Nuclear deal will undermine nonproliferation efforts
Acquiescing to the Iranian nuclear deal would reverse the decades long U.S. nonproliferation strategy of attempting to limit the spread of sensitive nuclear technology by allowing Iran to retain the ability to enrich uranium. The likely consequence of the completion of the deal is that other countries will demand the same capability, including Saudi Arabia.
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Other than Iran and Israel, no country in the greater Middle East region is known today to seek sensitive fuel-cycle capabilities, and at least three (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) have explicitly said that they would not seek indigenous enrichment or reprocessing facilities. Elsewhere in the region, however, intentions are less clear. Egypt, which has explored nuclear weapons in the past, insists that it will not rule out sensitive technologies nor accept further non-proliferation controls as long as Israel remains outside the NPT. Algeria, which reportedly possesses a dormant reprocessing plant, appears to have the same attitude. Until September 2007, Syria was building a plutonium-production reactor for highly suspect purposes. Turkey has denied press reports that it seeks enrichment, but has both the technological capability and the political motivation to keep parity with Iran. These latter four countries are all potential candidates for joining a proliferation cascade, as is Saudi Arabia, although it would be more likely to pursue a nuclear deterrent by purchasing weapons than through indigenous development.As long as Iran remains under increasing pressure to stop its sensitive nuclear activities and is penalised for failing to do so, its neighbours have a disincentive against seeking enrichment or reprocessing capabilities of their own. Any fallback option that legitimised Iran’s enrichment efforts would diminish that disincentive. By contrast, strategies that strengthened the barriers to military nuclear capabilities would relax proliferation pressures in the region by reducing the uncertainty about covert facilities and break-out capabilities.
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In addition to technology transfers, a latent nuclear Iran might spur a proliferation of similar capabilities in the Middle East. As Obama has stated clearly, if Iran develops nuclear weapons, “It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world.”17 The risk of a regional nuclear arms race would certainly be less severe than if Iran had a complete nuclear arsenal, but Iran would still be only months away from the bomb, and leaders in these states might hedge their bets and begin pursuing a latent nuclear weapons capability that would allow them to join the
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Acquiescing to a latent nuclear Iran would be a major exception to this longstanding policy and would risk undermining decades of nonproliferation efforts. This danger would be most severe if the international community formally recognized and enshrined Iran’s enrichment capability in a comprehensive nuclear deal, but its effects would still be present in any scenario in which Iran maintains an indigenous enrichment capability. Other countries will demand similar rights and capabilities and cite Iran as a precedent. South Korea might intensify its calls for indigenous reprocessing, and the United Arab Emirates might renege on its commitments in its “gold standard” agreement. It will be difficult if not impossible for Washington to claim that it trusts Tehran’s leaders with sensitive nuclear technology but not its own friends and allies.
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Perhaps the greatest proliferation threat posed by a latent nuclear Iran, however, is damage to the broader nuclear nonproliferation regime. The United States has enforced a policy of preventing the spread of sensitive nuclear technology to new states since the 1970s. India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974 brought home the ease with which supposedly civilian nuclear technologies could be converted to military purposes. In response, the United States spearheaded an international effort to control the spread of sensitive fuel-cycle facilities like uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, which resulted in the creation of new international institutions such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group. In addition, the United States has brought direct, unilateral pressure to bear on countries intent on developing sensitive technologies, including its own allies. In the 1970s, for example, the United States pressured Seoul and Taipei to abandon incipient reprocessing programs. More recently, the United States has considered making the formal renouncement of future enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) capabilities a prerequisite for any civil nuclear cooperation with Washington, and, in 2009, the United Arab Emirates signed up to this new, so-called “gold standard” for peaceful nuclear cooperation. At present, Seoul is expressing an interest in developing plutonium reprocessing capabilities for legitimate applications, but Washington is putting up resistance, citing the proliferation risk.
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Iran’s nuclear latency may partially negate some of the non- proliferation benefits of a deal. Although Iran’s latent nuclear capability is unlikely to lead to a cascade of new nuclear weapons programs in the region, Iran’s neighbors need not pursue nuclear weapons themselves to create additional challenges for the regime. They may elect instead to follow a nuclear hedging strategy, as Iran has done. Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Jordan, for example, have announced their intention to seek nuclear energy programs in the decade since the Iranian program has been a source of conflict.17 Even if these states have no intention of developing a weapons program—the UAE and Jordan, in particular, have clear economic reasons for building up their nuclear infrastructure—having some indigenous nuclear technology provides a latent capability that could raise questions about their intentions in the minds of adver- saries and provide flexibility in the event that the nuclear agreement fails and Iran ultimately seeks weapons. Such hedging strategies, however, illustrate very clearly a central weakness of the nonproliferation regime; there are few tools available that are effective in stopping a determined state from building up a latent nuclear capability.
