The Days After a Deal with Iran: Implications for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime
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While much of the discussion of Iran’s nuclear latency has focused on how long it would take Iran to produce a nuclear weapon, the real time period of interest is how long it would take Iran to produce a weapon from the point at which its break-out efforts are discovered. The latency we care about, then, is a function of both underlying nuclear infrastructure and the strength of monitoring and verification measures in a country. To some extent, concerns about the capabilities that Iran is allowed to maintain in-country can be mitigated by a more robust inspection regime. Put another way, the international community may have a higher threshold for Iran’s latent capability should it be accompanied by a more intrusive inspections regime.
Thus, there is no bright line to show the level of nuclear latency beyond which the credibility of the nuclear nonproliferation regime is damaged. Many states will be satisfied if an Iranian nuclear weapons effort has a high probability of detection several months before Tehran could develop a weapon. Others, such as Israel, will be unhappy with any agreement that allows Iran to retain an enrichment capability, no matter how intrusive the inspection regime. The constraints imposed on Iran by a deal should reduce the incentives for its neighbors to pursue nuclear weapons efforts or hedging strategies of their own, but are unlikely to eliminate them entirely. To the extent that states in the region continue to see some utility in pursuing a nuclear hedging strategy, a deal will put some additional strain on the nonproliferation regime.
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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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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
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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.