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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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.
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There is also a concern that Iran’s neighbors will react to the agreement by seeking a nuclear capability similar in size and scope to that of Iran. Saudi Arabia has already publicly stated that it may react to a deal by seeking its own domestic enrichment capability and may feel compelled to do so if it thinks that Iran will develop a threshold capability after many of the provisions of the agreement expire in 10–15 years.44 This possibility could be further exacerbated if the Arab states start to question the commitment of the United States to their external security and see the agreement as part of the United States’ strategic reorientation from the Arab states to Iran.
However, there will be a number of impediments that could prevent other regional states from pursuing Iran’s path. It is not easy to build a nuclear weapon. It took Iran years to build its nuclear program, despite having a large and well-educated population.45 Iran has also paid a tremendous cost, including billions of dollars in investment, oner- ous sanctions, and isolation in the international community. Additionally, following an agreement there will be a 10–25 year probationary period where Iran cannot take advantage of the technological and civilian energy applications of nuclear technology. The United States will have significant leverage over these states both in the pressure that it can deploy as their primary security guarantor and the incentives it can offer to dissuade them from fielding an enrichment capability similar to Iran’s. These incentives can range from security guarantees to 1-2-3 agreements that provide robust civilian nuclear programs such as the United Arab Emirates’, which has a much more meaningful economic impact than Iran’s largely symbolic enrichment program.46
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The nuclear agreement could have important positive effects on the global non-proliferation regime if it is successfully implemented over the next 15–25 years and deters Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. 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 pro- gram 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.38 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 still successfully deterred from obtaining nuclear weapons through a combination of economic pressure and an arms control agreement.
The international process will have worked precisely as intended, with initial concerns being referred by the IAEA Board of Governors to the U.N. Security Council, which imposed sanctions but left the door open for negotiations. These sanc- tions were crafted to ensure maximum leverage on Iran while also maintaining broad international support, and eventually led to a cheater making concessions that prevented it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The limitations that Iran will have agreed to on its nuclear program could become a model for future violators attempting to rebuild confidence from the international community if they change course, while the cradle to grave con- tinuous monitoring could become a new norm in the non-proliferation regime that perhaps over time all states could be asked to abide by.
As the calendar counts down the sixty days that Congress has to review the deal, the U.S. political system is embroiled in debate over the merits of the deal for the United States and the Middle East. The Iran deal is also significant in that it is an enormous testament to the effectiveness of the complex system of international institutions that govern the nuclear world. In the case of Iran, the process for detecting states seeking nuclear weapons and returning them to compliance worked as intended: the IAEA and national intelligence agencies detected noncompliant behavior in a timely fashion; when Iran refused to resolve the concerns, the IAEA referred its case to the UN Security Council, which imposed strict and escalating sanctions; finally, tireless multilateral negotiations reached agreement about how to bring Iran back into compliance with its international obligations and imposed unprecedented safeguards to constrain the program from prohibited activity.
The negotiations set new standards for rigor, cooperation, and creativity, generating several novel instruments that could serve as valuable tools for correcting future proliferation challenges, including a monitored procurement channel through which the international community can approve Iran’s purchases of sensitive components, a requirement that Iran ship its enriched uranium out of the country for downblending, and unprecedented verification measures. In short, the agreement with Iran strengthens the system of institutions that not only must take on the difficult task of verifying this agreement, but must also work to catch and restrain the next aspirant.
The agreement could not come at a better time for the global nuclear regime. Those components of the regime that are already in place are wracked by discord, while other essential pieces have not yet been allowed to enter into force. Though attention has focused on the negotiating teams in Vienna, the Iran deal is proof that the regime functions best as a coherent whole. Each component faces real challenges and needs continued attention if the regime is to thrive.
The deal reduced any incentive for other states in the region to seek sensitive nuclear technologies. In the absence of a deal that reversed Iran’s march toward de facto nuclear-weapons status, Saudi Arabia and possibly other states would have had a motivation to seek similar capabilities. Some Saudi luminaries have said that the kingdom should in any case now enjoy the same technologies that Iran is allowed to have, but there is little likelihood of this coming to pass in the foreseeable future. There is little basis for an indigenous enrichment programme and no country will legitimately provide this technology. All 48 members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group are enjoined from doing so by the NSG guidelines, which India has also pledged to follow. Pakistan has stated it will not help Saudi Arabia acquire nuclear weapons, and its refusal to join the intervention in Yemen shows that Islamabad and Rawalpindi are under no obligation to Riyadh. This leaves North Korea as the only state-actor option for enrichment technology. Pyongyang, too, should offer a pledge of no onward proliferation.
