New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Towards a Successful, Comprehensive, and Enduring Negotiated Solution with Iran


Below are Assistant Secretary Ford's remarks at the conference on "The Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime - Towards the 2020 NPT Review Conference" at Wilton Park, UK, on December 11, 2018.  They may also be found on the website of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

Good morning, and thanks for the chance to speak about this important topic.

On the panel yesterday, I laid out the U.S. approach to using diplomacy to help create regional and global conditions that advance nuclear disarmament objectives, so there’s some nice symmetry in also now having the chance to say a few words about how we are also working toward a better, more comprehensive, and more enduring negotiated solution to our longstanding problems — and those of much of the rest of the world — with Iran.

For my part, I will quickly review the nuclear-related history in and with Iran that has been a key aspect of its broader record of malign acts and provocations that impeded progress toward peaceful and sustainable long-term solutions to the many problems we and others have with Iran, and that exist within the region. A quick word on that past should suffice to make clear the reason why it is essential that a new and more comprehensive arrangement be put in place to permanently and verifiably preclude an Iranian nuclear weapons capability in ways that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) so conspicuously failed to do. After a brief look at that unfortunate past – and in the hopes that we can begin to turn the page on it – I will then devote the remainder of my comments to setting forth a positive vision for what the U.S. government hopes to achieve through negotiations with an Iran incentivized by our current pressure campaign.

I. Iran’s Woeful Nuclear Record

So, let me start by underscoring Iran’s abysmal nuclear track record, and its complete lack, so far, of any acknowledgment of – or clear intent to set aside – that track record, for this is part of why we believe a new deal is so essential. As you will recall, even the limited uranium enrichment capacities allowed Iran within the current JCPOA limits were ones that Iran developed illegally – at first in secrecy and later in open defiance of multiple, legally-binding U.N. Security Council resolutions, not to mention in violation of Iran’s IAEA safeguards obligations and of Articles II and III of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) – as part of its overall effort to develop nuclear weapons.

Specifically, those enrichment capabilities were developed in order to provide fissile material for Iran’s parallel and also illegal work, under the so-called “Amad Program,” on nuclear weaponization. Even though the JCPOA unwisely opted to try to legitimize these ill-gotten and irrevocably tainted fissile material production capabilities, the obvious correct answer to the question of their future status is that Iran should not be able to retain them. Any of them.

You will recall also that we and the rest of the world recently learned a good deal more about Iran’s past perfidy when it was revealed that Iran had collected, and was carefully preserving, a vast archive of records and data from the Amad Program. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the regime in Tehran had reaffirmed in the JCPOA that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” If Iran had meant this, one might perhaps have expected that it would have found a way to acknowledge its past weapons work sufficiently to at least suggest some sincerity in promising to abandon this effort.

One might also have expected that Iran would have destroyed or turned over all this documentation to the IAEA – an organization which had already, in any event, extensively documented some of Iran’s Amad Program activities and had persuasively refuted Iran’s blanket denials by formally concluding that information about that program was credible. Instead, however, Iran seems, as it were, to have hidden its weapons research away for a rainy day – perhaps in anticipation of a future decision to reconstitute full-scope weapons development once the “sunset” of JCPOA restrictions had allowed it to amass a large enough stockpile of enriched uranium and advanced centrifuges to permit a rapid sprint to weaponization.

Almost nothing could better highlight than this discovery did the problem of the JCPOA’s “sunset provisions” – which is to say, almost nothing could better demonstrate the need to ensure that any future negotiated deal with Iran ensures the absence of any fissile material production capability there. Iran’s track record demonstrates, in painful detail, how little the world can trust Iran’s promises if its underlying capabilities are not subject to constraint.

