NPT News in Review, Vol. 16, No. 4
Editorial: Commitment catch-22, or why they say we might have disarmament one day if we really want it, as long as we don’t ask for it or try to make it happen
7 May 2019
The issue of commitment was on the table front and centre again Monday morning, as NPT states parties discussed regional issues including the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, and ongoing diplomatic process with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In each of these circumstances, commitments have been made and broken, putting at risk significant achievements of multilateral diplomacy and the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Peril awaits.
This Wednesday is the one-year anniversary of the US government’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). After a “year of patience,” indications are that Iran now plans to “reduce compliance” with the JCPOA in the coming days and to “enforce specific decisions to reciprocate”. On 29 April 2019, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs told the PrepCom that Iran’s “supreme national interests” were now at stake. This is code for the conditions for NPT withdrawal under article X.
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, says this could start by no longer abiding by the limits on uranium enrichment established by the JCPOA. Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former spokesperson for Iran’s nuclear negotiators, and other analysts have suggested this would put Iran at odds with the rest of the international community and open Iran to further sanctions.
The JCPOA was endorsed unanimously by the UN Security Council on 20 July 2015 in resolution 2231, which means that the unilateral sanctions the United States has imposed on Iran are in violation of this resolution. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has since January 2016 confirmed that Iran is in compliance with its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA. Last week, the IAEA told the PrepCom that “the implementation in Iran of the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, Additional Protocol, and additional transparency measures under the JCPOA amounts to the most robust verification system in existence anywhere in the world.”
For virtually every government on earth, except for the United States and Israel, this is great news. But as US senators Richard Durbin and Tom Udall have warned, it seems that the rejection of the JCPOA by the US and Israel is not about preventing nuclear proliferation but building a case for military action against Iran, a policy that is “built on the ashes of the failed Iraq strategy.” The two senators are not the only ones to see the obvious connections with Iraq. Mousavian sees the efforts to bring Iran’s oil exports to zero and declare the Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation are about “laying siege to Iran in ways similar to the way the Bush administration did as it prepared to wage an illegal war against Iraq.” Joseph Cirincione and Mary Kaszynski of Ploughshares Fund have also argued the US government is “taking pages from the Iraq War playbook.”
Despite all of the forewarning, and our repeated experience with this scenario, the rest of the international community is not engaging sufficiently. In particular, the other parties to the JCPOA—China, France, Germany, Russia, and the UK—have not gone beyond indicating political support for continuation of the JCPOA. At the NPT PrepCom, all have indicated support for the continuation of the JCPOA; they and almost every other state party has expressed concern about the US withdrawal. But they have not sought to “offset the negative impacts” of the US sanctions, and instead have just urged Iran to continue complying with the agreement. Meanwhile, the US is moving an aircraft carrier to the region accompanied with bellicose rhetoric from John Bolton about “countering the Iranian threat”.
The US withdrawal from the JCPOA and aggression towards Iran is part of a larger enduring US-driven failure over the Middle East WMDFZ. For a brief history of this issue, see Sharon Dolev’s piece in Reaching Critical Will’s 2019 NPT briefing book (pp. 12–14). In short, this zone was first proposed by Egypt with backing from Iran in 1990. In 1995, as part of the decision on an indefinite extension of the NPT states parties endorsed the idea of creating this zone. In 2010, they agreed to a specific plan of action to finally actualise its negotiation. But that plan was never implemented, despite serious efforts by many individuals across several countries. The United States called off the conference set to take place in 2012, and at the behest of Israel blocked attempts to restart this process at the 2015 NPT Review Conference.
As Dolev writes, “The main stumbling block to meaningful progress on the zone involves sharp disagreement amongst regional countries on the terms and the sequence of steps leading to its establishment.” In particular, “The security concerns in the region are viewed through two prisms—Israel, as the sole nuclear-armed state, insists on a comprehensive peace agreement with its Arab neighbours before committing to any talks on the zone, while other regional states emphasise the need for the creation of the zone first as a contribution to peace and stability.”
This division was at work during Monday’s debate on the issue, with the United States and United Kingdom expressing concern that the Arab states had gone through the UN General Assembly to establish a conference convened by the UN Secretary-General in 2019. While the US and Israel have voiced their opposition to this initiative, it is currently scheduled to take place in November 2019. According to the League of Arab States, the UNSG has suggested the dates of 18–22 November 2019. The League also said the candidature of Jordan has been informally accepted to chair the meeting.