Iran’s nuclear latency could well alarm its neighbors even if it shows no intention of cheating on its commitments under the nuclear deal. The closer Iran is to deploying a nuclear weapon, the more tempting it will be for others to mitigate this potential threat by exploring their own options for weapons development or an expanded nuclear infrastructure before it is too late. If a new status quo of Iranian nuclear latency is enough to drive states in the region to investigate nuclear weapons programs or nuclear hedging strategies themselves, then the nuclear nonproliferation regime as a whole is likely to suffer from diminished credibility.
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The impact of a deal with Iran on the further spread of ENR technology may make it more difficult for the United States to persuade other states, especially allies, not to pursue this technology. Nego- tiations over a nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and South Korea hit an impasse last year over ENR capabilities.23 South Korea pushed for U.S. consent to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel that has been provided by the United States; the United States objected on nonproliferation grounds. If the United States is perceived as permitting Iran, a state antagonistic to U.S. interests, to continue to engage in enrichment and reprocessing, it could be more difficult to persuade close U.S. allies to accept restrictions on ENR technologies.
The nuclear cooperation agreement is important to both the United States and South Korea. South Korea’s nuclear industry is growing quickly, both domestically and as a supplier to other states, and U.S. companies work closely with South Korean counterparts on several projects. Commercial interests aside, South Korea is an important U.S. ally, and a nuclear cooperation agreement is one of the policy priorities of President Park Geun-hye. Balanced against this strong bilateral relationship, however, are the potential consequences of the nuclear cooperation agreement for proliferation in East Asia and for the nonproliferation regime generally. Continued provocations from the North have led some in South Korea to argue that the country should be seeking nuclear weapons to counter the North Korean threat.24 These voices are not yet in the mainstream of South Korean politics, but they do reflect public opinion; two polls conducted after a North Korean nuclear test in February 2013 found about two-thirds of South Koreans support a nuclear weapons effort.25
The nonproliferation regime certainly suffered a major setback with the DPRK’s clandestine development of fissile material production, its violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework it reached with us, its withdrawal from that NPT when caught secretly working on uranium enrichment, and its subsequent nuclear weaponization. No question about it: that sequence of events was a grave blow to the NPT and the nonproliferation regime.
But the international community has at least limited the damage done to the nonproliferation regime by the nonproliferation failure that was represented by the DPRK’s proliferation success. Yes, Pyongyang managed to get nuclear weapons despite our collective best efforts, but even so, its path could hardly be said to be a particularly desirable one. In fact, the meta-message of the DPRK case is arguably still that proliferation is dangerous, costly, and debilitating. The DPRK’s success in nuclear terms came at the cost of grievous international isolation, tremendous ongoing sanctions pressures, and countervailing military mobilization by its regional adversaries – and Pyongyang faced most of these burdens even before it actually tested a nuclear device, in connection with its aggressive forward movement in producing fissile material in shameless disregard of nonproliferation promises and obligations. Under these circumstances, the ripple effect of the nonproliferation failure in North Korea upon the nonproliferation regime as a whole may perhaps be containable. Few countries, surely, would wish to follow the Kim dynasty down that path.
But the Iran case may send a very different message to the future. Even if a deal manages to put off Iran’s development of a more extensive nuclear infrastructure for a few years before it “sunsets” – and even if Iran doesn’t cheat – legitimating Iran’s claimed “right” to produce fissile material, moving Iran toward economic rehabilitation via sanctions relief, and giving a more prosperous Iran more strategic maneuvering space in which to pursue its dreams of neo-Safavid regional hegemony clearly points the way to a new meta-narrative about the future of nonproliferation. Hereafter, development of the easy nuclear weapons “option” represented by fissile material production will not seem so unattractive, even as Iran’s very success in securing this option will encourage others to wish to hedge their bets in similar ways. And the next country that wanted to edge up to the edge of weaponization would have it easy: this could now be done openly and permissibly, as a matter of “right.” If the terrorism-sponsoring, region-destabilizing, Security Council-flouting, nuclear safeguards cheats in Tehran can have 5,000 working centrifuges, who can’t?
