Nuclear Tensions Must Not Be Sidelined During Coronavirus

Although the pandemic means the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) is postponed, the delay could be an opportunity to better the health of the NPT regime.

Expert comment Published 1 May 2020 Updated 11 January 2021 2 minute READ

Ana Alecsandru

Former Research Assistant, International Security Programme

Painted stairs in Tehran, Iran symbolizing hope. Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Painted stairs in Tehran, Iran symbolizing hope. Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Despite face-to-face diplomatic meetings being increasingly rare during the current disruption, COVID-19 will ultimately force a redefinition of national security and defence spending priorities, and this could provide the possibility of an improved political climate at RevCon when it happens in 2021.

With US presidential elections due in November and a gradual engagement growing between the EU and Iran, there could be a new context for more cooperation between states by 2021. Two key areas of focus over the coming months will be the arms control talks between the United States and Russia, and Iran’s compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal.

It is too early to discern the medium- and longer-term consequences of COVID-19 for defence ministries, but a greater focus on societal resilience and reinvigorating economic productivity will likely undercut the rationale for expensive nuclear modernization.

Therefore, extending the current New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) would be the best, most practical option to give both Russia and the United States time to explore more ambitious multilateral arms control measures, while allowing their current focus to remain on the pandemic and economic relief.

Continuing distrust

But with the current treaty — which limits nuclear warheads, missiles, bombers, and launchers — due to expire in February 2021, the continuing distrust between the United States and Russia makes this extension hard to achieve, and a follow-on treaty even less likely.

Prospects for future bilateral negotiations are hindered by President Donald Trump’s vision for a trilateral arms control initiative involving both China and Russia. But China opposes this on the grounds that its nuclear arsenal is far smaller than that of the two others.

While there appears to be agreement that the nuclear arsenals of China, France, and the UK (the NPT nuclear-weapons states) and those of the states outside the treaty (India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel) will all have to be taken into account going forward, a practical mechanism for doing so proves elusive.

If Joe Biden wins the US presidency he seems likely to pursue an extension of the New START treaty and could also prevent a withdrawal from the Open Skies treaty, the latest arms control agreement targeted by the Trump administration.

Under a Biden administration, the United States would also probably re-join the JCPOA, provided Tehran returned to strict compliance with the deal. Biden could even use the team that negotiated the Iran deal to advance the goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

For an NPT regime already confronted by a series of longstanding divergences, it is essential that Iran remains a signatory especially as tensions between Iran and the United States have escalated recently — due to the Qassim Suleimani assassination and the recent claim by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to have successfully placed the country’s first military satellite into orbit.

This announcement raised red flags among experts about whether Iran is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles due to the dual-use nature of space technology. The satellite launch — deeply troubling for Iran’s neighbours and the EU countries — may strengthen the US argument that it is a cover for the development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

However, as with many other countries, Iran is struggling with a severe coronavirus crisis and will be pouring its scientific expertise and funds into that rather than other efforts — including the nuclear programme.

Those European countries supporting the trading mechanism INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) for sending humanitarian goods into Iran could use this crisis to encourage Iran to remain in compliance with the JCPOA and its NPT obligations.

France, Germany and the UK (the E3) have already successfully concluded the first transaction, which was to facilitate the export of medical goods from Europe to Iran. But the recent Iranian escalatory steps will most certainly place a strain on the preservation of this arrangement.

COVID-19 might have delayed Iran’s next breach of the 2015 nuclear agreement but Tehran will inevitably seek to strengthen its hand before any potential negotiations with the United States after the presidential elections.

As frosty US-Iranian relations — exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic — prevent diplomatic negotiations, this constructive engagement between the E3 and Iran might prove instrumental in reviving the JCPOA and ensuring Iran stays committed to both nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

While countries focus their efforts on tackling the coronavirus pandemic, it is understandable resources may be limited for other global challenges, such as the increasing risk of nuclear weapons use across several regions.

But the potential ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis for the NPT regime are profound. Ongoing tensions between the nuclear-armed states must not be ignored while the world’s focus is elsewhere, and the nuclear community should continue to work together to progress nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, building bridges of cooperation and trust that can long outlast the pandemic.