Pragmatic concessions to nascent nuclear states have strengthened nonproliferation more than harmed it empirically
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.
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.