Despite actively blocking progress on this issue in the NPT context, the US and UK both expressed concern that this conference will undermine work on a Middle East WMDFZ in the NPT context. It’s one of those catch-22 dilemmas the nuclear-armed states consistently raise—we can only make progress on their terms, but we are not allowed to make progress because their terms stipulated the environment is not right for progress. And yes, the United States has the position, as it does on nuclear disarmament, that the security environment is not appropriate for the negotiation of a WMDFZ in the Middle East. It even has a working paper on this.
But from the perspective of the Arab states as well as the third co-sponsor of the 1995 resolution, Russia, the 2019 conference should have a positive impact on the security environment, as well as on the NPT and non-proliferation regime. While the US and UK argued that the 2019 conference is not inclusive, Russia and the League of Arab States pointed out that no one has been excluded nor pressured to join. Russia also said it is expected that all decisions in any negotiation process would be taken by consensus to ensure the interests of all states in the region would be taken into account.
Iran voted in favour of establishment of the 2019 conference at the UNGA but did not mention it in its statement on Monday, focusing instead on recommendations for the 2020 NPT Review Conference. The European Union, which has helped facilitate past consultations on the zone, also did not comment specifically on the 2019 UNGA conference. It just said that the 2010 NPT action plan “remains the most promising basis on which to proceed” and that zones “can only be established on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at between all states of the region concerned.” It also argued, “The process must be inclusive for it to be effective and a proposal that forces the issue risks failure.”
Given the decades of difficult discussions on this issue, “it is an understatement that the process to establish a zone free of WMD in the Middle East desperately needs an injection of energy and commitment, for its own sake and for the health of the NPT that is tied so closely to its progress,” writes Dolev. This is what has driven a group of civil society individuals from the region, with international experts and diplomats, to start work on a draft treaty for a Middle East WMDFZ and a Middle East Treaty Organisation.
This spirit has also driven civil society to engage with renewed vigour with demands for peace on the Korea peninsula. Korea Peace Now, a campaign organised by several women’s civil society groups including WILPF to ensure gender diversity and perspectives in a Korean peace process, have argued that a peace process is crucial and complementary to denuclearisation.
Most countries speaking at this PrepCom have welcomed recent diplomatic efforts between the US and DPRK, and between DPRK and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Most have called for concrete progress on denuclearisation of the DPRK and for the pursuit of peace. But what’s important here, as with Iran, is that the issues of disarmament and non-proliferation cannot be separated from peaceful relations. In the case of the DPRK, this means ending the Korean War. It also means pursuing a peace agreement as a mutually reinforcing process with denuclearisation. Furthermore, denuclearisation is not just about ending the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programmes, but also US threats, US-ROK military exercises, and the US-ROK “extended nuclear deterrence” arrangement. It means using instruments like the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the Comprehensive nuclear Test Ban Treaty to bring all relevant states onto the same page. Achieving peace and denuclearisation also means lifting sanctions with humanitarian impacts and those that are creating obstacles to implementation of the inter-Korean agreements.
Based on its statement to the NPT PrepCom on Monday, the US government seems to be sticking to its principles from the Singapore Summit and is obviously keen to continue a diplomatic process with the DPRK. This is welcome news and the rest of the NPT has expressed support for the ongoing dialogue. But they have also expressed wariness about the “trustworthiness” of the DPRK and also of the US—especially given ongoing events about the JCPOA. Even if the US government manages to reach agreements with DPRK for peace and denuclearisation, many are wondering, how long will those agreements last?
Multilateral negotiation is never easy. And where relations have soured over many years, distrust builds up. But this is the entire point of diplomacy, to build relations and to try to create something better, together. This process is difficult when all parties are committed. When we have a situation that we have with right now, with the United States trashing pretty much of all of its past arms control agreements (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the JCPOA, etc.) it becomes extremely challenging to understand how to advance peace and security. We are not on solid ground; we are in the rabbit hole. And thus again the catch-22 created by the United States: it wants to create the environment for nuclear disarmament, which it posits as a world safe for it to give up nuclear weapons; yet it is actively creating a world that is less safe.
NPT states parties have to stand up against this. The vast majority of governments at this meeting know well the danger that lies ahead. The international community did not prevent the excesses of this danger before—they must act now to prevent it. This includes countering US sanctions against Iran to ensure that it continues to fully comply with the JCPOA, supporting the inter-Korean and other multilateral actions for sustainable peace and disarmament on the Korean peninsula along with the US-DPRK talks, and supporting efforts from governments and civil society for the establishment of a WMD free zone in the Middle East.