Allowing a state like Iran to pursue virtual nuclear capability would be a fatal blow to nonproliferation regime
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?
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.