MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVII No. 4
March / April 2015
Global Issues Confront Us All
Campus Conversation on Climate Change
Why MIT Faculty Should NOT Sign the Petition to Divest from Fossil Fuels
Review Conference on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to take Center Stage
A Guide to Proposing, Revising, and Terminating Curricula
Advancing a Respectful and
Caring Community
In Support of the ICEO Mission Statement
Let's Get to Work in "Advancing a Respectful and Caring Community"
The Faculty Role in Building and
Sustaining Community
Supporting the ICEO Report
Advancing a Caring Community Through Enhanced Student-Faculty Interaction
Graduate Student Perspective
on the ICEO Report
ORCID Researcher Identifiers to be Integrated into MIT Systems Beginning this Summer
Humanities and the Future of MIT Education
MIT Campus Research Expenditures
Printable Version

Review Conference on Non-Proliferation of
Nuclear Weapons to take Center Stage

Aron Bernstein

Nuclear weapons are back in the news with the negotiations with Iran. If an agreement is reached we anticipate some strong opposition in Congress. The 2015 Review Conference on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will be held from 27 April to 22 May 2015 at U.N. headquarters in New York. Stormy weather is anticipated which is likely to lead to a great deal of press coverage. The large costs of modernizing the nuclear weapons complex will be a continuing issue, even if this does not generate as much news coverage, as well as continuing problems with North Korea developing nuclear weapons and launchers.

The past few years have seen a resurgence of scholarly activity in the study of nuclear weapons and non-proliferation issues at MIT.

In the Nuclear Science and Engineering Department the Laboratory for Nuclear Security Policy has a vigorous program led by Scott Kemp and Richard Lanza. Francis Gavin, the Stanton Chair in Nuclear Security Policy, Vipin Narang, Barry Posen, Jim Walsh, and others are active members of the Security Studies Program in the Political Science Department, and I’m a member of the Physics Department. There is also a student Global Zero group led by Mareena Robinson, a Nuclear Science and Engineering graduate student, closely associated with the Technology and Culture Forum (Radius) who have been having programs of interest. Most prominent in the news is our Physics Department colleague, Ernie Moniz, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, who is participating in the Iran negotiations as a technical consultant to Secretary of State John Kerry [see The New York Times, 29 March 2015, p.1].

Ernie Moniz
U.S. Secretary of Energy and MIT Professor of Physics Ernie Moniz [second from left]
(click on image to enlarge)










Iran has ratified the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). However, for the past two decades, it appears likely to have been working towards the ability to either make nuclear weapons or become a nuclear weapons threshold state. Iran has had a long and troubled history with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and the U.N., as can be seen by many Security Council Resolutions (for a summary see

In August 2013, three days after his inauguration, Iran's newly elected President Hasan Rouhani called for the resumption of serious negotiations with the P5+1 (the acknowledged nuclear weapons states – U.S., Russia, China, England, France, plus Germany) on Iran's nuclear program. These commenced in October 2013. On April 2, after several years of negotiations that became quite intense in the previous week, Iran and the P5+1 came to a historic, preliminary outline of an agreement that exceeded my expectations; it is surprisingly detailed. It contains many major concessions by both parties, particularly by Iran. The central agreement is that for the next 15 years Iran will dramatically limit its present stockpile of reactor grade enriched uranium (< 4%) from its current 10,000 to 300 kilograms. The number of running P1 centrifuges (their least efficient models) will be reduced from 10,000 to 5060 and be stationed only in their Natanz facility for 10 years. This combination should ensure that the breakout time is increased to one year, the number that President Obama has been stating as required.

In addition, there are limits placed on Iran’s research into more advanced reactors and their deployment, as well as the conversion of the deep underground facility at Fordow into peaceful nuclear physics research without any centrifuges enriching uranium. The heavy water Arak reactor being constructed by Iran (frozen under the interim agreement of November 2014) will be reconfigured so that very little plutonium will be produced. All of these are subject to the strictest IAEA inspections that have ever been conducted. In return, Iran is to be relieved of many sanctions and will obtain official recognition from the international community for the first time of their right to enrich uranium. Supporters of the agreement in Teheran have used both of these issues to counter arguments from their hard liners.

These negotiated goals need to be finalized by the end of June, as well as several important and potentially difficult issues that were deferred. These include how the reduction of the enriched uranium stockpile is to be reduced (Iran has ruled out shipping this material out of the country) and the U.S. demand that the IAEA be allowed to conduct inspections any place in Iran, including military bases. A sign of how difficult these future negotiations will be can be seen in the differing versions of the leadership in Washington and Tehran (see, e.g., M.Gordon, The New York Times, April 4, 2015). The issue that has received the most attention is the timing and nature of the sanctions relief. The P5+1 is stating that they will be reduced on a step-by-step basis as Iran demonstrates that it is complying with the agreement. The Iranian leadership is asserting that all of the sanctions will be terminated, not phased out, as soon as the accords are finalized June 30. Stay tuned for the same cliff hanging, intense negotiations that occurred at the end of March.

