Strengthening the Counter-Illicit Nuclear Trade Regime in the Face of New Threats: A Two-Year Review of Proliferation Threats Associated with the Middle East

by David Albright, Andrea Stricker, Sarah Burkhard, and Erica Wenig

September 12, 2017

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The United States’ and associated global export control regime is losing ground due to several global events and trends underway in the United States and the Middle East. The developments at home and abroad are reducing controls and oversight over the flow of commodities vital to the development of nuclear weapons. Unless these trends are reversed, U.S. efforts to stem and stop nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and elsewhere will weaken. Events contributing to this greater proliferation danger include: 1) relaxed U.S. export control regulations and greater emphasis on global trade with streamlined exchange of intellectual property and commodities, including nuclear commodities; 2) on-going questions over the strong regulation of sensitive trade to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs; and 3) the expected actions of additional states to obtain nuclear capabilities to counterbalance Iran. This report provides findings from four studies that were part of a two-year Institute for Science and International Security review which identified threats to the United States’ and interconnected global export control regime and actions to take now to mitigate damages.

The review found that U.S. policy goals should include strong efforts to restrict the flow of sensitive technologies to the Middle East where proliferation and security concerns are currently high. This includes examining its own export control reforms and repairing new or ongoing deficiencies that contribute to the spread of sensitive military or other technologies. It should work to negotiate or otherwise impose the extension of limitations on Iran’s nuclear program in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), since the legitimization of Iran’s advanced nuclear program exacerbates proliferation concerns. It should counter illicit nuclear and missile trade in the Middle East and elsewhere, which could support nuclear weapons development. The United States should affirm its strong defensive commitment to allies such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, and Egypt, while working against their development or import of advanced fuel cycle capabilities. The United States should also support the implementation of strong controls and transparency measures in the Middle East to ensure that burgeoning civilian nuclear programs remain peaceful, such as commitments not to enrich or reprocess, implementation of the Additional Protocol, and provision of secure, lifetime fuel supplies for nuclear reactors. It should monitor via national intelligence capabilities any concerning research or imports by Middle East nations that could signify proliferation intentions, and use all available diplomatic or coercive means to prevent additional nuclear proliferation. Finally, the United States and its allies should work to reduce Middle East security tensions and develop threat reduction efforts more broadly.


An effective United States and associated global nuclear export and technology control regime is a key linchpin in efforts to stem and stop nuclear proliferation, particularly in the Middle East. This regime has detected, prevented, or slowed the acquisition of sensitive nuclear and nuclear dual-use technologies by U.S. adversaries. This regime, unless actions are taken now, will degrade dangerously over the next few years, particularly with regard to Iran and the rest of the Middle East. The risk is less control and oversight over the flow of commodities, technologies, and the knowledge skill sets required to develop and maintain nuclear weapons capabilities combined with a heightened interest in nuclear capabilities in the Middle East fostered by Iran’s nuclear program. As the debate intensifies over whether the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA, is in U.S. security interests, ensuring robust controls on dangerous goods must be a heightened U.S priority.

Events contributing to this greater proliferation danger include:

  • Relaxed U.S. export control regulations and greater emphasis on global trade with streamlined exchange of intellectual property and commodities, including nuclear commodities;
  • On-going doubts over the adequate regulation of sensitive trade to Iran’s nuclear programs and the viability of the Iran deal to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons; and
  • The expected actions of additional states to obtain nuclear capabilities to counterbalance Iran.

Relaxed U.S. Export Controls

In 2010, President Obama announced an export control reform initiative which aimed, among other goals, to harmonize an unwieldy and redundant U.S. export control system and reduce regulations on sensitive U.S. technologies and commodities if they were freely available from other worldwide suppliers. One effect of these reforms to date is that temporary disarray at the bureaucratic level, including inefficiencies by agencies tasked with new mandates, has reduced U.S. ability to adequately enforce export control laws and may be leading to slowed efforts to respond to illicit procurement attempts by adversaries, including by Iran. Another more lasting effect is reduced scrutiny of key goods that makes enforcement and prosecution of offenders more difficult. As the sophistication and opacity of illicit procurement schemes has increased worldwide, the U.S. hallmark of strongly enforcing counter illicit trade efforts is weakened, to the detriment of U.S. and global security.

This weakening of U.S. export controls is occurring against a background of expedited border clearance procedures in the United States and greater global economic interconnectivity that seeks expanded trade through streamlined transfers of intellectual property and commodities, includng nuclear and nuclear-related dual-use commodities. Overall, the balance has begun shifting to prioritize trade over national security, even if unintentionally.

