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"ACA's journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent."

– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
Julia Masterson

Iran Boosts Enriched Uranium Stockpile


April 2020
By Julia Masterson

Iran has accumulated approximately 1,021 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) detailed in a report released March 3. The report notes that Iran is continuing to expand its uranium-enrichment program and is now accumulating enriched material from all 1,044 first-generation IR-1 centrifuge machines at its Fordow facility and from 5,060 IR-1s and a limited number of advanced model machines at its Natanz facility.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi speaks to the media on March 9. He told the agency's Board of Governors the same day that Iran has continued to allow the IAEA to conduct its activities defined by the 2015 nuclear deal. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)Under the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s LEU stockpile is capped at 300 kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas enriched to 3.67 percent uranium-235 and is limited to output from 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz. Three hundred kilograms of uranium hexafluoride gas equates to about 202 kilograms of uranium by weight.

Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile is now about five times larger than the JCPOA limit. The stockpile’s size shortens Iran’s breakout time, the time it would take to produce enough nuclear material for one weapon, if Tehran were to choose to pursue nuclear weapons development. How quickly Iran could produce enough fissile material for a weapon depends on several factors, including the number and type of operating centrifuges. When the JCPOA was fully implemented, Iran’s breakout time was estimated to be 12 months.

Iran’s growing uranium stockpile should not necessarily be perceived as a sprint to the bomb. Iran continues to comply with the IAEA on-site verification and monitoring activities that are designed specifically to detect higher levels of enrichment and a diversion of materials for weapons purposes, said IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi at his agency’s Board of Governors meeting on March 9.

In addition to its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, required of all non-nuclear-weapon states party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran is obligated under the JCPOA to adhere to an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement that allows inspectors increased access and tools to verify the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. The JCPOA grants the IAEA a long-term presence in Iran and allows the agency to continuously monitor Iran’s uranium enrichment, among other things.

“The agency continues to verify the nondiversion of nuclear materials declared by Iran under its safeguards agreement,” Grossi said, adding that the agency is undertaking investigations into Iran’s undeclared nuclear activities.

Grossi also said that despite Iran’s Jan. 5 announcement that it would no longer be bound by the deal’s operational restrictions, “to date, the agency has not observed any changes to Iran’s implementation of its nuclear-related commitments under the JCPOA.”

Iran continues to comply fully with its JCPOA-related safeguards and monitoring commitments and to adhere to the deal’s prohibition on plutonium reprocessing, according to the March 3 report. Iran also has not installed any additional IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz facility and has not taken steps to pursue construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor under its original design, in keeping with the deal’s requirements that Iran install no more than 5,060 IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and convert the Arak reactor to produce less plutonium.

Tehran’s Jan. 5 announcement marked its fifth breach of the nuclear deal since it first began reducing its compliance with the agreement in May 2019. Nevertheless, Iran’s violations likely are not indicative of imminent nuclear weapons development but are rather an attempt by Tehran to pressure the remaining parties to the JCPOA to offer sanctions relief promised under the deal.

In response to Iran’s escalatory measures, the European members of the nuclear deal (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) triggered the deal’s dispute resolution mechanism Jan. 14 in an effort to facilitate dialogue necessary to address Iran’s noncompliance and salvage the agreement. The dispute resolution mechanism, laid out in the text of the JCPOA, provides for a 15-day period of discussions within the governing Joint Commission, which comprises the deal’s remaining members. The time-bound period for discussions within the Joint Commission can be extended by consensus vote.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, who chairs the Joint Commission, announced on Jan. 24 that “there is agreement that more time is needed due to the complexity of the issues involved. The timeline is therefore extended.”

The members of the Joint Commission met for the first time Feb. 26 in Vienna. The meeting was attended by representatives from China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union.

In his statement following that session, Borrell said that “serious concerns were expressed regarding the implementation of Iran’s nuclear commitments under the agreement,” but added that “participants also acknowledged that the reimposition of U.S. sanctions did not allow Iran to reap the full benefits arising from sanctions lifting.”

Borrell remarked that a series of expert-level discussions had taken place in recent weeks regarding Iran’s violations of the JCPOA and Washington’s reimposition of sanctions following the U.S. withdrawal from the deal in May 2018. Although he did not clarify whether the Joint Commission period of the dispute resolution mechanism would be further extended, Borrell noted that expert-level discussions would continue to move forward.

