologies for military purposes. For example, he called on all countries to join the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which gives the agency enhanced rights and capabilities to detect and analyze undeclared nuclear programs. These views essentially coincide with the American position.

Ryabkov said Russia was prepared to reduce its nuclear forces further, and eventually move to “complete and universal disarmament,” as required by Article VI of the NPT, but only in a gradual manner under strict conditions that would “guarantee equal and indivisible security for all.”

These conditions included:

  • That all countries having nuclear weapons capabilities participate
  • Prevention of the militarization of outer space
  • Guarantees against countries’ ability to rapidly reconstitute their nuclear potential
  • Constraints on conventional weapons having strategic effects like nuclear weapons
  • Prevention of unilateral or one-sided missile defense systems that undermine strategic deterrence and international balances
  • Settlement of regional conflicts that threaten to escalate into larger conflicts
  • Entry into force of the CTBT

The first condition is interesting in that it reaffirms Russia’s concern, increasingly shared by the United States, that China needs to become more engaged in nuclear arms control processes given its expanding nuclear potential. China has also joined Russia in criticizing U.S. missile defense programs.

Chinese officials have suggested they might join nuclear arms control talks after Russian and U.S. nuclear forces decline to Beijing’s levels, but they have declined to make an explicit pledge to do so.

Thus far, PRC representatives have downplayed the significance of the reductions Russia and the United States have accepted in New START.

As in past cases, the signing of the New START Treaty in 2010, which requires further cuts in the size of the Russian and U.S. stockpiles of nuclear warheads and their delivery vehicles, has failed to entice Beijing into joining international strategic arms control negotiations. Yet, China could contribute to realizing deeper cuts in Russian and U.S. nuclear forces if Beijing more directly supported the reductions process.

Securing a more binding commitment from the Chinese government rather than simple declarations of intent to restrain the PRC’s nuclear forces is essential for reassuring Washington and Moscow that further reducing their nuclear arsenals will not risk undermining global and regional stability.

The United States as well as Russia will find it hard to reduce their strategic nuclear weapons further without some indication that China will constrain its own nuclear potential.

The Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review explicitly cites U.S. and allied concerns about the PRC’s “quantitative and qualitative modernization of its nuclear capabilities.”

This multilaterlization issue presents a challenge—but also an opportunity–for the next U.S. administration.