Iran, Ukraine, and the Global Nuclear Order

August 2015
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For more context information on the Iran nuclear deal, read also "The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide".

In the realm of nuclear nonproliferation, two important developments have been concurrently unfolding over the course of the past two years. One is the intense negotiation process between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, UK, China, Russia, France and Germany) to thwart the suspected Iranian nuclear weapons program. On July 14, 2015, the parties finally agreed on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is now awaiting legislative approval of the signatory states.

The other important development is the continuing breach by Russia of the security assurances it pledged to Ukraine in connection with Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapons state. On December 5, 1994, Russia, together with the US and the UK, became the signatory of the so-called Budapest Memorandum whereby it undertook, among other things, to respect Ukraine’s borders and political independence, commitments it violated by annexing Crimea in March 2014, as well as by continuing to supply and support combatants in Eastern Ukraine.

The Iran deal and the Budapest Memorandum have at least two things in common. Firstly, they are both manifestations of the international community’s efforts to maintain and enforce the international nonproliferation regime designed to curb the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. Secondly, in both negotiations – with Ukraine and Iran – the United States has been the leading interlocutor. The US places nuclear nonproliferation among its topmost foreign policy goals and possesses the international political power to effectively pursue these goals. However, the differences between the cases of Ukraine in 1994 and Iran in 2015 are perhaps more interesting and certainly more significant in their repercussions for the global nuclear order.

Causes of Proliferation

The first point of difference concerns the sources and circumstances of proliferation in Iran and Ukraine. Iran, like most proliferators throughout history, had formulated an internal political demand for moving toward a nuclear weapons program. This demand stemmed from a combination of domestic politics, regional security and international prestige considerations. Concurrently, it proceeded to evade international inspectors and ultimately breach the international nonproliferation regime by engaging in covert enrichment and reprocessing activities, to a great extent with the help of Russian technology.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions date back to the times of the Shah. After the setbacks of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran recovered in the 1990s and began work on the indigenous nuclear fuel cycle that included plutonium separation, as well as uranium mining and enrichment activities. While Iran persistently denied that it was developing nuclear weapons, its determined pursuit of nuclear capabilities in defiance of international concerns implied that, at the very least, it intended to maintain a nuclear hedge, the capacity to build a nuclear weapon in a relatively short time. Despite continued efforts of the international community, including a rigorous sanctions regime, in the mid-2000s Tehran stepped up its suspicious nuclear activities. Today, it can produce enough weapons-grade uranium to make a bomb in a few months or even weeks.

In contrast to Iran, the cases of post-Soviet nuclear proliferation that included Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan differed starkly in that the supply of nuclear weapons preceded any political demand for them. These newly independent...

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