Nuclear Deal Is Key to Iran’s Membership in Weapons Treaties, Ex-Official Argues

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian

April 11, 2023

To create an atomic-free zone in the Gulf, the West must reward Iran’s participation in anti-WMD accords by providing access to peaceful technologies, he writes. 

Turmoil domestic and foreign has roiled Iran over the past year. The government has faced widespread waves of protest after the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, at the hands of the police. And negotiations with the world powers failed to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), resulting in a ramping up of international sanctions.  

In this article, I explain Iran’s calculations with respect to the costs and benefits of its membership in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. If Iran abandons that accord, then the goal of establishing a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Middle East will be undermined. I present an Iranian perspective on a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East region and propose a strategy to overcome decades of disputes between Iran and the western powers on weapons of mass destruction.  

Last year, in response to a new round of US-EU sanctions, Iran started to enrich uranium to 60 percent, a level that could be used to make a nuclear weapon.1 Some reports indicate that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have found traces of uranium-235 enriched to 84 percent—the highest discovered to this point.2 However, in the past, Iranian officials have emphasized that possession of nuclear weapons would not increase the country’s security.3  

Complicating the situation is Iran’s assistance to Russia’s war in Ukraine. The Islamic Republic has acknowledged that it supplied a limited number of drones to Russia in the months before the start of its invasion.  

Given these domestic and international pressures, the chance of reviving the JCPOA seems remote.4 Indeed, these events have had consequences for Iran’s foreign policy calculations—particularly, its involvement in international treaties like the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).  

The establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) is a regional approach to strengthening non-proliferation and disarmament norms. Article VII of the NPT states, “Nothing in this Treaty affects the right of any group of States to conclude regional treaties in order to assure the total absence of nuclear weapons in their respective territories.”5 The UN secretary-general and the high representative for disarmament affairs work with member states to create, strengthen, and consolidate NWFZ that are free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).6  

A central issue is that, while Iran remains a party to the NPT and to the chemical- and biological-weapons bans, it has not benefited from the access to peaceful technologies associated with membership in those conventions. 

Non-Proliferation Treaty meeting

International efforts to build a Middle East free from WMD began in the 1960s and led to a joint declaration by Iran and Egypt in 1974 and a UN General Assembly resolution.7 In parallel, the 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons adopted a resolution calling for “the establishment of an effectively verifiable Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical and biological, and their delivery systems.” Subsequent NPT review conferences continued to emphasize the importance of the 1995 resolution with a view to applying IAEA safeguards to all nuclear installations in the region.8 

Following the 1995 conference, the IAEA held a series of meetings of experts and academics to consider ways to advance this process. 


Centrality of the Non-Proliferation Treaty  

The NPT is a landmark international treaty designed “to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons,” “promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” and further the goal of nuclear disarmament. It contains the only binding commitment by the first five nuclear-armed states to realize the goal of nuclear disarmament. A total of 191 states have joined the accord.  

The three primary goals of the NPT are 

  1. nonproliferation 

  2. nuclear disarmament 

  3. sharing the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology.  

Similar goals have been set for the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention.  

The concept of “rights vs. commitments” is at the core of these international agreements. There has been little progress by the nuclear states toward disarmament. While Russia and the United States have reduced their nuclear weapons, actual disarmament is nowhere in sight. Instead, the world powers have decided to modernize and upgrade their nukes. The United States plans to spend up to $1.5 trillion over 30 years rebuilding each leg of its nuclear triad (arms deployed by land, sea, and air) and its nuclear-weapons infrastructure.9 The United Kingdom, France, and China also continue to possess nuclear weapons, while Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have joined the club since the NPT came into force.10 On February 21, President Vladimir Putin pulled Russia back from its participation in the New START treaty with the United States, the last deal limiting the two sides’ strategic offensive arsenals.11  

There are major differences in the policies of the United States toward countries in the developing world that possess nuclear weapons. North Korea, because it is not a US ally, is under tremendous economic sanctions by the world powers. The American allies Israel, India, and Pakistan are treated differently.  

With the exception of Israel, the only nuclear state in the Middle East, regional states have expressed their desire to build a NWFZ.12 This effort has failed so far due to the differing perceptions of states toward such a zone.  


Iran’s Failure to Achieve Its Rights under International Conventions  

When it comes to the Iran’s nuclear program, the principle of rights vs. commitments has been applied in a vastly disproportionate way. Israel, which has about a hundred nuclear warheads, enjoys the unconditional support of the United States and other world powers, while, Iran, which does not possess a nuclear weapon, is under tremendous pressure from the western powers.13  

In addition to its membership in the NPT, Iran has signed the additional protocol as part of the JCPOA, the world’s most comprehensive nuclear transparency agreement.14 The additional protocol entails a number of obligations, including providing the IAEA access to any facility, declared or not, on short notice to investigate suspicious nuclear activity.  

