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.
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.
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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.
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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