“All participants [in the Feb. 26 meeting] reaffirmed the importance of preserving the agreement, recalling that it is a key element of the global nuclear nonproliferation architecture,” Borrell said.

 

As Iran stores more nuclear material than allowed by the 2015 nuclear deal, it continues to allow IAEA monitoring of its nuclear activities.

North Korea Tests First Missiles of 2020


April 2020
By Julia Masterson

North Korea launched a series of short-range missiles in March, marking its first missile tests in 2020 and signaling Pyongyang’s intent to follow through with leader Kim Jong Un’s promise to possess a “new strategic weapon” in the near future. Kim announced North Korea would continue to develop “necessary and prerequisite strategic weapons” throughout the year in his speech at a plenary meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Worker's Party of Korea, held Dec. 28–31.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observes missile tests on March 21. (Photo: KCNA)Images released by Pyongyang’s Korea Central TV confirm that the two short-range ballistic missiles launched on March 21 had similar features to the KN-24 missile last tested in August 2019. Kim oversaw the recent test, according to a March 22 statement in the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The statement said that the tested missile will “be delivered to [Korean Peoples’ Army] units,” which analysts have speculated may indicate the missile could soon be operational. In a statement a day earlier, KCNA reported the launches were part of an “artillery fire competition between large combined units of the Korean People’s Army.”

The launch came after weeks of successive short-range ballistic missile tests by North Korea following a Feb. 29 KCNA announcement that Kim had overseen a military drill intended to “judge the mobility and the fire power strike ability” of North Korea’s Korean People’s Army’s defense units.

All the March tests appear to have been of short-range ballistic missiles, meaning they can fly less than 500 kilometers. Two missiles launched on March 2 bore some similarity to previous flight tests of North Korea’s KN-25 short-range ballistic missile, according to Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). A statement released on March 2 by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) via the Yonhap News Agency further identified “similarities in features between what it fired [March 2] and those launched last year.”

North Korea also tested three projectiles on March 9, all of which were KN-25 missiles, according to recently released IISS assessments.

“North Korea is believed to be continuing its joint strike drill,” said a senior South Korean JCS officer. Kim oversaw the March 9 launches and expressed “great satisfaction” and “highly appreciated the perfect combat readiness of the long-range artillery sub-units,” the KCNA reported the following day.

Those tests came one day after the North Korean Foreign Ministry responded through the KCNA to a joint statement released by five UN Security Council members condemning the March 2 launches. “The reckless behavior of these countries instigated by the U.S. will become the fuse that will trigger yet another momentous reaction,” the Foreign Ministry said.

After a March 5 meeting of the Security Council, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom urged North Korea to “engage in good faith in meaningful negotiations with the United States aimed at denuclearization” and to abandon “all weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner.”

South Korea’s presidential office said on March 9 that “North Korea continuing to stage joint massive artillery drills following those on Feb. 28 and March 2 does not help efforts to bring peace to the Korean peninsula.”

Despite allies’ mention of meaningful negotiations between the United States and North Korea, discussions on denuclearization and peacebuilding appear to remain stalled. (See ACT, March 2020).

 

Pyongyang tests short-range missiles in military exercises.

IAEA Raises Safeguards Questions | P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert

IAEA Raises Safeguards Questions International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi raised concerns in March about Tehran’s failure to cooperate with an agency investigation into possible storage and use of undeclared nuclear materials at three locations in Iran. In a March 3 report to the agency’s Board of Governors, Grossi outlined the agency’s efforts since January 2019 to request information from Iran about activities at the sites and documented Tehran’s refusal to cooperate with the agency’s investigation. Iran also refused the IAEA’s request in January 2020 to...

The IAEA’s March Reports on Iran’s Nuclear Activities Raise Questions

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) distributed two reports on Iran’s nuclear program March 3 that raise new questions about the country’s nuclear activities and its international legal obligations. The IAEA’s most recent regular quarterly report on Iran’s implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal (issued March 3 and made public March 11) notes a concerning increase in Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium and its number of operating centrifuge machines. However, Tehran’s continued compliance with the monitoring measures put in place by the agreement, known as the Joint...