You might even imagine, though reasonable people might certainly disagree on this, that the nonproliferation regime might actually suffer less as a regime under at least some “no deal” scenarios. It is not a given, for instance, that the entire sanctions corpus on Iran would collapse even if it were perceived that it was the United States that had gotten cold feet. Very few of the current sanctions against Iran are actually specifically due to nuclear misbehavior in the first place – most of them having been imposed for anti-money-laundering (AML) reasons tied more to terrorism, human rights problems, or even missile proliferation – and there would thus be no justification for dropping this collection of non-nuclear sanctions even if the nuclear talks go well. (Surely the Obama Administration wouldn’t condone terrorism, human rights abuses, or missile proliferation by dropping non-nuclear sanctions in return for a nuclear deal, would it?)
And even if we were somehow to remain the only country still interested in nonproliferation sanctions against Iran, the United States still remains the world’s largest economy, and a robust set of secondary U.S. sanctions would still force Iran’s would-be trading or financial partners to choose between dealing with us or dealing with the mullahs in Tehran. Such an approach would win us few diplomatic friends in Europe and elsewhere, I’m sure, but, at the end of the day, if given such a choice, there would probably not be too many folks opting for trade with Tehran.
And so Iran might thus indeed still remain to a significant degree isolated, penned in by a fairly strong sanctions regime. If Iran were also confronted over time by a growing suite of American and allied military capabilities designed to reduce the potential military benefits of actually weaponizing – and it were clear that we really would go after Iran militarily if we felt they were getting too close to weaponization – Iran’s defiant nuclear path might seem less attractive to other future would-be proliferators than it would in the wake of a negotiated deal on today’s terms. The meta-message from this sort of “no deal” Iran scenario, in other words, might actually help the nonproliferation regime survive better than would a deal reached pursuant to Lausanne.
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U.S. actions on non-proliferation strained relations with many allies, including the enterprising shah of Iran. It is a talking point of the Islamic Republic today that Washington looked the other way and even assisted the shah as he sought to develop a nuclear weapon capability. This claim has been accepted as a truism by many U.S. policymakers and analysts. But the historical record belies such assertions. The Ford and Carter administrations opposed the shah’s quest for completion of the fuel cycle and refused to give him access to sensitive nuclear technologies. Washington insisted that the shah, then head of a regime considered a reliable U.S. ally, forgo the capacity to either enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium.
To be sure there were failure along the way as India, Pakistan and North Korea defied the United States and built their own bombs. But Washington did not facilitate their programs and, in each instance, tried to derail their efforts. The positon of the United States remained that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not give any state the right to enrich and that the most suitable path to a civilian nuclear program is to forgo that option.
Today, by contrast, the U.S. appears poised to concede to an adversarial regime not only an enrichment capacity but also one that is likely to be industrialized after the expiration of a sunset clause. This would have been like Washington aiding the Soviets in constructing the bomb in the 1940s or helping China in the 1960s. There is no dispute between the Obama White House and its critics that Iran is a revolutionary regime seeking to expand its influence in the Middle East. Tehran’s destabilizing regional activities come at the detriment of the United States and its allies. The baffling part of all this is that Washington is seeking to conclude an agreement that envisions this radical regime gaining access to a sophisticated nuclear infrastructure that will not permanently be limited to peaceful exploitation of atomic power.
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Despite having been negotiated in the name of nonproliferation, the JCPOA undermines the international nonproliferation regime. The provisions relating to the timelines for suspect site inspections (permitting an initial delay of 24 days in place of a 24 hour notice) and the failure to firmly back the IAEA investigation of Iran’s possible military activities undercut the authority of the Agency. Both may well be used by future proliferators as precedents to hide their activities and avoid penalties. American leadership of the international regime will also be weakened because of the abandonment of decades of U.S. policy discouraging the spread of enrichment and reprocessing activities. How can the United States credibly argue that Iran can have a large-scale enrichment capability but Saudi Arabia and other states, including allies such as South Korea, should not?
Eric R. Terzuolo argues that the nuclear deal undermines the nonproliferation regime by moving the international community from global policies towards "a phase of ad hoc approaches to proliferation concerns, employing specific political geometries."
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The author argues that the proponents of the nuclear deal with Iran have failed to make a convincing case as to why they deal would not fatally undermine the nonproliferation regime.
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