The deal further strengthened the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by fortifying the pillar of peaceful nuclear use. It did so in an artful way, not explicitly recognising a right to uranium enrichment, but doing so implicitly. The NPT is similarly vague; it does not explicitly include enrichment as among the nuclear technologies to which states have an ‘inalienable right’, but a textual reading of the treaty implies that this is the case. Iran’s willingness in autumn 2013 not to demand an explicit right to enrichment was an early compromise that set negotiators on the path to success. Iran now has the right to decide on its own whether it really needs the industrial-scale enrichment capacity it is allowed after 15 years. Given Russia’s promise to provide enriched uranium fuel for the lifetime of all reactors it sells Iran, the rational economic answer will be that Iran does not need to fully implement this right.
AIPAC’s July 15 statement also claims that the JCPOA “threatens the future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime” and will set off a nuclear arms race in the region.
In reality, the P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal will strengthen the nonproliferation regime, and head off a regional nuclear arms race. The JCPOA demonstrates the strength of the nonproliferation regime. It shows that attempts to violate the treaty will be detected and that there are consequences for noncompliance.
In addition to the severe economic constraints Iran has faced from the sanctions regime, Iran's limited nuclear program will be subject to restrictions and monitoring beyond the requirements of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. A limited, highly monitored Iranian nuclear program poses far less of a threat to the region than an unconstrained program. Without the JPOA, Saudi Arabia would be more likely to hedge its nuclear bets.
The United States, and other nuclear supplier states, can and will continue to employ other measures to discourage the proliferation of uranium enrichment technology to the volatile Middle East.
As we document in a forthcoming article in International Security, after the United States tried and failed to prevent Israel, South Africa and Pakistan from acquiring the capability to construct nuclear weapons, they brokered deals to prevent nuclear tests, weaponization and/or public declaration of weapons capabilities. Some scholars and commentators have interpreted these deals as the United States making exceptions to its nonproliferation policy and/or looking the other way, much like opponents of the Iran nuclear deal argue today. Yet, these deals are a logical and pragmatic part of a functioning nonproliferation policy: Once the most ambitious objectives are no longer possible, a second-best alternative is sought. Put differently, nonproliferation policy does not stop when a country acquires the technical capability to construct a nuclear device, or even when a country has assembled a handful of bombs. A pragmatist would try to limit proliferation even after these milestones have been reached.
In particular, some U.S. policymakers have believed that preventing tests, weaponization and public declaration would lessen pressures for reactive proliferation or nuclear “domino effects” and thereby reinforce rather than undercut nonproliferation policy. Even after North Korea likely acquired its first significant amounts of fissile material in the early 1990s, the United States did not demand the immediate handover of existing stockpiles; it brokered an agreement in 1994 whereby North Korea agreed to freeze its program at its current status and eventually dismantle its facilities in exchange for light water reactors from the United States. In 2007 this was repeated when the agreement reached with Pyongyang did not include the country handing over its plutonium stockpile. While the deals with North Korea and Pakistan ultimately broke down, it is worth noting that in none of these cases – Israel, South Africa, Pakistan or North Korea – did a tipping point of nuclear acquisition occur following the deals with the United States.
A third criticism offered is that the deal will lead to a nuclear arms race in the region, with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Turkey either developing enrichment programs to match Iran or starting full-fledged weapons programs.
Quite convoluted logic is required to support such a claim, since it implies that Iran’s rivals have greater incentive to pursue their own nuclear capabilities now that Iran’s nuclear capabilities will be much more limited. Even if one believes this, Iran’s rivals have rudimentary nuclear infrastructures to work with and strong political disincentives for pursuing nuclear weapons. While Saudi Arabia has blustered about seeking its own nuclear capabilities in response to the deal, the United States would stand a good chance of preventing a Saudi Arabian weapons program from coming to fruition. Indeed, the social science research on the topic of nuclear domino effects is clear: they are rarer than commonly believed, partially because countries like the United States have worked so hard to stop them. Moreover, there is no historical precedent for the notion that stringent restrictions on a nuclear program increase the likelihood of that country’s rivals going nuclear.
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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