North Korea Douses Hope for New Talks


March 2020
By Julia Masterson

Negotiations between the United States and North Korea are unlikely to resume in 2020 absent a shift in the U.S. approach, according to multiple Pyongyang officials. “If the U.S. persists such hostile policy toward the DPRK…there will never be a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” said North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Chol at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on Jan. 21.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un walk together at the border of North and South Korea in June 2019. Kim has said North Korea will no longer be bound by his moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)Although he did not define “hostile policy” at the meeting, North Korean condemnation of U.S.-imposed stringent economic sanctions and the conduct of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises have headlined many North Korean statements.

Ju also said that Pyongyang may no longer observe its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing put in place in April 2018 to “build confidence with the United States.” He said Pyongyang has “no reason to be unilaterally bound” by its commitment, given that Washington “remains unchanged in its ambition to block the development” of North Korea. His remarks closely echoed those of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the December 2019 plenary meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, where Kim first announced Pyongyang’s shifted attitude toward talks with Washington. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Despite the North Korean rhetoric, the United States remains “cautiously optimistic” about North Korea’s bargaining position, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien told Axios on Jan. 12. Washington has “reached out to the North Koreans and let them know that we would like to continue the negotiations,” he added.

South Korea also supported renewing talks. “Momentum for North Korea-U.S. dialogue should continue,” said South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a Jan. 7 statement. “A show of force and threats are not helpful to anyone.”

Despite efforts by Washington and Seoul to revive dialogue, recent changes to Pyongyang’s defense and diplomatic leadership appear to reinforce North Korea’s new position. “It is the unwavering will of [North Korea] to further increase the strength of justice for defending its sovereignty and security and safeguarding the global peace and stability,” Ri Son Gwon said in his new role as foreign minister on Jan. 23. Ri is reportedly revered for his hard-line stance. North Korea also has a new defense minister, Army Gen. Kim Jong Gwan, who assumed his post on Jan. 22.

North Korean plans to follow through on its warning to resume nuclear and long-range missile testing remain unclear. North Korea is “trying to build a long-range ballistic missile with the ability to carry a nuclear warhead,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Jan. 24.

Recently captured satellite imagery also shows activity at North Korea’s Sanumdong missile research center, CNN reported on Jan. 26. The imagery depicts activity consistent with actions observed before previous North Korean missile tests, but experts appear divided on the meaning of the intelligence.

A North Korean leadership shake-up may indicate a harder line on nuclear talks with the United States.

Middle East WMD-Free Zone Process Moves Slowly


March 2020
By Julia Masterson

Along-awaited UN meeting on the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East took place Nov. 18–22 , 2019, but the next steps toward establishment of the zone are far from clear. Given that the conference did not produce a draft of a legally binding treaty, state delegates plan to convene again in November 2020. Before that, the prospective zone will be subject to deliberation at the 2020 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference beginning in April.

Amb. Mikhail Ulyanov, shown here at an International Atomic Energy Agency reception in January, He has backed the November 2019 conference to discuss the creation of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East, saying the process could help to attract Israel to later talks. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)Since 1995, debate on the Middle Eastern WMD-free zone has dominated the global nonproliferation landscape. Nuclear weapon-free zones, which emerged in parallel to the NPT, are considered a key feature of the global nonproliferation regime. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, a resolution co-sponsored by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia called for establishing a “zone free of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems” in the Middle East. The zone would mark the world’s sixth nuclear weapon-free zone and the world’s first WMD-free zone.

The 2000 and 2010 NPT review conferences reaffirmed support for the zone, but participants in the treaty’s 2015 review conference failed to reach consensus on provisions concerning the initiative. Dissenting opinions by the United States, UK, and Canada prevented unanimous adoption of a final conference document.

In 2015 the challenge centered around a divergence between the Egyptian and Israeli positions. (See ACT, June 2015.) Although Israel is not party to the NPT, an Israeli observer delegation attended the review conference. Israel is also the only state in the region believed to possess a nuclear arsenal.

The final draft resolution on the zone, supported by Egypt, set an early deadline of March 2016 for convening a conference to negotiate a treaty and omitted language that had featured in the 2010 consensus document that stipulated the initial conference be convened “on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at.” Personal records by U.S. diplomats involved in the negotiations indicate that the draft text was adopted despite the dissenting U.S. opinion, which matched that of Israel.