Inadequate Export Controls on Iran

At the same time, the nuclear deal with Iran has significantly limited the size and scope of its nuclear program for the relatively short duration of ten years in return for the elimination of most sanctions. This loosening entailed provisions which allow Iran to more freely import nuclear and nuclear dual-use commodities for its authorized civil nuclear and non-nuclear civil programs while seeking to maintain bans on imports to its military industries and non-nuclear civilian industries. Yet, the deal did not insist that Iran commit to stop its illicit procurements abroad for its missile and other military programs, some of which may have dual uses in a nuclear program. This backdrop of continued illegal dual-use purchases has complicated verification of the nuclear deal and made it difficult to ensure that Iran is not secretly buying for an overt or covert nuclear program.

While Iran is continuing to violate national and international controls and bans on importing military and other goods, the P5+1 must prevent Iran from being able to import any goods it desires and cheat on the deal’s provisions, by augmenting its nuclear capabilities via illicit imports, or worse, outfitting covert nuclear programs or creating stockpiles to use in a breakout or surge in capability. Even with a strong architecture in place to accomplish these goals, the world has seen an overall loosening of the UN sanctions regime and national export control regimes against Iran and a general atmosphere of confusion among governments and companies worldwide about allowable exports to Iran. This confusion has had spillover effects in places like China, which has poorly implemented controls even as China continues to make improvements on its export control laws and regulations. China is expanding trade with Iran, making it easier for Iran to get banned goods. New approaches are needed to ensure that the Iran deal, which in fact includes the JCPOA and the bans in UN Security Council resolution 2231, actually limits Iran’s procurements for its missile, conventional military, and nuclear programs and strengthens U.S. and global counterproliferation efforts.

Increased Risk of Middle East Proliferation

The international community must grapple with the fact that, rather than curbing the spread of dangerous nuclear capabilities in the Middle East, the limitations of the Iran nuclear deal, combined with its temporary duration, have as one consequence created a new norm that legitimizes uranium enrichment programs almost anywhere, even when unneeded for a civilian nuclear program. Instead of setting conditions that are so onerous that no one would want to follow that path, the conditions being applied to Iran are seen as bearable by other states. Moreover, if they first act by placing their programs under safeguards and are transparent, they may avoid the burdensome sanctions that Iran has faced, despite being in regions of tension such as the Middle East. This norm will likely persist even if the Iran nuclear deal collapses, unless Iran is convinced to rollback its uranium enrichment program.

Already, Iran’s nuclear program has intensified interest among other Middle Eastern countries in developing their own nascent nuclear capabilities, albeit under a civilian, safeguarded umbrella. If the deal’s nuclear limitations start to end in 2026, or the deal collapses before then, Iran’s intended, renewed progress on its gas centrifuge enrichment program may have the consequence of stimulating an “enrichment or plutonium race” in the Middle East. This grim possibility must be anticipated and remedies sought to prevent it in the context of further destabilization of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is already indicating that it will match Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Prince Turki bin Faisal, the 70-year-old former Saudi intelligence chief, toured the world with the same message: “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too,” he said at a conference in Seoul, South Korea. Other Sunni states apart from Saudi Arabia are likely to accelerate their drive to develop their own domestic nuclear programs, even programs to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium, as they too seek to counterbalance Iran.

Iran’s other regional rivals such as Turkey, Egypt, and potentially even the United Arab Emirates (UAE) may seek to initiate or expand domestic sensitive nuclear development programs in order to preserve their regional influence. Initially, these programs can be expected to be fully safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and openly declared civilian in nature. And like Iran, these countries will heavily depend on overseas procurement of key goods and services, putting even more pressure on trade controls and sanctions to slow or prevent their progress.

In the Middle East, the perceived strategic, political, and military advantages derived from having the ability to enrich nuclear fuel to weaponization levels or to separate plutonium will be too strong for many governments to resist, even in the absence of a full-blown nuclear weapons effort. This dynamic will severely challenge global nonproliferation regimes and agreements as more and more countries strive, overtly or covertly, to become members of “nuclear fuel club,” or on the threshold of building nuclear weapons.

The global community should anticipate a dramatic increase in state-sponsored nuclear proliferation activities, regardless of the fate of the JCPOA. Efforts to constrain such aspirations are critical.

The net result of these events is that the world will soon face a greater proliferation danger from Iran and the spread of sensitive technologies in the Middle East may be stimulated by this new, dangerous norm legitimizing enrichment almost anywhere. The policy community must identify threats to the global export control regime and enact broader counterproliferation efforts to mitigate damages. This two-year project has sought to identify and characterize these threats, along with crafting actionable, concrete recommendations to curtail further damage to the nonproliferation regime and in particular to the peace and security of the Middle East.

Four Studies with Policy Recommendations

This two-year review has identified and characterized threats to the U.S. and associated nuclear export and technology control regimes, focusing on the Middle East. Four major studies in the review seek to develop a framework and countermeasures to mitigate and prevent future damage. They include recommendations for the three issue areas: improving flaws in U.S. export control reforms, strengthening controls on Iran, and preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons to countries in the Middle East:

These studies and their findings serve as the basis for the conclusions of this comprehensive policy report.

The full report is available in PDF here.

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