Testimony of Jim Walsh: Evaluating Key Components of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action With Iran (June 25, 2015)
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The fact that Iran possesses a basic nuclear capability, and that political will, not technical capacity, will determine the nuclear endgame suggests that any agreement will need buy in from Iran if it is to be successful. Iran knows how to build a centrifuge, and neit her sanctions nor military strikes can change that. In the long - term, the best way to insure than Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons if for Iran to embrace its non - nuclear posture.
Perhaps most importantly, the DNI has assessed that Iran has not yet m ade a decision to pursue nuclear weapons and may or may not make such a decision in the future. This would seem to imply that the moment is ripe for an agreement that would lock Iran into a political decision and a policy path that takes it down a non - nuclear road.
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As contemporary scholars of nuclear studies have repeatedly pointed out, the historical record for non-proliferation is a surprising story of success. Dark predictions of nuclear spread did not come true; we do not live in a world of dozens of nuclear weapons states. In fact, the rate or pace of proliferation has steadily declined since the 1960s, with fewer and fewer countries joining the nuclear weapons club each decade. The pool of potential proliferators is the smallest is has ever been, and since the end of the Cold War, more countries have given up their weapons assets than joined the nuclear club. In short, nonproliferation is one of America’s greatest policy successes. Congress can take a major share of credit for that outcome, from the efforts of Senator McMahon and later Senator Pastore and on through the work of this committee today.
Of course, not all the news is good. North Korea and the A.Q Kahn network are reminders that there is still difficult work to be done, and that success requires continued effort. The unambiguous evidence to date suggests, however, that it is possible to prevent and even reverse proliferation.
The data also suggests that negotiated agreements are a powerful tool for achieving nonproliferation objectives. There is scholarly debate about the causes of America’s nonproliferation success, and one should assume that a variety of factors contribute, but my own research suggests that, contrary to my expectations, nonproliferation agreements can have a profound effect. From the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to the Libya nuclear agreement, negotiated agreements are among the most important tools governments have to preventing and reversing proliferation.
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The history of nonproliferation and arms control agreements is littered with domestic debates that devolved into fights over a single number. During the Cold War, it was often the number of launchers. For the Iran negotiations, it has typically been the number of centrifuges or break out time. This is not to suggest that launchers, centrifuges, and break out are unimportant, but they are each one piece of a larger constellation of issues. Myopically focusing on one number rarely tells us anything useful about an agreement. Doing so strips away other important metrics and hides from discussion the important political factors that are more likely to determine the ultimate outcome. Again, as the DNI has said, Iran’s nuclear future is essentially a political question, and so ignoring the political variables and instead focusing on a narrow technical issue is likely to yield a flawed evaluation.
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There is no such thing as a perfect agreement, free of risk. In public policy there are always risks – risks from action, risks from inaction. But as history has repeatedly demonstrated, an agreement that greatly advances nonproliferation and US national security does not have to be perfect. If perfect were the standard, we would have no NPT, no arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, no nuclear deal with Libya, no Proliferation Security Initiative, and the like – all of which have advanced American national security.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, arguably the single most important and effective nonproliferation tool ever devised, has numerous flaws. It has no enforcement clause; it provided for nuclear testing (for peaceful purposes); it did nothing to limit the fuel cycle or fissile material. Safeguards arrangements in 1970 were a pale, weak cousin to what we have toady. Had the NPT been up for consideration today rather than 45 years ago, it might have been rejected for its flaws. And doing so would have been a gigantic error of enormous consequence. The NPT, like all nonproliferation and arms control agreements, was not perfect and did not eliminate all risk, but it was spectacularly successful. It helped prevent the cascade of proliferation that virtually every government and academic analyst had predicted in the years prior to its passage.
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Others will accept nothing less that the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program and want to “prevent” Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability. Setting aside the fact that the DNI assesses that Iran already has that capability, and the fact dismantlement is a political impossibility, this approach would be disastrous. Eliminating facilities would not eliminate Iran’s knowledge of how to build a centrifuge. Absent facilities to inspect, the IAEA would have no justification for inspections and monitoring. Dismantlement would mean that thousands of nuclear scientists and engineers would suddenly be out of work and thus available to other countries with nuclear ambitions or for an Iranian clandestine program – one that would then be more difficult to detect.
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A comprehensive agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons will represent a significant win for the nonproliferation regime and will have positive nonproliferation effects in the region. The alternative, an Iran with an unconstrained nuclear program, would have a contrary effect, adding unwanted pressure on the nonproliferation regime.
A successful agreement sends the message that violating the NPT carries significant costs, but that if a country abandons its nuclear ambitions, it can avoid those costs. Often analysts focus on the first message (imposing costs) and forget the second, which is a serious mistake. The history of the nuclear age includes dozens of countries that started down the path to nuclear weapons but that stopped and reversed course. If countries, having decided to purse nuclear weapons, believe that there is no off ramp or alternative, then they will believe they have no choice but to continue down that path towards nuclear weapons.
In addition, it appears that this agreement will break new ground with respect to safeguards and verification. As new precedents, they offer the possibility of more widespread adoption and becoming a standard feature of the nonproliferation regime.
A nuclear agreement might also add modest momentum to international efforts to establish a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East.
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Some analysts have expressed the concern that a nuclear agreement that leaves Iran with any centrifuges will spur countries in the region to develop their own enrichment capabilities and following that, nuclear weapons.
This outcome appears unlikely for several reasons.
First, in 70 years of nuclear history, there is not a single case of proliferation caused by a safeguarded enrichment program. There have been 10 nuclear weapons states. Some weapons programs began in response to another country’s nuclear weapons program, others not until 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, like Japan and Brazil, have not caused neighboring countries to initiate nuclear weapons programs.
Second, if a limited enrichment infrastructure was viewed as a grave, proliferation tripping threat, then why have the countries in the region failed to do anything for the last 10 years. Iran has had centrifuges since 2003, but Saudi Arabia and others have done virtually nothing. It is difficult to believe that after curtailing its centrifuge program and submitting to new and rigorous verification, the governments in the region would then decide to respond.
Third, the set of countries cited as potential proliferation threats -- Saudi Arabia,12 Turkey,13 and Egypt14 -- appear far from a nuclear weapons option.15 There are many reasons for this conclusion, not least being that since the Iran-Iraq War, many countries have come to believe that a strong military alliance with United States is their preferred route to security. A bomb program would put that directly at risk.