A document submitted by the Israeli delegation titled “Towards a Regional Dialogue in the Middle East” noted Israel’s stance that “in order to promote any significant regional security architecture in the Middle East it is imperative that the regional states do not adopt positions that prevent the other side from participating in what should be an inclusive regional process between all relevant stakeholders.” Although not explicit, Israel’s position likely relates to its refusal to partake in a mandated, time-bound process for creating a WMD-free zone without due attention to the “broad range of security challenges facing the region.”

At the conclusion of the 2015 review conference, Rose Gottemoeller, then U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that the U.S. decision to block final consensus stemmed from the “unrealistic and unworkable conditions” pertaining to the Middle Eastern zone by setting an “arbitrary deadline” for convening a conference by March 2016.

Three years later, Egypt introduced a resolution to the UN General Assembly calling for convening an annual UN conference to make progress on the zone in parallel with the NPT process. (See ACT, December 2018.) In the political declaration adopted by the inaugural November 2019 conference, the participants “welcome all initiatives, resolutions, decisions and recommendations on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all weapons of mass destruction.”

The UN initiative, mandated by the 2018 UN General Assembly decision, and the conference proposed at the 2015 NPT Review Conference are not one and the same, but the United States remains unwilling to support any process that sets a timeline for discussions on establishment of the zone. Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, announced at a think tank discussion on Aug. 2, 2019, that the United States would not participate in the November 2019 UN conference. “The path to a ‘zone’ can only lie through practical steps and confidence-building measures aimed at building trust and ameliorating unfavorable conditions in the broader security environment,” Ford said in published remarks from the event.

In an exclusive interview with Arms Control Today, Jeffrey Eberhardt, special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation, said that the United States “support[s] the establishment of such a zone if it is freely arrived at among the parties in the region.”

As recently as February 2020, at a side event of a meeting of the five nuclear-armed NPT states in London, Ford reiterated that the United States does not support the UN conference process.

Russia and the UK used the November 2019 conference to emphasize the need for an inclusive process. “To make progress, there needs to be a dialogue in which all states of the region feel they are able to participate, and their security concerns will be heard,” said Karen Pierce, the UK ambassador to the United Nations. Russian Ambassador Mikhail Ulyanov said the UN conferences “will be important for creating conditions for the inclusivity of the process, primarily Israel’s involvement in later stages.”

Although the November 2019 conference was held outside of the NPT framework, Russia and the UK expressed hope that the UN conference would help support a successful 2020 review conference.

 

An effort to discuss a zone free of weapons of mass destruction faces U.S. and Israeli resistance.

Russia Disputes OPCW Findings


March 2020
By Julia Masterson

Editor's Note: This article was republished on March 3, 2020, to clarify information about the OPCW's investigation and the Russian challenge to that investigation. The updated version also corrects an earlier error describing the number of inspectors dissenting to the OPCW findings.

Russia called a special UN meeting in January to challenge an international finding that a chlorine-based chemical weapon was used in Douma, Syria, in April 2018. The March 2019 assessment made by a fact-finding mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was based on environmental samples, interviews, and months of technical analysis.

Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya votes to veto a U.S. draft resolution in the UN Security Council on April 10, 2018. The draft resolution sought to find blame for the chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria earlier that month. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)Russia has undertaken a campaign to criticize the assessment, which did not assign responsibility for the attacks, and convened a so-called Arria-Formula meeting at the United Nations in New York on Jan. 20. Arria-Formula meetings offer a unique avenue for UN Security Council members to discuss important issues outside of the council’s formal proceedings. Soon after the Douma attacks, Russia’s OPCW representative, Alexander Shulgin, said that “no evidence of a chemical weapon attack in Douma has been found.” Shulgin expanded on Moscow’s conclusion at the Jan. 20 Arria-Formula meeting, asserting that chlorine cylinders found at the scene had been staged for political provocation.

At the OPCW, Russia’s attempt to wage an information campaign over the findings of the March 2019 report has had limited impact, namely because “within the confines of the OPCW…both the staff of the Technical Secretariat and members of most state-party delegations have high levels of knowledge and expertise,” Jean Pascal Zanders, a veteran researcher, told Arms Control Today.

Russia’s call for an Arria-Formula meeting broadened its information campaign by targeting those perhaps less informed than OPCW staff and delegates. “Taking the matter to the UN in New York means that a different audience that is less familiar with the allegations and the investigative procedures and forensics could be influenced,” Zanders said.

