Nuclear deal unlikely to uniquely undermine nonproliferation norm
Several states, notably Saudi Arabia, have been vocal in their opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran and have argued that they will seek to pursue a similar enrichment program to the one Iran is pursuing, raising the spectre of an 'enrichment arms race'. However, empirically, states have threatened to pursue nuclear programs in response to other states but the cause and effect dynamics are rarely that simple, with states pursuing weapons programs (or enrichment programs) for a number of different motivations. Additionally, this has to be weighed against the alternative which in this case would be a fully nuclear Iran, which would likely have even greater impacts on the nonproliferation norm.
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[PRO] In the absence of an agreement–with Iran’s enrichment program expanding without limits–the pressure on other countries in the Middle East to develop their own nuclear option would be even greater. Nonetheless, some other countries in the region will try to emulate Iran’s enrichment program that is permitted under the agreement. However, as a practical matter, none of the other countries in the region can establish an enrichment program without extensive foreign assistance, just as Iran’s enrichment program is based on an infusion of technology from Pakistan. Fortunately, none of the established nuclear suppliers will sell fuel cycle technology to the Middle East, so the U.S. will have to watch closely to ensure that North Korea, Pakistan or black marketers do not secretly transfer enrichment technology to the region.
One area where the agreement could set some risky precedents is in the area of peaceful nuclear energy collaboration. The United States is expected to agree to collaborate with Iran on peaceful nuclear activities, though Tehran will maintain some domestic enrichment capabilities despite having no real credible civilian energy needs that require that capability. This could cause other states to ask for the same and weaken the overall non-proliferation regime.
To mitigate against this consequence, the United States and the international community must recommit themselves to global standards for civilian nuclear cooperation that ask countries that seeks nuclear energy cooperation to pledge not to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium—necessary capabilities for a military nuclear program. This standard was applied in 2009 when the United States signed the 123 Agreement for Peaceful Civilian Nuclear Energy Cooperation with the United Arab Emirates. The agreement will allow the UAE to build out an economically viable civilian nuclear energy program worth billions of dollars that will address a significant portion of the UAE’s domestic energy. However, it will do so without allowing for any domestic enrichment.
There is also a danger that other states in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, could respond to the agreement by seeking a domestic capability similar to Iran’s. To cope with the threat, the United States should provide credible commitments to its allies that they will not stand alone against any Iranian threat. These assurances should address the Sunni Arab concerns about Iran's nuclear and conventional aspirations. They should aim to project American power in the region and to signal that the United States is there to stay by maintaining the current robust conventional American force presence. The United should also increase intelligence cooperation and provide more training and military support to U.S. allies to counter Iranian proxies.
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No such precedent exists. In 70 years of nuclear history, there is not a single case of proliferation of nuclear weapons caused by a safeguarded enrichment program which is what Iran will have after an agreement. There have been 10 nuclear weapons states.24 Some weapons programs began in response to another country’s nuclear weapons program, others to actual nuclear tests, but none to a safeguarded enrichment program. Governments tend to be reactive by nature, not proactive—and nuclear weapons are not a small undertaking. Non-nuclear weapons states that have safeguarded enrichment programs, such as Japan and Brazil, have not caused neighboring countries to initiate nuclear weapons programs.
As we wait with baited breath for the outcome of this week’s talks in the Vienna, it is worth considering the broader nuclear nonproliferation implications of an Iran Deal. If the P5+1 and Iran are able to come to a final agreement on a nuclear accord that deters Iran from developing nuclear weapons in the future, this moment could represent a seminal achievement in the history of nuclear non-proliferation negotiations. The agreement has the potential to prevent the possibility of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East while also setting positive precedents that can be applied globally.
To take full advantage of this opportunity and ensure it becomes a net positive for the broader non-proliferation agenda, the United States and its partners will have to move out simultaneously with both a global and regional non-proliferation plan.
The international campaign prior to the agreement could become a new model for how to effectively deal with violators. There is a long history of cases in which states have given up the pursuit of a nuclear weapons program because of external changes to their security environment, internal regime changes, a shift in strategy, military coercion, or simply because the task was too difficult and costly. Iran would be a unique instance because of the scale and scope of the international response the complexity of the negotiations, and the fact that Iran’s regime had not fundamentally changed but was persuaded to change its behavior through a combination of economic pressure, international isolation, military threat and diplomatic engagement. Tehran agreed to negotiate over its nuclear program, to roll-back some of its achievements and to accept strict constraints over its nuclear program.
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Limited enrichment infrastructure not seen as regional threat. If nations were threatened by peaceful nuclear programs, then the states in the region would have done something over the past decade to match that capability. They have not. Iran has had centrifuges since 2003, but Saudi Arabia and others have done virtually nothing in response. Domestically developed facilities of this sort can be expensive, technically demanding, and time-consuming to construct. Countries with a greater trust in the international system, such as Saudi Arabia, that want to assure the availability or possess an interest in such facilities, should be encouraged to invest in international arrangements with others who have already perfected the technology.
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The second main concern posited is that Iran will fan the flames of regional nuclear proliferation, leading to nuclear weapons programs throughout the Arab world as a counter to Iran’s now entrenched nuclear program.
I strongly disagree that this is the likely result of this deal. Moreover, I believe we have adequate tools to prevent such an outcome.
First, this argument presupposes that countries have been waiting for a negotiated outcome to enshrine Iran’s enrichment program into international law to launch their own nuclear programs. But, this argument implicitly suggests that while a deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear program might motivate others to launch a breakout, Iran’s relatively unconstrained last ten years did not. If there is a logic to Arab nuclear weapons efforts, then it is that they cannot count on anyone else to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear arms and must counterbalance Iran themselves. If this were truly their view, then why only start now? We should be seeing signs of nuclear weapons breakout around the region.
