Reflections on the 2017 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to participate in the 2017 Moscow Nonproliferation Conference, an international gathering held every three years of experts on nonproliferation, nuclear energy, and arms control. Organized by the Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS), the conference attracted an impressive, if not eclectic, group of participants from Europe, the United States, Russia, South Asia, China, Iran, and even North Korea (you knew when the North Koreans walked into the room since they were followed everywhere by a dozen journalists and photographers).

Unfortunately, there was no shortage of significant challenges to the global nuclear order to discuss at this year’s conference. The Iran nuclear deal (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) has been placed under considerable strain thanks to President Trump’s announcement that he would not certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement; tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to mount, raising the prospects of a major international crisis; and U.S.-Russia relations remain in a deep and dangerous ditch.

On the JCPOA, every foreign policy and nonproliferation speaker at the conference– including former U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, and chief of the European Union’s diplomatic corps Helga Schmid – affirmed that Iran is in full compliance with the agreement and that the JCPOA must be preserved. Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi warned ominously that President Trump’s recent statements have created a very negative atmosphere, bolstering hardline voices back home – “the situation in Tehran is now just as bad as it is in Washington.” He went on to say that if the United States pulls out of the deal, he believed the JCPOA would “collapse and be dismantled” even if European countries continued to support it. All expressed hope that the U.S. Congress will refrain from taking any action to reimpose or “snapback” sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program thereby effectively withdrawing the US from a deal described by many at the conference as the most significant nonproliferation achievement in 30 years.

On North Korea, participants described the situation as “exceptionally dangerous” which has the potential to spiral out of control (former State Department official Robert Carlin colorfully compared the situation to a rapidly descending airplane with the air traffic controller screaming “pull up, pull up!”). North Korean officials repeated that Pyongyang will not stop development of its nuclear program until it achieves a “balance of power” with the United States and is able to effectively deter an American attack against its sovereignty. Russian, Chinese and American speakers all called for dialogue to de-escalate the crisis and to reduce the risk of miscalculation and misjudgment. Most expressed skepticism that sanctions and threats will yield any change in behavior by Pyongyang.

On U.S.-Russian relations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed hope that relations between the world’s two largest nuclear powers will improve but noted his view that the latest round of Russian sanctions imposed by Congress this summer have created a serious setback to normalization of relations. Lavrov did shed light on several positive developments, notably the launch of a dialogue on strategic stability between U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Shannon and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. Moreover, Rosatom Deputy Director General Nikolay Spasskiy shared his hope that the United States and Russia will return to a “comprehensive” and “balanced” partnership on nuclear issues which includes engagement on both nuclear energy as well as nuclear safety and security (the latter two issues he described as having “vital” importance to the Russian Federation but ones that cannot be delinked from broader nuclear engagement with the United States).  Ambassador Spasskiy’s comments came just a day after Russian President Putin’s speech to the Valdai Club which delved into the history of U.S.-Russian nuclear security engagement and described past engagement as largely unilateral and unidirectional. That is why, as Senator Sam Nunn and Senator Richard Lugar wrote in January 2014, if Washington and Moscow are able to return to nuclear security engagement, future cooperation “need not be dominated by unilateral U.S. assistance. We need a new approach — a real nuclear security partnership guided by the principles of reciprocity and mutual interest, to which both countries contribute their own funding and technical resources.”

Many other important topics were discussed and debated at this year’s conference, including the impact of sanctions on nonproliferation, prospects for a successful 2020 NPT review conference, and perspectives on the recently negotiated Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The organizers of the conference should be commended for organizing an exceptionally timely discussion involving experts one rarely finds at similar conferences held in the United States (I’m referring here to inclusion of North Korean and Iranian participants). I found it invaluable to hear these perspectives, even if I found myself strongly disagreeing with them.

It’s worth concluding with a note on the symbolic backdrop to this conference: This month marks the 100th anniversary of the October revolution of 1917 and the 55th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, two events which no doubt had transformative effects on the global order. This October, as tensions rise on the Korean Peninsula, as U.S.-Russian relations continue to worsen, and as the Iranian nuclear deal teeters on the brink, let’s hope that we manage to avoid any new similarly transformative events.  

October 25, 2017
Leon Ratz
Leon Ratz

Program Officer, Materials Risk Management

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