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.
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.
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Most directly, rejecting the nuclear deal would undermine the international nonproliferation regime, which nonproliferation experts have argued is today in a state of crisis.24 As the RAND Corporation’s Jeffrey Kaplow and Rebecca Davis Gibbons wrote in a recent report, the deal “offers at least the prospect of a sustainable resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue,” which “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.” They warn that the spread of enrichment and refinement technology represents a challenge to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), but note that this is not unique to Iran and will be the subject of future debates regarding other nations’ nuclear development. Congress must consider that leaving Iran’s nuclear program unconstrained would do far greater harm than good for the enforcement of the nonproliferation regime by undermining the IAEA’s ability to conduct intrusive inspections and signaling that the United States is not prepared to enforce nonproliferation agreements. This would only further hinder diplomacy on nuclear issues with other nations, particularly those participating in the Non-Aligned Movement. Additionally, enforcing the nonproliferation regime could quickly face new challenges if Iran’s rivals in the Gulf chose to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs in response to an Iranian breakout.
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A negotiated deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions would represent a major nonproliferation breakthrough. Though a deal carries some costs, it is better than the alternative: an unfettered Iranian nuclear effort that sows conflict and perhaps furthers proliferation in an already unstable region. To make the most of the deal, the United States and its allies should emphasize the relevant benefits for the nuclear nonproliferation regime—the value of universal application of the most stringent IAEA safeguards and the central role of the IAEA in verifying compliance with the NPT. Most importantly, the United States must do everything in its power to permit the IAEA to do its work in Iran, allowing the process sufficient time and space to succeed.
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The United States should also use a combination of reassurance and dissuasion to ensure that no other regional actors respond to the agreement by achieving their own domestic enrichment capabilities. The United States should be open to offering a nuclear umbrella to the Gulf states if they desire it. This would probably be executed most easily through an executive agreement, as generating political support in the United States for the ratifi- cation of a mutual defense pact with Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates might be too difficult. Any such offer from the United States will have to be carefully choreographed as it could inadvertently backfire by signaling to our regional partners that the United States believes that the nuclear agreement will eventually lead to a nuclear-armed Iran. The United States should send a message to its partners clearly conveying that it is absolutely confident in the nuclear agreement and believes that it will indeed prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, but that if they have anxieties the United States is willing to assuage them. However, it must also make clear that an explicit element of this nuclear guarantee is that these states will not pursue their own independent enrichment capabilities.
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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.
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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