Iran has shown itself perfectly willing to violate Articles II and III of the NPT, as well as its safeguards obligations, and to violate its obligations under multiple, legally-binding Security Council resolutions. Iran even failed to adhere to the commitment it made to Britain, France, and Germany (the “E3”) in late 2003 to suspend uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities as part of a deal with them that attempted to shield Iran from Security Council accountability for the safeguards violations revealed in August 2002. Iran has played games for years with IAEA inspectors in continuing efforts to hide evidence of its violations, it continues to deny ever having had a nuclear weapons program in the first place, and we now know that it has also been squirreling away records from its weaponization work, raising serious concerns about potential later use in a reconstituted weapons program. This appalling Iranian track record suggests only one available conclusion: we cannot rely on bare promises, even legally-binding ones such as Article II of the NPT, if we are to have any faith in the ability of a future deal with Iran to deny it a pathway to nuclear weapons. Hence our insistence upon closing the door to Iranian fissile material production that was so conspicuously left open by the JCPOA.

II. Normalization and Integration into the Global Economy

So how can we turn the page on that past and move to a more secure future for the United States, Iran, the region, and the world? To that end, I’d like to begin by offering a little antidote to the relentlessly skewed negativity of so much press coverage of our Iran policy, in the form of a reminder of what my boss, Secretary of State Pompeo, has already made very clear. We are offering Iran the possibility of a full normalization of relationships with the rest of the world: we are prepared to end not just some but all of our sanctions against the regime in Tehran, to re-establish full diplomatic and commercial relationships with Iran, to help it acquire appropriate advanced technology, and to support modernization and reintegration of the Iranian economy into the international economic system.

To my knowledge, no U.S. administration has ever offered modern Iran anything like this: this is the most generous offer extended by the United States since the Islamic Republic of Iran first came into existence four decades ago. To be sure, as the Secretary has also made clear, we would need to see a great deal of change in Iran’s destabilizing behaviors before we would be able to embrace Tehran in this fashion. But that change is simply what Iran would need to do to bring itself into alignment with what we, and I believe most if not everyone in this room, would believe to be the appropriate behavior of states in their peaceful co-existence with each other.

When Iran begins to behave like a normal, peace-loving country, in other words, we will treat it as such — which means extending to it all the privileges and benefits of living normally and in mutually prosperous relationships with the outside world. If this looks like it is asking a lot, it is only because Iran’s behavior to date has been so egregious in so many ways. How could we ask for less in light of the troubling pathologies of Iranian behavior over the last 40 years?

If it is willing to abandon its destabilizing provocations and agree to arrangements that reassure the international community that it cannot and will not continue to menace others as it has been doing for so long, however, all this confrontation and pressure can end. In that case, we believe Iran has available to it a very bright future of prosperity and development. In this future, Iran is welcomed back into the international community and the global economic system.

The Iranian people have long been suffering through a period in which their incredible capacity is not realized. They should prosper and thrive, and the country as a whole should finally take the respected and valued place — both in the region and on the global stage — that is appropriate for such an ancient and sophisticated civilization. This would be a profoundly “win-win” outcome, for in addition to opening up this future for Iran, such a deal would simultaneously eliminate a host of grave regional security problems in the Middle East; it would resolve U.S. national security challenges vis-a-vis Iran that have been festering for decades without ever being adequately addressed; and it would finally achieve what the JCPOA aimed to do, but did not — that is, truly removing the risk of a nuclear-armed Iran.

So that is our vision, and our hope for the future. Getting to that future, of course, has its challenges, one of which is re-imposing sanctions pressures on Iran in order to incentivize it to come to the table and negotiate a way to this destination. Officials in Tehran need to understand that absent Iran’s move to a comprehensive and enduring solution, the global pressure campaign will continue, but how long Iran has to face this pressure is really up to Iran. We do think a solution is possible, and we very much hope that it will occur sooner, rather than later.

III. Elements of a Solution


So what can one say about such a solution, even tentatively, at such an early point and in advance of any evidence of Iranian willingness to negotiate over these matters? Well, let me start by making an obvious but an important point about getting to a solution. The odds of a real “win-win” outcome — as opposed to a dangerously unstable regional situation likely to break down in potentially catastrophic ways — would decrease dramatically to the degree that, during whatever transitional period there is before a negotiated solution, Iran attempts to expand its proliferation-sensitive activities and the international community permits this to happen. These odds would also decrease dramatically if the world allows Iran in any way to avoid giving the complete, timely, and proactive cooperation with the IAEA that the IAEA needs in order to exercise the full range of its investigative authorities in Iran and detect any provocative increase in nuclear activity or return to weaponization work.

