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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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.
Skeptics, though, argue that the P5+1’s negotiating position—which envisions a final deal that would allow for a limited Iranian uranium-enrichment program—would undermine nonproliferation by encouraging other states in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, to pursue an enrichment capability. While a deal is highly unlikely to prompt Iran’s regional adversaries to make a mad dash to actually acquire nuclear weapons, the concern is that unless Iran’s nuclear program is dismantled, regional states will build their own domestic enrichment facilities, thereby placing them closer to being able to build nuclear weapons in the future.
However, the concern that an agreement allowing some Iranian enrichment will encourage the practice elsewhere is overblown. The alternative is no comprehensive P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal, which would result in a less constrained—if not unconstrained—Iranian nuclear program with less monitoring. This poses more of a threat to regional security and would be more likely to increase the possibility of a cascade of regional fuel making.
The reality, as I have argued previously, is that the United States has often made compromises when its most ambitious nonproliferation goals are no longer feasible. Countries as diverse as Germany, Japan, and Brazil have been “allowed” to maintain significant enrichment or reprocessing capabilities by the United States without grave damage to U.S. credibility on nonproliferation. The Iran deal should be viewed in this light: as a pragmatic agreement to reduce proliferation risks in difficult circumstances.
As to whether the deal will undermine the NPT or send the wrong message to countries pondering pursuing nuclear weapons, consider this: Iran had to endure nearly a decade of crippling international sanctions simply to achieve the right to maintain a drastically limited enrichment program and still does not possess nuclear weapons. It is unlikely that this path will appear attractive to potential future proliferators.
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A nuclear agreement with Iran would represent a success for the nonproliferation regime in several ways. Most fundamentally, a deal offers at least the prospect of a sustainable resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. It is hard to overstate the importance of this result for the regime as a whole. The Iran nuclear case has been the central preoccupation of U.S. nonproliferation policy—and that of multilateral bodies such as the IAEA Board of Governors—for more than a decade. The unyielding emphasis on Iran has been central to U.S. efforts to mobilize broad support, first for a finding of noncompliance with the NPT, and later for robust international sanctions. But this strategy has sidelined discussion of other impor- tant nonproliferation issues, including efforts to bolster nuclear security, promote universal adherence to the Additional Protocol, and find a solution to the loophole of NPT withdrawal. And it has complicated relations with some states, particularly those that have been active in the Non-Aligned Movement, as the United States exerted pressure on them to support its votes on Iran in the IAEA and the United Nations.4 A deal with Iran could thus lead to a welcome turning of the page in U.S. nonproliferation efforts. Of course, a deal does not make the Iran nuclear issue go away, but it may help to put it on a more stable and sustainable footing. If Iran’s nuclear program is no longer seen as a crisis, it may allow the United States and like-minded states to act more strategically on other important nonproliferation issues.
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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