Iran, the JCPoA and the Future of the Non-Proliferation Regime

The non-proliferation regime appears to have stagnated since the previous Review Conference in 2010. It involves deep complexity and relies upon shared norms, but these alone are insufficient for states to have the necessary confidence essential to its success.By combining the range of tools available to states and international institutions the international community can drive forward efforts to ensure safety and security and reduce the risks that proliferation spirals out of control.

The one positive major development since 2010 has been the agreement between the E3+3 and Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), agreed last month. Could this help create opportunities to break the stalemate in other parts of the non-proliferation agenda?

The JCPoA will survive and deliver if the states concerned recognise and maintain the dynamic balance achieved in the negotiations. This requires a level of mutual respect and open channels of diplomacy. In contrast, these are two interconnected features sorely lacking within the NPT more globally. The frustration at the lack of progress in disarmament has severely dented trust in the nuclear weapons states’ (NWS) capability to uphold their end of the ‘grand bargain’.

Further, many non-proliferation successes since the end of the Cold War have occurred through building channels of open diplomacy. To take one example aside from the JCPoA, strong and peaceful nuclear relations between Brazil and Argentina developed through bilateral trust building from which grew the Argentine-Brazil Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC). Whilst the NPT is the foundation stone for disarmament and non-proliferation, its record in moving beyond defending the status quo and establishing a norm against the spread of nuclear weapons has been limited. Some have noted that success thus far in agreeing on a deal with Iran is an overall success of the NPT, strengthening the core values of the Treaty. Both the Argentine-Brazil example and the JCPoA demonstrate that fostering the opportunity for diplomacy will positively impact the path towards disarmament and non-proliferation.

The JCPoA highlights that credible nuclear non-proliferation answers have come as additional multilateral and bilateral discussions adjacent to the NPT framework, with external deals necessary to make up for the stagnant NPT RevCon process. Time will tell if the deal will shore up the NPT RevCon by renewing the impetus to overcome current stalemates, or demonstrate its weaknesses in providing sufficient assurance. Although the impetus and norms for nuclear non-proliferation have been jointly strengthened through the successful engagement of the E3+3, this will not in itself revive success in the wider RevCon process and ensure a fair future for the non-proliferation regime.

Under the JPCoA Iran and the IAEA will be able to work together to through formal mechanisms to resolve issues as they arise. This goes beyond what the NPT currently offers and allows channels to remain open through IAEA interaction and the role of the Joint Commission. These open channels need to set an example for the non-proliferation regime more broadly, recognizing that diplomacy and communication is the strongest tool in the box. The JCPoA is not the end of the line for the development of non-proliferation, far from it. The NPT is frequently cited as the cornerstone of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime. Whilst it plays a vital role in formalising states’ commitments and outlining key features of the regime, from prohibiting the horizontal spread of nuclear weapons to ensuring access to peaceful uses of nuclear materials, it appears to require additional mechanisms involving practical steps to maintain a progressive and active approach to addressing non-proliferation.

The May 2015 NPT RevCon was unsuccessful in maintaining momentum in strengthening non-proliferation. This diplomatic process is too broad, further weakening the ability of the NPT to function with strong success. Perhaps it is time to review the RevCon process, taking a more regional or lower level approach which could then feed back into the broader NPT process. The JCPoA announcement given on the 14th July presents a hope of fresh engagement with issues surrounding non-proliferation. If the JCPoA can install faith in Iraninan intentions over this and verify this, other states within the region may willing to open the door to the prospect of a weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. Although this engagement is very unlikely to involve Israel in the foreseeable future, other regional states could be motivated to build pressure for a zone. there is an opportunity now to recognise that the next steps for non-proliferation are needed to develop upon the NPT’s foundation and work towards a safer and more secure world.

The JCPoA negotiations illustrate that progress will be long, tiresome and bumpy, but progress on non-proliferation is impossible without engagement and opening channels for continuous discussion. The non-proliferation regime may yet struggle to come back from its stagnant state. As with the case of Iran, diplomacy needs to take the forefront. A new multi-dimensional plan for engagement needs to be made which considers all states, perspectives and tools and creates the best possible combination to reach positive outcomes. By addressing regional and bilateral issues, in the broader NPT context, a stronger opportunity for success is created. We need to build on the normative framework in a fairer way through creating stronger channels of communication for non-nuclear weapon states and a more accessible process to continue with successful non-proliferation efforts.

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