The Challenges and Opportunities of the Nonproliferation Regime

CSPS Fellow Gerry Moss discusses one of the panels from CSPS’s 2nd Annual Symposium: Navigating a Nuclear Future, examining nonproliferation and US relations with North Korea and Iran.


On September 27, 2019 the Center for Security Policy Studies held its 2nd Annual International Security Symposium entitled Navigating a Nuclear Future. Discussed here is the topic of one of the panels at this symposium: The Challenges and Opportunities of the Nonproliferation Regime. While the panel touched on proliferation issues such as the current India-Pakistan arms race, the majority of the panel was centered around Iran and North Korea, particularly how their nuclear programs are evolving in response to the Trump administration.

Dr. Koblentz, Associate Professor of Biodefense at George Mason University, was joined by three panelists; Alexandra Bell, Senior Director at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, Suzanne DiMaggio, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Chairman of the Quincy Institute, and Associate Senior Fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and Leonard S. Spector, author/co-author of eight books on nonproliferation, former Assistant Deputy Administrator for Arms Control and Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration, and former Chief Counsel to the US State Energy and Proliferation Subcommittee. Dr. Greg Koblentz moderated this panel, and he has previously served as a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and worked on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Previous Dimensions of Nonproliferation

Spector led the discussion on how nonproliferation has worked in the past, and he hopes that future policies will mimic previous ones. Over the past 70 years, the number of nuclear powers has expanded from five to nine. During this time, many countries – Taiwan, Brazil, South Africa, Iraq, Libya, Syria, among others – have either debated or attempted nuclear breakout, but few have actually done so. In the past decade Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, South Korea, and Japan have all chosen not to develop nuclear weapons, prioritizing regional stability and their economic performance associated with remaining under United States’ nuclear umbrella. The pressure that the US can apply to countries makes many reconsider pursuing nuclear programs, but the countries that most worry the US, North Korea and Iran, do not fit this model. While Trump had appeared to be making progress with North Korea early on by opening the door for dialogue, early hopes have fallen flat. Furthermore, Trump withdrew from the Iran Deal, a deal that prevented Iranian nuclear breakout and created a diplomatic means to resolve regional conflicts – a diplomatic linkage that no longer exists between the US and Iran.

The Trump Administration’s Policy with North Korea v. Iran

North Korea

The panel agreed that while Trump’s policy has been a step forward, in that he more readily agreed to meet with North Korean leadership than past presidents, but it appears to be a step going nowhere. Trump is the first sitting American president to meet with North Korea’s leader, which opened an avenue for dialogue. Bell was initially optimistic about the Singapore Summit but was left disappointed by its conclusion, because Trump has not empowered his diplomats to negotiate. While Trump appears to admire Kim Jong-un on some level, Trump is also committed to getting a deal weighted in the US’s favor. The panel agreed that Trump needs to set his emotions aside and realize that diplomacy does not mean one winner and one loser; it is about achieving a lasting compromise.

DiMaggio did mention that some strides have been made diplomatically, as the Hanoi Conference saw North Korea offer to stop testing its missiles. This remains the progress made in negotiations. The difficulty US diplomats face in advancing negotiations is overcoming the US’s recent history in overthrowing leaders who give up their nuclear programs, such as Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. North Korea is aware of this history and because of it sees nuclear weapons as the only means to prevent US aggression. Furthermore, under Trump, the US has backed out of the Iran Deal, making American commitment to agreements with North Korea suspect. Trump seems to be under the impression that he is exempt of previous administrations’ decisions and that his own decisions with Iran have no consequences for negotiations with North Korea. 


The panel overwhelming agreed that backing out of the Iran Deal was a mistake. Iran did not breach the Iran Deal for a year after the US withdrew. However, Iran has breached the defunct agreement, making future progress incredibly difficult, especially coupled with what DiMaggio calls “an all-out war on their economy.” Trump relies on sanctions, with the threat of them becoming more restricting, to make countries bend to his will. The administration appears to be at a loss when it comes to Iran, a country that would rather tolerate sanctions than give into Trump’s attempt to strong-arm them. The other signatories of Iran Deal, Britain, France and Germany, are learning that same lesson. France has attempted to stop Iran’s breach of the Iran Deal by extending a $15 billion line of credit to subsidize the impact of US sanctions, but Iran does not see a path forward with the Iran Deal without the US.

Similar to how North Korea is watching American interactions with Iran, Iran is watching American interactions with North Korea. To Tehran, Trump’s better treatment of North Korea vis-à-vis Iran is a direct result of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. This has put the US and its allies in a precarious predicament, as Tehran is now considering withdrawing from the NPT. Trump’s intentions may have been to make the nonproliferation regime stronger by wanting a stricter deal with Iran, but, his actions have actually made it weaker. The panel worries that decision to back out of the Iran Deal will make Iran more wary of coming to agreements that it perceives as weakening their voice from being heard.

When asked what they thought the biggest risk in the future was, DiMaggio rephrased the question into “what are the opportunities we missed?” Focusing on Iran, she posited that the war in Yemen, one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises, would be easier to resolve if the US still had that chain of diplomacy imbedded in the JCPOA. This could have been leveraged to negotiate an end to Saudi Arabia and Iran’s proxy war in Yemen. Moreover, the American withdrawal from the JCPOA contributed to Iran’s decision to attack Saudi oil fields. This demonstrates that nonproliferation agreements could have been used to solve unrelated issues and that Trump’s decision has made the region, and world, less safe.

Looking Toward the Future

The panelists were asked what their top policy suggestion would be. Spector wants to see the NPT be strengthened in the upcoming review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in May 2020. His hope is that this would prevent future dilemmas with Iran and North Korea. Bell would like to see world leaders, including North Korea and Iran, come together and stop the production of all nuclear weapons. DiMaggio would like to see measure put in place to punish leaders for reneging on agreements. Each of these suggestions seek to check impulsive decisions making like Trump has demonstrated over his time in office.

Looking towards the future the panelists were optimistic that the non-proliferation would prevail. Spector believes that other countries are aware that Trump is not the new normal for the US and that future US presidents will not be this haphazard. Iran embodied this sentiment when it continued to uphold the JCPOA for a year after the US withdrawal. Iran was willing to try to wait Trump out until its economic situation worsened. DiMaggio is happy to see that the major Democratic Party frontrunners have all made getting back into the JCPOA a priority and believes that other countries will take notice that Trump’s policies are not permanent on this issue. Bell remained slightly less optimistic and worries that our future diplomats will always be hindered by the US backing out of the Iran Deal. Bell reminded the audience that nonproliferation is not the only way to open diplomatic channels. Regarding North Korea, Bell and DiMaggio suggested formalizing an end to the Korean War and discussing the release of prisoners as potential starting points. Despite the setbacks and stagnation created by the Trump administration, there is a path forward.

Gerry Moss is a student fellow at the Center for Security Policy Studies. He is a second-year graduate student in the Middle East and Islamic Studies MA at George Mason University.