We believe that the IAEA must go wherever credible information leads it because it is only through the successful and continuing exercise of IAEA authorities that the international community can have any real confidence in a negotiated solution. Absent assurances of demonstrably effective verification, there is no chance for diplomacy to succeed, so it is up to all of us — at the IAEA, in Iran, and in the rest of the international community — to preserve the integrity and effectiveness of IAEA monitoring, so that we all know it can be relied upon in the future. The IAEA has a long track record of doing a highly professional job in assessing all the information available to it, and of scrupulously fulfilling its mandate by following the evidentiary trail wherever it leads, and no farther. If the IAEA makes a request to visit any location — whether or not that site has been declared, and irrespective of its military or civilian status — that request will reflect the IAEA’s independent, professional judgment that this access is necessary to fulfil the agency’s mandate. There is only one appropriate Iranian response to such a request: “yes.”

I hope and trust that the remaining JCPOA participants understand this, and indeed that all states serious about resolving the many challenges presented by Iran’s behavior recognize that any Iranian movement to augment its current nuclear capabilities or obstruct the IAEA’s work would make a peaceful solution far more difficult and less likely – and that it must therefore be made very clear to Iran that any such moves would be entirely unacceptable and met with stiff and uniform international resistance. All who are seriously committed to peaceful resolution of these problems must necessarily lend their support to holding the line in these respects, until a better and more lasting solution has been negotiated.


I should also point out, in this regard, the thoughtful middle ground that we ourselves are presently navigating in the United States. Even as we have been systematically re-imposing sanctions related to Iran in pursuit of the better, “win-win” deal of which I speak, we have carefully refrained from restoring sanctions in such a way as to obstruct international cooperation with Iran on a number of projects contemplated under the JCPOA that provide Iran opportunities to benefit from nuclear technology in ways not raising proliferation risks. To accomplish this, the Secretary of State waived the imposition of certain sanctions so that certain nonproliferation activities involving Iran can continue, thereby enhancing international security.

These waivers, for instance, enable operations and fuel services support to the Bushehr reactor and the ongoing multinational project to redesign the Arak reactor in more nonproliferation-responsible ways. They also help the international community modify two centrifuge cascades at the Fordow facility for stable isotope production, which in the future may help generations of Iranians by providing radioisotopes for medical and industrial uses. We have also declared our willingness, on a case-by-case basis, not to impose sanctions in connection with cooperative projects with Iran on nuclear safety and security that serve our collective international interests in those areas. We have been willing to waive certain sanctions that likely otherwise would impede these projects in order to help maintain the nuclear status quo with Iran until a better deal can be negotiated, to signal our appreciation for the security benefits these projects were intended to provide, and to help make clear to Iran itself that we do indeed seek a cooperative solution to the problems that divide us.


As for what would need ultimately to be in the negotiated solution that opens for Iran the bright future of prosperity and global respect to which I referred earlier, I will not dwell here upon all of the points made by Secretary Pompeo in his remarks on this subject on May 21 at the Heritage Foundation. Those requirements are clear and, to my eye, quite obvious ones. But I would like to say something today about those requirements that pertain especially directly to my own portfolio and responsibilities at the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

(1) Fissile Material Production

First, let me address the question of fissile material production. I should remind you, in this regard, that for several months, pursuant to instructions given us by the President in January 2018, we were negotiating with our European JCPOA counterparts on the basis of trying to secure their commitment to keeping Iran indefinitely at no more than the levels of nuclear activity, capability, and material currently permitted under the JCPOA. These talks revolved around trying to fix in place indefinitely the estimated 12-month “breakout period” established by current JCPOA restrictions – that is, holding Iran to a fissile material production capability under which it cannot produce enough material for a nuclear weapon in less than about a year.