Instead, we see either nuclear programs being undertaken with an explicit, if bounded, unilateral renunciation of uranium enrichment (as in the UAE) or with far less direction and interest than would be expected (as in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, principally). There have been periodic statements of interest in nuclear energy by other countries in the region and even some efforts to establish the legal and scientific infrastructure that could facilitate a larger program. But, the most advanced Arab nuclear program is in the UAE and, as noted, it is being built on the back of a non-enrichment pledge that no one in the UAE has suggested they will renounce. If a nuclear arms race has been launched, it may be the most modest one in history.
MYTH: A nuclear deal that allows Iran uranium enrichment and civilian nuclear power program will cause a proliferation cascade in the Middle East, with countries like Saudi Arabia deciding to move toward nuclear weapons.
REALITY: A verifiable, comprehensive nuclear deal will impose strict limits and monitoring on Iran's nuclear program, thus reducing the risk that Iran may someday pursue nuclear weapons. This will provide assurance to the international community that Tehran is not seeking nuclear weapons and that any deviations from the deal will be quickly noticed. This should reduce, not increase, the temptation by some states in the Middle East-particularly Saudi Arabia-to pursue the technical capabilities necessary to acquire nuclear weapons.
The alternative--no comprehensive P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal--would lead to an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program with less monitoring. This poses more of a threat to countries in the region and could increase the possibility of a "proliferation cascade" in the region.
MYTH: The deal ensures that Iran will get a bomb, sparking nuclear proliferation across the Middle East.
The deal takes Iran off the path to a bomb and keeps all U.S. options on the table if Iran cheats. Without this deal, UN inspectors would be kicked out, and Iran would again be within weeks or months of a bomb, with all of its centrifuges spinning and its enriched-uranium stockpiles growing. Without the deal, Iran has enough uranium for ten bombs right now. With the deal, it will immediately have less than what it needs for one bomb. Under the deal, Iran also agrees to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol, so it is bound to not producing nuclear weapons. If it chooses to try, all the options available today—including military action—will be available to the U.S. president in five, ten, fifteen or even thirty years.
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A comprehensive agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons will represent a significant win for the nonproliferation regime and will have positive nonproliferation effects in the region. The alternative, an Iran with an unconstrained nuclear program, would have a contrary effect, adding unwanted pressure on the nonproliferation regime.
A successful agreement sends the message that violating the NPT carries significant costs, but that if a country abandons its nuclear ambitions, it can avoid those costs. Often analysts focus on the first message (imposing costs) and forget the second, which is a serious mistake. The history of the nuclear age includes dozens of countries that started down the path to nuclear weapons but that stopped and reversed course. If countries, having decided to purse nuclear weapons, believe that there is no off ramp or alternative, then they will believe they have no choice but to continue down that path towards nuclear weapons.
In addition, it appears that this agreement will break new ground with respect to safeguards and verification. As new precedents, they offer the possibility of more widespread adoption and becoming a standard feature of the nonproliferation regime.
A nuclear agreement might also add modest momentum to international efforts to establish a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East.
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Some analysts have expressed the concern that a nuclear agreement that leaves Iran with any centrifuges will spur countries in the region to develop their own enrichment capabilities and following that, nuclear weapons.
This outcome appears unlikely for several reasons.
First, in 70 years of nuclear history, there is not a single case of proliferation caused by a safeguarded enrichment program. There have been 10 nuclear weapons states. Some weapons programs began in response to another country’s nuclear weapons program, others not until nuclear tests, but none to a safeguarded enrichment program. Governments tend to be reactive by nature -- not proactive – and nuclear weapons are not a small undertaking. Non-nuclear weapons states that have safeguarded enrichment programs, like Japan and Brazil, have not caused neighboring countries to initiate nuclear weapons programs.
Second, if a limited enrichment infrastructure was viewed as a grave, proliferation tripping threat, then why have the countries in the region failed to do anything for the last 10 years. Iran has had centrifuges since 2003, but Saudi Arabia and others have done virtually nothing. It is difficult to believe that after curtailing its centrifuge program and submitting to new and rigorous verification, the governments in the region would then decide to respond.
Third, the set of countries cited as potential proliferation threats -- Saudi Arabia,12 Turkey,13 and Egypt14 -- appear far from a nuclear weapons option.15 There are many reasons for this conclusion, not least being that since the Iran-Iraq War, many countries have come to believe that a strong military alliance with United States is their preferred route to security. A bomb program would put that directly at risk.
The author debunks five of the most common arguments against the nuclear deal with Iran, focusing on the effect that it will have on restraining nuclear proliferation both in Iran and in the region.
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Mark Fitzpatrick offers up a list of twelve ways that the nuclear deal with Iran reinforces the global nonproliferation regime.
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The author argues that the deal reached in Vienna reflects the success of the nonproliferation regime, which while straining under its history and the weight of its institutions still managed to achieve a historic first: "for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear era, no country is publicly known to be pursuing a nuclear weapon."
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South Korea expressed hope Thursday for a final deal between Iran and six global powers on Tehran's nuclear program, saying it could positively affect efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.
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The authors find that on balance, the nuclear deal with Iran is likely to strengthen the nonproliferation regime, having the potential "to prevent the possibility of nuclear
proliferation in the Middle East while also setting positive precedents that can be applied globally."
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The authors report on recent research showing that in the past, pragmatic concessions to nascent nuclear states contributed more to nonproliferation than it detracted from it, and they conclude the same will likely be the case with the Iran deal.
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