Iran Nuclear Deal Endgame Near, U.S.-Russia Arms Control Falls Decades Back

As Josep Borrell, the EU's top diplomat, announced what could be the endgame in restoring a multinational nuclear deal with Iran, Russia announced a major setback for the last remaining nuclear treaty between Moscow and Washington.

The Iran nuclear deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plant of Action (JCPOA), was first reached in 2015 by Iran and major world powers, including China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom. It was later abandoned in 2018 by then-U.S. President Donald Trump, who reinstated sanctions against the Islamic Republic, ratcheting up tensions between Washington and Tehran that have lingered to the present day.

President Joe Biden set out to reenter the deal after coming to office a year and a half ago, and has sent U.S. officials in nine rounds of negotiations in the Austrian capital of Vienna. The protracted effort has tested the resolve of Washington and Tehran, both of whom have repeatedly called on the other to make the political decisions necessary to reach a resolution, while at the same time avoiding indefinite commitments or imposing arbitrary deadlines on the talks.

But Borrell's announcement Monday could spell the effective conclusion of negotiations. The EU high commissioner for foreign affairs stated that representatives have taken the opportunity in during the most discussions "to fine-tune and address — with technical adjustments — a handful of issues remaining in the text."

"What can be negotiated has been negotiated, and it's now in a final text," Borrell tweeted. "However, behind every technical issue and every paragraph lies a political decision that needs to be taken in the capitals. If these answers are positive, then we can sign this deal."

Hans Kristensen, who serves as director of the Federation of American Scientists Nuclear Information Project, told Newsweek that the move "would definitely be a step forward" if the parties follow through on it.

"The JCPOA was a major accomplishment to limit Iran's technical ability to produce a nuclear weapon, if it decided to do so," Kristensen said. "And former President Trump's irresponsible withdrawal of the United States from the accord predictably achieved nothing positive but a series of Iranian steps in the wrong direction. Restoring the limits, or modified but effective ones, would be a major victory for non-proliferation efforts."

However, he was less positive about another nuclear-related development that emerged on Monday.

Russia, military, parade, training, ICBMs, Moscow
Russian personnel stand at attention as the armed forces prepare to move nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles to Moscow for a victory parade in this still from a video published February 25, a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a "special military operation" in Ukraine. Russian Ministry of Defense

While Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia's permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, also shared news of the latest JCPOA development on Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a potentially consequential statement regarding the state of U.S.-Russia nuclear cooperation.

"On August 8, 2022, the Russian Federation officially informed the United States via diplomatic channels that our country is temporarily exempting its facilities from inspection activities under the New START Treaty," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday. "This exemption also covers facilities that can be used for demonstrations under the treaty."

The ministry emphasized that "these measures have temporary character" and were adopted in response to "Washington's tenacious desire to relaunch the inspection activities without prior arrangement on conditions that ignore the current realities, give the United States unilateral advantages and deprive Russia of the right to carry out inspections in the United States."

The New START treaty, officially the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, was signed in 2010 as the successor to the original START accord signed by Washington and Moscow in 1991, months before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Trump administration criticized New START as being outdated and the treaty nearly expired last February, but Biden took up his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin's offer to unconditionally extend the deal for five years as one of the U.S. leader's first major foreign policy actions in office.

In addition to putting caps on the arsenals of the two nations that together hold more than 90% of the world's nuclear weapons, the treaty importantly allows for mutual on-site inspections to verify stockpile information. These inspections have been suspended since 2020 as a result of COVID-19, and the latest move, taking place amid a collapse in U.S.-Russia relations since Putin announced the beginning of a war in Ukraine about a year after New START's renewal, meant they could be on hold indefinitely.

Washington and Moscow have long accused one another of attempting to undermine the global non-proliferation regime. In the latest spat, the Russian Foreign Ministry has argued that restrictions put in place as a result of the Ukraine conflict have effectively prevented Russian aircraft carrying inspectors to land in the U.S.

