How to Stop States from 'Weaponizing' Nuclear Programs

The NPT doesn’t expressly ban states from doing the math and science and engineering needed to 'weaponize' nuclear material into an explosive device." This needs to change.

Long before a final Iran nuclear agreement was on the horizon, plans have been afoot to generalize the hoped-for results of diplomacy far beyond the borders of the Islamic Republic. If these ideas bear fruit, after an Iran deal happens, most of the world’s nations will commit not to do things that are critical for building nuclear arms.

Of the 185 non-nuclear weapons state parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), nearly all countries with significant nuclear infrastructure have concluded safeguards agreements permitting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to verify that they are not producing or diverting plutonium and uranium for weapons. But the NPT doesn’t expressly ban states from doing the math and science and engineering needed to “weaponize” nuclear material into an explosive device.

The IAEA’s Iran dossier suggests that for many years, scientists guided by Iran’s military worked on nuclear weapons development. Because a diplomatic settlement of the crisis must reduce Iran’s nuclear threat to be credible, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) negotiating with Iran want Iran to divulge what it knows about weapons-making, giving the IAEA and the powers a better baseline to monitor Iran’s NPT peaceful-use commitment.  

So far, Iran’s denial that it has done any nuclear weapons work is a deal breaker. That’s why U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on June 16 seemed to hint that Iran would not have to reveal incriminating specifics about its nuclear past. Regardless of what Kerry implied, the fine print of his remarks made clear that there won’t be a deal unless the powers are confident that Iran isn’t doing weaponization.

The P5+1 will also insist that Iran ratify and implement its Additional Protocol, an obligation which will expand the IAEA’s legal access to Iran’s nuclear program. But in the light of Iran’s past systematic deception and the IAEA’s unresolved weaponization allegations, negotiators also want Iran to commit to still greater transparency, embodied in what some term an “Additional Protocol Plus” which inter alia would commit Iran not to do nuclear weapons science.

Beyond this, some experts and negotiators want these extra obligations to become generalized for all NPT non-nuclear weapon states. They regret that when the NPT was being negotiated, parties did not accept a Soviet proposal that included in non-nuclear weapon states’ Article 2 obligations a ban on the “preparation for manufacture” of nuclear weapons, in addition to the obligation expressed by the treaty “not to manufacture or otherwise acquire” nuclear arms.

But until now the NPT parties have acted on the basis that, except for activities that involve undeclared or clandestine production or diversion of plutonium and uranium for nuclear weapons, virtually all other nuclear R&D pursuits are peaceful and permissible. Iran’s negotiating partners worry that, if this broad definition of peaceful use is unchallenged after an Iran deal that in fifteen years will allow Iran to resume most of its previous, provocative activities, other states will follow suit and embark on aggressive nuclear programs.

Who’s in Charge?

If efforts to curb weaponization move forward after an Iran deal, two operational questions will be asked: Who decides which nuclear activities are “peaceful,” and who will be responsible for addressing any allegations that states are working on nuclear weapons?