We ourselves were not enormously happy with that “12-month” standard, of course. It has always seemed clear to us that by far the best answer — from a nonproliferation and international security perspective — is for Iran to set aside proliferation-sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities it does not genuinely need, which means all of them. Iran must understand that the consequence of its past behavior and lamentable track record of noncompliance with its nuclear-related obligations is that it must henceforth forego fissile material production in order to establish and maintain international confidence.

Nevertheless, the United States was willing to negotiate with our E3 partners on the basis of a 12-month breakout threshold, out of our genuine commitment to trying to achieve a negotiated outcome. Accordingly, in a series of meetings in Paris, London, Berlin, and Washington, a number of us spent many days in intense talks with our counterparts in an attempt to reach agreement locking in the current JCPOA limits in order to forestall activation of the nuclear deal’s so-called “sunset” provisions under which these limits would expire in a few years’ time. Our hope was to avoid the possibility of Iran building up a fissile material production capacity, and a stockpile of enriched material, of enormous size. Ultimately, agreement on this “sunset” issue with the Europeans proved impossible, but I urge you to remember the flexibility we showed in accepting the 12-month standard as the basis for these talks.

As Secretary Pompeo indicated on May 21 with his clear message that Iran must stop all uranium enrichment and never pursue plutonium reprocessing, fixing in place the 12-month standard is no longer our objective. Why is this? Well, as I have indicated, Iran having any fissile material production capability was never really the right solution in the first place.

Despite Iran’s track record, I believe we can have faith in a deal’s ability to prevent Iran moving along any pathway to nuclear weapons if that deal incorporates binding constraints that prohibit fissile material production of any sort, and which include robust IAEA verification authorities capable of ensuring against Iran undertaking, in the future, the kind of clandestine and illegal nuclear activity in which it has so notoriously specialized in the past. Hence the U.S. position spelled out by Secretary Pompeo on May 21: no fissile material production.

For those of you who wish we in Washington were still willing to countenance at least some Iranian enrichment capability – or who perhaps now wish that you had agreed with us back when we were asking only for the perpetuation of the 12-month “breakout” timeline – I can only say that you have Iran and its actions to blame for this difficulty.

For Iran itself, I would point out that a “no production capability” rule does it no actual harm, for given the well-developed and competitive international market for reactor fuel supply, Iran can have full confidence in the reliability of nuclear fuel support under the terms of a negotiated replacement deal. Our use of sanctions waivers to prevent the imposition of sanctions in connection with continuing international fuel delivery and spent fuel take-back at Bushehr, not to mention our own contributions to the newly-established international fuel bank located in Kazakhstan, demonstrate the U.S. commitment to ensuring the integrity of Iran’s nuclear power reactor fuel supply as long as it is demonstrably faithful to its nonproliferation commitments in a negotiated successor agreement. It goes without saying, moreover, that we have no objection to — and may even be able to help facilitate, as Secretary Pompeo suggested — Iran’s access to non-sensitive nuclear technology cooperation to benefit the Iranian people.

(2) IAEA Monitoring Authorities

Another critical area close to my heart in the nonproliferation business is the need to ensure strong IAEA authorities in Iran under any negotiated solution. Secretary Pompeo stressed this on May 21, when he made clear that Iran must come clean about its past nuclear work, in order to engender confidence it has ended and establish a better baseline for ongoing monitoring, and that Iran must provide the IAEA with whatever access, anywhere in Iran, the agency needs.

But the need for extensive inspection authorities isn’t just Secretary Pompeo’s idea: it is painfully obvious. Even when Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei was the Director General of the IAEA, he emphasized as far back as September 2005 that for a country with Iran’s track record of concealment over many years, it was necessary to have in place access and transparency measures that go beyond the formal requirements of Iran’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) and the IAEA’s Additional Protocol (AP). The JCPOA itself provides extra investigative and access authorities of that sort — specifically, through the provisions of the deal’s “Section T” prohibiting certain weaponization-related work, and in the special access procedures of “Section Q.”