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In order to have any chance of success the negotiations did not address any of the many outstanding political differences that we have with Iran. These include their support of Hamas and Hezbollah, general antagonism towards Israel, the lack of civil liberties inside their country, and its role in the Shia-Sunni conflict. This will require some heavy diplomatic lifting that the Obama administration is already dealing with. In addition, there is a great deal of opposition in Congress which has taken on an unfortunately partisan character and which will be an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.

It is important to step back and take a longer and more fundamental view of what should be accomplished. It is rarely acknowledged in the political commentary, but we are fortunate that Iran seems committed to be part of the NPT treaty and since the interim agreement was reached, have allowed the most intensive IAEA inspections ever conducted of their facilities and some of their uranium mines.

It is also encouraging that Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a FATWA stating that they will not develop nuclear weapons. On the other hand, we should not be naive about their intentions. We know that Iran had a nuclear weapons development group and that they probably know how to quickly build a nuclear weapon once they have the required fissionable material. U.S. intelligence estimates that this effort ended in 2003. We also know that in the past they did not completely live up to their NPT inspections obligations, for which they were sanctioned many times.

For their part, Iran is angry about our cyber sabotage efforts on their enrichment centrifuge program and at Israel, who they link to the U.S., for their refusal to join the NPT, for its possession of nuclear weapons, and for assassinations of several of Iran’s nuclear scientists.

These specific nuclear issues are a small fraction of the many contentious issues between our countries, and with our close ally Israel. In my personal view, there is little doubt that Iran has worked hard to position themselves to be able to produce a nuclear weapon without taking the final step. Clearly, it is in our interest to keep them from taking this important last step. It is therefore necessary to successfully conclude the negotiations that will slow down their ability to quickly produce a nuclear weapon and allow a vigorous inspection regime. It is rarely mentioned in the debate that it is in our interest to give them sufficient incentives so that they do not want to take the final step towards making a nuclear weapon. In my view, we should not let the pursuit of the perfect deal prevent the reasonable one that now appears to be possible. As is often the case, the goal should be to minimize risk, since eliminating it is quite unlikely. The alternative to an agreement appears to be escalating conflict, possibly war, and a fractured P5 alliance on this issue, and possibly Iranian nuclear weapons in the next few years. Finally, in my judgment, even though Iran’s nuclear program has attracted intense interest, the more important nuclear arms control issues include U.S.-Russian reductions and taking our missiles out of “hair trigger” alert mode, the dangerous India- Pakistan standoff, and North Korean isolation and nuclear weapons development.

The other nuclear proliferation issue that is likely to generate extensive news coverage is the next five-year NPT review scheduled from April 28 thorough May 9, 2015 at the U.N. The NPT came into force in 1970, and currently includes 189 states. Notably absent are India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea (who withdrew) which have nuclear weapons. The bargain to establish the NPT was that the five nuclear weapons states (the P5) were grandfathered in but agreed to eliminate their nuclear weapons; Article VI that covers this does not specify a specific time scale or process. The rest of the signatories are entitled to utilize nuclear power, subject to IAEA inspections, but are not allowed to have nuclear weapons or to help others obtain them. It is anticipated that the 2015 meeting will be “stormy” (see with many of the non-aligned, non-nuclear weapons states such as Ireland, Norway, etc., demanding that the established nuclear weapons states get specific about their Article VI commitments. What is anticipated is that there will be a call to establish some concrete guideposts about nuclear weapons reductions. It is also anticipated that the nuclear weapons states will focus on the proliferation issue, particularly for Iran and North Korea. The P5 met in London and issued a bland statement on February 4 ( that is unlikely to satisfy the critics who want to see some tangible progress on the part of the existing nuclear powers, particularly the U.S. and Russia, making disarmament a priority, not just a distant objective.

In addition to the formal conference there are many non-governmental activities planned around the NPT review with people participating from all over the world. Our Faculty Newsletter Chair, Jonathan King, is actively working on this, serving as Chair of Massachusetts’s Peace Action’s Committee organizing for the Conference.

On this 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a large Japanese delegation is expected to show their support for eliminating nuclear weapons. Many student and university groups are expected from the U.S., including MIT and other local universities. As someone who learned so much from my older colleagues who worked on the Manhattan Project, and who has been long concerned about nuclear weapons, I hope that this attention plays a role in preventing them from ever being used again.

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