So while the ministry said that Russia remains "fully committed to complying with all the provisions of the START Treaty, which in our eyes is the most important instrument for maintaining international security and stability," it also said the U.S. must first "abandon deliberately counterproductive attempts to artificially speed up the resumption of START inspection activities and focus on a thorough study of all existing problems in this area."

Following the collapse of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019, New START remains the last bilateral arms control arrangement between Washington and Moscow.

Kristensen warned that Russia disallowing U.S. visits to its strategic weapons sites "is a serious step back" for global arms control efforts.

"Although the announcement does not disrupt ongoing inspections, which have been suspended since 2020 because of COVID, it comes at a time when the United States has been working to resume on-site inspections under the treaty," Kristensen said. "The Russian claim that its inspectors can't get to the sites in the United States because of overflight bans for Russian aircraft after the attack on Ukraine seems flawed because the United States and its allies likely would provide waivers for New START inspection flights."

"Russia is probably playing up this issue now during the NPT conference to retaliate against the criticism of its nuclear activities," Kristensen said. "In the medium-term, however, I believe Russia is interested in continuing the New START treaty limits."

Iran, EU, nuclear, talks, Tehran
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (L) meets Josep Borell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (R), and Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora (2nd-R) at the foreign ministry headquarters in Iran's capital Tehran on June 25. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

The latest nuclear-related developments came as the first week of the 10th Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference concluded in New York. Parties to the NPT, first signed in 1968 and put into effect in 1970, gather every five years to discuss the treaty, though the 2020 gathering was postponed until this month as a result of COVID-19.

Five nuclear weapons states, including the U.S. and Russia, are among the U.N. member states that are parties to the NPT, as is Iran. Other nuclear weapons states are not, a list that includes India, Pakistan and North Korea as well as Israel, which is widely believed to have a nuclear arsenal.

Iranian officials have repeatedly denied that Tehran is seeking to build nuclear weapons. The country has, however, continued to ramp up uranium enrichment in response to the collapse of Western participation in the JCPOA, and Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Mohammad Eslami revealed on Thursday for the first time that the Islamic Republic was capable of producing such a bomb.

The absence of an agreement here, coupled with New START woes could force the Biden administration into a two-front nuclear crisis, something Arms Control Association Nonproliferation Policy Director Kelsey Davenport told Newsweek that the U.S. should seek to avoid as "the broader nonproliferation and arms control regime is at a critical crossroads."

"The recent announcement that Russia will suspend on-site inspections under the New START treaty is just another example of Moscow's destabilizing and irresponsible actions that increase the risk of nuclear use," Davenport said. "The Iranian nuclear crisis will escalate if Washington and Tehran negotiations fail to find a way to accept the European Union's last-ditch effort to restore the JCPOA and could lead to other states in the region seeking to match Iran's capabilities."

Given the precarious state of international arms control efforts, she said that "Washington must prioritize urgent action to restore some order to the nuclear chaos and prevent these crises from escalating."

And she argued that "it is critical for the Biden administration to continue to act with restraint in the face of Putin's nuclear sabre rattling and Iran's advancing nuclear program and prioritize diplomacy." This entailed eschewing more hard-line and provocative measures in favor of incentivizing the benefits of cooperation on both fronts.

Even this, however, would not completely extinguish the nuclear risks the world was facing.

"Focusing specifically on the Iranian and Russian crises could put out some fires, but it is not a long-term solution to the challenges facing the nonproliferation and disarmament regime," Davenport said. "Deemphasizing the role that nuclear weapons play in security doctrines and addressing the root security causes that drive states to consider developing nuclear weapons is necessary to prevent the current regime from unraveling."

Newsweek has contacted the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Control and Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation as well as the European Union's External Action Service, Russia's permanent mission to international organizations in Vienna and the Iranian permanent mission to the United Nations in New York for comment.

This is a developing news story. More information will be added as it becomes available.