These authorities, along with the provisionally-applied AP mandated by the JCPOA, supplement the provisions of Iran’s CSA — including its important “Special Inspection” provisions giving some ability for the IAEA to assure against undeclared activities even without AP authorities — provide an important tool for keeping Iranian nuclear ambitions in line and providing some reassurance to the international community against Iran slipping, undetected, back into its traditional pattern of noncompliance with its international obligations.

Such authorities clearly need to continue, of course, but even with them, continued attention and pressure will be required from the international community to ensure that Iran actually permits the IAEA to use them. Even with the important panoply of authorities the IAEA presently possesses, for example, it has made clear that Iran still needs to do better in providing “timely and proactive” responses to IAEA requests for information or access. In the muted discourse of IAEA diplomacy, this was actually a very pointed complaint, making clear that there is scope for improvement in how Iran has been responding to IAEA requests. We must pay attention to this.

We all need to work harder to make clear that Iran has no option but to provide timely and proactive cooperation with IAEA requests in the exercise of its professional judgment. We know the IAEA has a decades-long strong track record of making verification requests that are necessary to deliver the international assurances we look to the IAEA to deliver — and which states, including Iran, give the IAEA the legal mandate to pursue. And we must ensure that when we conclude a negotiated solution that finally forestalls Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon indefinitely, this new deal includes provisions obliging Iran, as Secretary Pompeo noted, to promptly give the IAEA whatever access it requests.

Once Iran has agreed to abandon its unnecessary, provocative, and dangerous fissile material production capabilities, and once dismantlement of this production infrastructure has been completed and verified — thus somewhat simplifying the challenge facing IAEA inspectors, especially by comparison to the dangerous nuclear buildup that would have been permitted Iran under the JCPOA — these investigative authorities should be able to give the international community ongoing confidence in the IAEA’s ability to provide assurances that Iran has no covert nuclear activities.

(3) Missiles

As for how we envision approaching missiles in our negotiated solution with Iran, an obvious starting point is that Iran must cease its destabilizing proliferation of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and missile production and guidance technology. No real and comprehensive solution to the problems of Iran’s malign acts throughout the region could fail to address this problem, nor can I imagine that we would be able to treat as a “normal” country a state that continued to send missiles to terrorists such as Lebanese Hezbollah or to armed groups like Houthi militants in Yemen.

Beyond that, with respect to Iran’s own missile capabilities, forestalling its pathways to a nuclear weapons capability entails checking the Iranian regime’s ability to deliver any nuclear weapon it might succeed in developing or acquiring. As Secretary Pompeo noted, Iran must cease its development and testing of nuclear-capable missiles.

These include space launch vehicles (SLV), for they incorporate ballistic missile technologies, particularly those used in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Fortunately for Iran, however, it has no actual need for an SLV capability, since the international market for space launch services is well developed and competitive, and indeed is expanding rapidly with the introduction of an array of innovative private sector entities in a number of countries. This could be an effective way for Iran to meet whatever needs it may have, yet without reopening the prospect of regional missile escalation and potential conflict.

Below intercontinental ranges, even at present, Iran at least claims that it does not seek or desire missiles with a range in excess of 2,000 kilometers. I hope they mean this, though their ongoing SLV work suggests otherwise. More broadly, however, Iran should divest itself of the range-class of missiles that Iran itself has irretrievably tainted by trying to develop nuclear warheads for them — missiles such as the Shahab III, for which the Amad Program was working to build a reentry vehicle designed for a nuclear device, along with associated arming and fusing technology.

Beyond that, given Iran’s track record of nuclear weapons development work, its efforts to link nuclear weaponization to its missile program, and its longstanding missile proliferation activities, the best way for Tehran to reassure the international community of its non-nuclear intentions would be for it no longer to possess systems capable of carrying a payload of at least 500 kilograms to a range of at least 300 kilometers. This is the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) standard for “Category I” systems as well as a widely supported and internationally recognized standard already reflected in a number of UN Security Council resolutions focused on limiting nuclear-capable delivery systems, including those of Iran.