The JCPOA is a landmark accord. Iran agreed to dismantle part of its nuclear program and open its facilities to more extensive international inspections in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.15 US experts estimated at the time that if Iran had decided to make a bomb, it would have taken two to three months until it had enough 90 percent-enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon. The JCPOA significantly increased Iran’s breakout time to more than one year.  

Moreover, Iran agreed not to engage in research and development that would contribute to the development of a nuclear weapon. In December 2015, the IAEA’s board of governors voted to end the agency’s decade-long investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. The IAEA’s director general concluded that, until 2003, Iran had conducted “a coordinated effort” on “a range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” Iran had continued with some of these activities until 2009, but after that there were “no credible indications” of weapons development.16 Iran’s ratification of the additional protocol underscored its agreement to enhanced transparency beyond that required by the NPT.17

US and Iran representatives discussing JCPOA

Despite Iran’s full implementation of the JCPOA for more than three years, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew and imposed the most stringent economic sanctions on Iran—in total violation of the deal. The Islamic Republic has faced the same problem with regard the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which “prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons. It was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.”18 Iran has fully complied with these two international conventions but has not received the benefits to which it is entitled. In fact, the country was a victim of chemical weapons during war Iraq’s invasion in the 1980s. CIA files show that the United States helped Saddam Hussein launch some of the worst chemical attacks in history against Iran.19 European countries such as Britain, France, and Germany also supplied Iraq with such weapons. Some 80 German companies supplied Saddam’s regime with equipment for its weapons program. An 11,000-page report sent to the UN in 2002 detailed how German companies “actively encouraged” the Iraqi government to develop weapons.20 

Iran signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1993. When I was Iran’s ambassador to Germany, the former chancellor, Helmut Kohl, asked me to personally deliver an important letter to then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Kohl proposed that Iran ratify the CWC as soon as possible in order to open the way for Germany and Europe to export peaceful chemical technologies to the Islamic Republic. The Iranian parliament ratified the convention, but the combination of US sanctions and pressure prevented the European companies from delivering the Western side of the bargain.21 

The CWC’s implementation body, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, declares that it provides these benefits: 

  • training, on-site assistance, and help with legislation; 

  • “economic and technological development” through the “spin-offs” of the technologies; 

  • financial support for scientific exchange and research projects; 

  • and “audits of national laboratories to support the establishment of quality assurance systems.22 

Iran has received no fiscal or logistical support on any of these fronts.  

Just as with the chemical-weapons pact, the BWC also comes with incentives and commitments. Article I of the convention includes the right of parties to items that can be justified for “prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes”: “For example, States Parties can develop medicines and vaccines to combat naturally occurring outbreaks of diseases as well as defensive measure to combat the effects of biological weapons.”23 The distinction between which items are prohibited and those that are allowed is a matter of purpose. Article X of the BWC clearly states the convention is to “facilitate the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and information for peaceful purposes.”24 The convention also notes that it should be implemented in a way that would “avoid hampering” economic and technical development as well as international cooperation of peaceful projects.25  

Iran has not been able to benefit from the rights to which it is entitled under the BWC. While the Islamic Republic has made scientific and technological advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology, its advances in these fields have been due to its own domestic efforts, in isolation from the broader international community of researchers. Such constraints have been created by the United States.  

Inside the government since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there have been supporters of membership in these WMD treaties, as well as detractors. I have witnessed this debate since joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1986. The most serious discussions occurred during my tenure on the Foreign Policy Committee of the Secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council between 1997 and 2005. During that period, I got to know well the arguments of those opposing membership in the treaties: These conventions are a tool in the hands of arrogant global powers. Member states are obliged to allow the inspectors to not only inspect and control all the nuclear-chemical-biological facilities of the country, but also to surveil their technological capabilities and obtain information about sensitive military and security centers.

Anthony Blinken at an NPT conference

Thus, there is a strong belief among part of the political-security-military wings in Iran that these international conventions are one-way streets toward restrictions, intrusive inspections, political pressures, and allegations—without any benefits. There have also been numerous cyber and physical attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and assassinations of its nuclear scientists from 2010 onward.26 This has given rise to the belief that such conventions, including extensive access for the IAEA, have enabled the activities of malicious forces against the state.27  

Since the Trump administration’s ill-advised withdrawal from the JCPOA, this belief that Iran’s membership in the NPT and disarmament conventions is actually harmful to the country’s national interests has gained momentum. Iran fully implemented the JCPOA for three years. However, once in office, Trump rewarded this behavior by imposing the most stringent sanctions ever on any nation-state. There is now a strong anti-JCPOA faction in Iran. Mohammad-Javad Larijani—a well-known politician and former diplomat—recently said that the JCPOA “is dead but unfortunately not buried, and it smells.”28 He added that the agreement “is a crooked [instrument] and we should never pin hopes on it.”29  