Although Arria-Formula meetings are informal and generally off the record, a statement published by the U.S. mission to the UN said that the United States attended the meeting and “categorically objects to Russia’s blatant attempt to use a Security Council meeting to weaken the credibility of the OPCW and its findings on the Douma attack.”

Russia is not alone in its attempt to question the OPCW findings. A February 2019 document titled “Engineering Assessment of Two Cylinders Observed at the Douma Incident,” leaked by a dissenting OPCW inspector involved in the early stages of the Douma investigation, alleges that the cylinders found at the scene of the Douma attack “were manually placed…rather than being delivered from aircraft.” Another inspector anonymously leaked internal OPCW emails that he claimed demonstrated that the organization’s investigation of the Douma attack was flawed. One of the inspectors, Ian Henderson, suggested at the Arria-Formula meeting that there may not have been a chemical attack at all.

The online investigative journalism site Bellingcat and other independent experts and journalists who have reviewed these leaked documents have concluded that they do not undermine the conclusions of the FFM’s final report on the Douma incident.

As a result of the leaks, the OPCW launched an independent, external investigation into these breaches of confidentiality and released its results on February 6. OPCW Director-General Fernando Arias reaffirmed his support for the FFM report’s conclusions while criticizing the dissenters’ allegations. “Their conclusions are erroneous, uninformed, and wrong,” Arias said at a Feb. 6 briefing.

Russia invokes a rare UN process to question chemical weapons claims in Syria.

U.S. Begins Destroying Last Batch of Sarin


March 2020

The United States has begun the final step in destroying chemical weapon munitions at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Kentucky, the Program Executive Office, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives announced in January. The site began destroying its stored munitions in June 2019, and by the end of January, 18 tons of chemical agent, representing 3.4 percent of the original stockpile stored at Blue Grass, had been destroyed, including the first munitions containing sarin.

A waste operator dons safety equipment with the help of an operations support supervisor at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in February. The site has made progress in destroying its sarin-filled munitions. (Photo: PEO ACWA)The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention called for destroying all Schedule 1 agents, including mustard and sarin gases, within 10 years of its entry into force. The United States missed this deadline and a subsequent April 2012 completion target. (See ACT, May 2006.) Today, the remaining U.S. chemical munitions are housed at the Blue Grass facility and at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Colorado.

Speaking on the January milestone of beginning destruction of a sarin-filled munition at Blue Grass, the plant’s site manager told the Lexington Herald Leader that “this is another major milestone toward eliminating the total chemical weapons stockpile in Kentucky.” At the Pueblo site, destruction of munitions containing more than 2,600 tons of mustard agent is ongoing.—JULIA MASTERSON

U.S. Begins Destroying Last Batch of Sarin

U.S. Indicts Five for Smuggling to Pakistan


March 2020

The United States has indicted five men for engineering a network to procure U.S. goods for Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs, the Justice Department announced on Jan. 15. The men, from Canada, Hong Kong, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom, are accused of operating a network of 29 companies in the United States from September 2014 until October 2019, when the indictment was issued.

The five indicted are reportedly involved with a front company called Business World located in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. The federal court indictment charged the company’s associates with conspiring to violate the 1977 International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and the 2018 Export Control Reform Act (ECRA).

In total, the indictment identified 38 U.S. exports that were transported through the network to the Advanced Engineering Research Organization (AERO) and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). Both AERO and PAEC fall on the U.S. Commerce Department’s Entity List alongside other organizations that defy “U.S. national security or foreign policy interests” and have since 2014 and 1998, respectively.

Under the IEEPA and the ECRA, export licenses are required for goods to be transported to organizations on the Commerce Entity List. The Business World associates did not apply for nor obtain such licenses.

A U.S. Homeland Security Department official cited in the Justice Department release said the indictment was “a result of ongoing coordination and collaborative counter proliferation efforts” by various U.S. government bodies, including the Commerce, Defense, and Homeland Security departments.—JULIA MASTERSON

U.S. Indicts Five for Smuggling to Pakistan

IAEA Head Notes No New Breaches by Iran | P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert

IAEA Head Notes No New Breaches by Iran Iran has not taken any further steps to breach the 2015 nuclear deal after announcing its fifth violation in early January, the Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, told reporters in Washington Feb. 5 . Experts have taken this to mean that Iran has not installed additional centrifuges nor further increased its enrichment level after announcing Jan. 5 that it would no longer be bound by any operational limits of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Grossi stressed...

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