It is unquestionably the case that the international community needs to rein in Iran’s missile program and missile proliferation threat. Iran has the largest ballistic missile force in the entire Middle East, with more than ten systems in its inventory or currently in development, and with hundreds of missiles on hand. Even without Category I systems, it would still have formidable capabilities, but meaningful restrictions would do a great deal to reassure the world about Iran’s absence of nuclear weapons delivery ambitions, helping to foreclose the kind of nuclear threats that the regime’s behavior has hitherto demonstrated.

(4) Mode of Arrangement

The final point I’ll address today isn’t exactly a nonproliferation question, but I think it has special significance in the wake of the unfortunate history of the JCPOA. It concerns the type of arrangement we seek to achieve with Iran, to resolve the issues between us and pave the way for the normalization of relations and Iran’s reintegration into the global economy.

As everyone will recall, one of the problems confronting the JCPOA was the fact that it was negotiated merely as a politically-binding instrument. This means that it was not legally binding.

The tentativeness and non-legally-binding status of the JCPOA — self-admittedly no more than just a “plan of action” arrived at between its participants — presented problems related to its staying power and ability to inspire confidence over time in our relationship with Iran. With respect to U.S. law, the JCPOA lacked the kind of U.S. Congressional buy-in that Senate advice and consent procedures would have provided. Moreover, with respect to international law, as a non-binding instrument lacking the force of law that would at least to some extent have helped to constrain alternative options for all JCPOA participants, it was always the case that the JCPOA could in effect be unmade or disregarded at least as casually (in legal terms) as it had been made in the first place.

So there might be benefits to a successor agreement with Iran being legally-binding. In particular, I can see potential merit in having the JCPOA’s successor improve upon that flawed deal not only by giving it stronger substantive terms, but also by actually giving it binding legal status. This would help harness the power of international law in support of ensuring compliance by all parties to the obligations undertaken therein. A legally-binding treaty would also offer an opportunity to address withdrawal procedures and timelines, which would regularize and provide predictability even in the event that a party did decide to reassess its course in the future.

IV. Conclusion

I offer here today only a partial and tentative window into our vision for a negotiated future with Iran. There are some very important elements of the comprehensive, overall deal we desire to achieve with Tehran that I am not in a position to address here — elements such as what is to be done about Iran’s destabilization of its neighbors through proxy warfare and Qods Force adventurism, or about its longstanding sponsorship of international terrorism such as its support for Hezbollah and direct involvement in terrorist bomb plots in Europe as recently as last summer. I will leave such issues to others, however, as they are outside my own particular portfolio at the State Department.

We are clearly a long way from having in place — or even under negotiation — the kind of ambitious deal that we feel is needed in order to resolve the range of challenges presented by Iran’s malign acts in the Middle East and beyond. Nor, of course, is it possible today to predict in any detail the likely outcomes of negotiations that have yet to commence. I do hope, however, that my remarks today about the more specifically nonproliferation-related aspects of our envisioned solution will help provide useful food for thought, and an encouragement for progress.

In particular, I hope these remarks will provide food for thought for Iranian officials. I hope they will pay special attention to our earnest commitment that if Iran is willing to start behaving like a normal, peace-loving country, we will in turn treat it — indeed, one might say, perhaps actually embrace it — as such a normal country. To those who might be tempted to scoff at the prospect of such an outcome, I would just say that I have observed over time that it is amazing what one can achieve when one does not accept that it is impossible. As I noted earlier, I don’t believe any prior U.S. administration has ever offered the Islamic Republic of Iran complete normalization, the restoration of diplomatic relations, the lifting of all sanctions against the Iranian regime (not just so-called “nuclear ones”), Iran’s full re-integration into the global economy, and assistance with non-sensitive high-technology development. But that is what we are offering.

The road ahead is a long and surely a bumpy one, ladies and gentlemen. Nevertheless, it is our hope that it will indeed be possible — hopefully joined by a growing circle of friends and partners similarly committed to a genuine outcome — to press forward to a negotiated future that puts today’s conflicts and tensions emphatically behind us.

Thank you for listening.

-- Christopher Ford

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