John Kirby of the US National Security Council has made it clear that the United States is looking to make progress on the JCPOA. “The president has always said, while he would prefer a diplomatic, peaceful way to achieve an outcome of Iran not having a nuclear weapon, he isn’t going to take other options off the table,” he said.30 For its part, Iran’s Foreign Ministry has raised the possibility of withdrawing from the NPT as a countermeasure against Western sanctions and pressures. For instance, the European Union has the snapback at its disposal. If the union refers the Iranian nuclear file to the UN Security Council in order to reinstate sanctions, Iran may withdraw from the NPT. And in the event of potential US or Israeli military attacks, Iran may start building a nuclear bomb.31  

I must caution against moving down this road. The absence of a nuclear deal and the intensification of US and Western pressures on Iran will make its withdrawal from the NPT more likely. It would then gradually leave all other WMD treaties. That will serve no one’s interests. There is a better solution:  

  1. Revive the JCPOA. 

  1. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and Iran should form a working group on WMD and finalize the details of a broad agreement based on the following principles: 

    1. Iran would pledge its full commitment and adherence to the international nuclear, chemical, and biological conventions; 

    2. the world powers would guarantee Iran’s access to the associated peaceful technologies and abolish the relevant sanctions. 

  2. The principles of the JCPOA should be regionalized to all Gulf countries to facilitate, at the very least, a nuclear-weapons-free zone in that subregion. 


This would be a diplomatic achievement and an important step forward toward a WMD-free world. 



*Dr. Mousavian is a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist in the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. From 2003 to 2005, he was Iran’s spokesman the nuclear negotiations with the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency. He then served as foreign policy advisor to Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator, from 2005 to 2007.



1 Simon Henderson, “Iran enriched uranium to 84 percent — but can it make a nuclear bomb?” The Hill, February 20, 2023,

2 Lauren Sforza, “Nuclear inspectors in Iran find uranium enriched to 84-percent purity: reports,” The Hill, February 19, 2023,

3 Islamic Republic News Agency, “Zarif: Nuclear bomb cannot augment Iran security,” July 17, 2019,  

4 Adam Pourahmadi and Sophie Tanno, “Iran acknowledges providing drones to Russia before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine,” CNN, November 5, 2022,

5 United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs, “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT),” n.d.,  

6 Ibid. 

7 Nabil Fahmy, “Egyptian Concerns on the P5+1/Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” NUPI, September 28, 2015,

8 Arms Control Association, “WMD-Free Middle East Proposal at a Glance,” updated December 2018,

9 Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “Fact Sheet: U.S. Nuclear Weapons Modernization: Costs & Constraints,” updated January 2023,  

10 Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Emad Kiyaei, A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A New Approach to Nonproliferation (London: Routledge, 2022).   

11 Rob Picheta, Anna Chernova, Nathan Hodge, Lauren Kent, and Radina Gigova, “Putin pulls back from last remaining nuclear arms control pact with the US,” CNN, February 21, 2023,

12 Mousavian and Kiyaei, A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction. 

13 Ibid.; Gawdat Bahgat, “Israel and nuclear proliferation in the Middle East,” Middle East Policy 13, no. 2 (Summer 2006). 

14 Seyed Hossein Mousavian and Mohammad Mehdi Mousavian, “Building on the Iran Nuclear Deal for International Peace and Security,” Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament 1, no. 1 (2017): 169-192.  

15 Masoud Movahed, “Rebooting Iran’s Economy: What Tehran Needs to Do to Fix its Finances,” Foreign Affairs, November 22, 2015; Masoud Movahed, “Industrializing an Oil-Based Economy: Evidence from Iran’s Auto Industry,” Journal of International Development 32, no. 7 (October 2020). 

16 For more details, see BBC News, “Iran nuclear deal: What it all means,” November 23, 2021,  

17 See the text of the JCPOA through the website of the European Parliament:  

18 United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, “Biological Weapons Convention,” n.d., 

19 Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid, “Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,” Foreign Policy, August 26, 2013,

20 Morning Star, “Iran pursues German companies that gave Saddam Hussein chemical weapons,” People’s World, January 29, 2021,

21 Seyed Hossein Mousavian, The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012).  

22 Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Achieving Universality: Ensuring a truly global treaty,” n.d.,  

23 Jenni Rissanen, “The Biological Weapons Convention,” NTI, February 28, 2003,

24 United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, “The Biological Weapons Convention: An Introduction,” June 2017,  

25 Ibid. 

26 Mark Saunokonoko, “How Stuxnet worm took out key Iranian nuclear facility in 2010,” 9News, April 12, 2021, 

27 Ronen Bergman and Farnaz Fassihi, “The Scientist and the A.I.-Assisted, Remote-Control Killing Machine,” The New York Times, October 26, 2021,  

28 Iran International, “Iran Hardliner Says Nuclear Deal ‘Dead But Not Buried,’” January 20, 2023,, accessed February 2, 202

29 Ibid. 

30 Tom O’Connor, “With No Nuclear Deal, U.S. Eyes ‘Other Options,’ Iran Says JCPOA ‘Only’ Way,” Newsweek, January 27, 2023,

31 Seyed Hossein Mousavian, “What Losing the Iran Deal Could Mean for the Region,” The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Fall 2022/Winter 2023,

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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