T he announcement that US and Iranian negotiators will join talks in Vienna this week to resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran is a rare advance at a time when global efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons are going backwards.
The meeting takes place against the backdrop of what has been described as a new nuclear arms race, principally involving the US, Russia and China. Britain joined in last month when Boris Johnson unveiled unnecessary plans to expand the UK’s arsenal.
Joe Biden, the US president, deserves credit for grasping the Iran nettle despite fierce opposition from Republicans, and some in his own party, to any relaxation of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions policy.
Trump did his best to wreck the 2015 deal, withdrawing the US from the pact. Iran responded by increasing uranium enrichment, moving it closer to making a bomb, even though it insists that is not its aim.
Biden is attempting to restore the status quo while raising the prospect of follow-on talks about Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, its alliance with Syria’s regime and backing for anti-Israel groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
The Iranian government, or at least that part not controlled by anti-American hardliners, also deserves credit for making this first step. Iranians have suffered terrible privations under the sanctions and Biden has yet to ease them.
It’s not entirely clear what Tehran wants in return for compliance. The lifting of the US and international blockade, certainly. There have also been demands for reparations and a refusal to discuss regional issues.
In short, not too much of substance should be expected from these initial talks, not least because, as Tehran sees it, the modernisation and expansion of threatening nuclear capabilities by its putative enemies is neither propitious nor confidence-inspiring.
The US is in the midst of a trillion-dollar-plus upgrade of its nuclear deterrent, begun by the Obama administration and accelerated by Trump. It includes a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles and a new, submarine-launched cruise missile.
Of more immediate concern to Iran, perhaps, is a major expansion of Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility in the Negev desert. Israel has never revealed its capabilities, but is estimated by the Federation of American Scientists to have about 90 warheads.
There are persistent reports, meanwhile, that the Saudi regime, another Iranian foe, is interested in acquiring nuclear weapons know-how and has been helped by China and by US nuclear technology sales licensed by Trump.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, frequently boasts about his new, advanced nuclear weapons. As with the low-yield Trident warheads deployed by the US, and “battlefield nukes”, these and similar developments are increasing the likelihood of nuclear warfare.
To the relief of arms control experts, Biden and Putin recently extended the 2010 New Start treaty, which limits deployed strategic arsenal to 1,550 warheads each. But several other key cold war era treaties have lapsed, leaving a gaping hole in the nuclear safety net.
With China also expanding its arsenal, and North Korea again test-firing missiles towards Japan, the proliferation environment has rarely been more volatile. Yet that did not stop Johnson jumping in with both feet.
The government’s decisions to increase Britain’s warhead stockpile by 40%, reversing decades of cuts, and reduce transparency over operational deployments, were damaging enough. They broke numerous solemn promises.
More dangerous still was Johnson’s assertion of the right to use nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks, such as a cyber-attack. This obviously increases the chance of nuclear first-use. It harms global counter-proliferation efforts. It goads non-nuclear states. It makes Britain less secure. It is reckless. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, condemned Johnson’s “utter hypocrisy”. He is right to do so.