Nuclear deal unlikely to uniquely undermine nonproliferation norm
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. Additionally, this has to be weighed against the alternative which in this case would be a fully nuclear Iran, which would likely have even greater impacts on the nonproliferation norm.
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Limited enrichment infrastructure not seen as regional threat. If nations were threatened by peaceful nuclear programs, then the states in the region would have done something over the past decade to match that capability. They have not. Iran has had centrifuges since 2003, but Saudi Arabia and others have done virtually nothing in response. Domestically developed facilities of this sort can be expensive, technically demanding, and time-consuming to construct. Countries with a greater trust in the international system, such as Saudi Arabia, that want to assure the availability or possess an interest in such facilities, should be encouraged to invest in international arrangements with others who have already perfected the technology.
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The second main concern posited is that Iran will fan the flames of regional nuclear proliferation, leading to nuclear weapons programs throughout the Arab world as a counter to Iran’s now entrenched nuclear program.
I strongly disagree that this is the likely result of this deal. Moreover, I believe we have adequate tools to prevent such an outcome.
First, this argument presupposes that countries have been waiting for a negotiated outcome to enshrine Iran’s enrichment program into international law to launch their own nuclear programs. But, this argument implicitly suggests that while a deal to constrain Iran’s nuclear program might motivate others to launch a breakout, Iran’s relatively unconstrained last ten years did not. If there is a logic to Arab nuclear weapons efforts, then it is that they cannot count on anyone else to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear arms and must counterbalance Iran themselves. If this were truly their view, then why only start now? We should be seeing signs of nuclear weapons breakout around the region.
Instead, we see either nuclear programs being undertaken with an explicit, if bounded, unilateral renunciation of uranium enrichment (as in the UAE) or with far less direction and interest than would be expected (as in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, principally). There have been periodic statements of interest in nuclear energy by other countries in the region and even some efforts to establish the legal and scientific infrastructure that could facilitate a larger program. But, the most advanced Arab nuclear program is in the UAE and, as noted, it is being built on the back of a non-enrichment pledge that no one in the UAE has suggested they will renounce. If a nuclear arms race has been launched, it may be the most modest one in history.
MYTH: A nuclear deal that allows Iran uranium enrichment and civilian nuclear power program will cause a proliferation cascade in the Middle East, with countries like Saudi Arabia deciding to move toward nuclear weapons.
REALITY: A verifiable, comprehensive nuclear deal will impose strict limits and monitoring on Iran's nuclear program, thus reducing the risk that Iran may someday pursue nuclear weapons. This will provide assurance to the international community that Tehran is not seeking nuclear weapons and that any deviations from the deal will be quickly noticed. This should reduce, not increase, the temptation by some states in the Middle East-particularly Saudi Arabia-to pursue the technical capabilities necessary to acquire nuclear weapons.
The alternative--no comprehensive P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal--would lead to an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program with less monitoring. This poses more of a threat to countries in the region and could increase the possibility of a "proliferation cascade" in the region.
MYTH: The deal ensures that Iran will get a bomb, sparking nuclear proliferation across the Middle East.
The deal takes Iran off the path to a bomb and keeps all U.S. options on the table if Iran cheats. Without this deal, UN inspectors would be kicked out, and Iran would again be within weeks or months of a bomb, with all of its centrifuges spinning and its enriched-uranium stockpiles growing. Without the deal, Iran has enough uranium for ten bombs right now. With the deal, it will immediately have less than what it needs for one bomb. Under the deal, Iran also agrees to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol, so it is bound to not producing nuclear weapons. If it chooses to try, all the options available today—including military action—will be available to the U.S. president in five, ten, fifteen or even thirty years.
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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.
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There is also a concern that Iran’s neighbors will react to the agreement by seeking a nuclear capability similar in size and scope to that of Iran. Saudi Arabia has already publicly stated that it may react to a deal by seeking its own domestic enrichment capability and may feel compelled to do so if it thinks that Iran will develop a threshold capability after many of the provisions of the agreement expire in 10–15 years.44 This possibility could be further exacerbated if the Arab states start to question the commitment of the United States to their external security and see the agreement as part of the United States’ strategic reorientation from the Arab states to Iran.
However, there will be a number of impediments that could prevent other regional states from pursuing Iran’s path. It is not easy to build a nuclear weapon. It took Iran years to build its nuclear program, despite having a large and well-educated population.45 Iran has also paid a tremendous cost, including billions of dollars in investment, oner- ous sanctions, and isolation in the international community. Additionally, following an agreement there will be a 10–25 year probationary period where Iran cannot take advantage of the technological and civilian energy applications of nuclear technology. The United States will have significant leverage over these states both in the pressure that it can deploy as their primary security guarantor and the incentives it can offer to dissuade them from fielding an enrichment capability similar to Iran’s. These incentives can range from security guarantees to 1-2-3 agreements that provide robust civilian nuclear programs such as the United Arab Emirates’, which has a much more meaningful economic impact than Iran’s largely symbolic enrichment program.46
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The nuclear agreement could have important positive effects on the global non-proliferation regime if it is successfully implemented over the next 15–25 years and deters Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. The agreement could become a new model for how to effectively deal with violators. There is a long history of cases in which states have given up the pursuit of a nuclear weapons pro- gram because of external changes to their security environment, internal regime changes, a shift in strategy, military coercion, or simply because the task was too difficult and costly.38 Iran would be a unique instance because of the scale and scope of the international response, the complexity of the negotiations, and the fact that Iran’s regime had not fundamentally changed but was still successfully deterred from obtaining nuclear weapons through a combination of economic pressure and an arms control agreement.
The international process will have worked precisely as intended, with initial concerns being referred by the IAEA Board of Governors to the U.N. Security Council, which imposed sanctions but left the door open for negotiations. These sanc- tions were crafted to ensure maximum leverage on Iran while also maintaining broad international support, and eventually led to a cheater making concessions that prevented it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The limitations that Iran will have agreed to on its nuclear program could become a model for future violators attempting to rebuild confidence from the international community if they change course, while the cradle to grave con- tinuous monitoring could become a new norm in the non-proliferation regime that perhaps over time all states could be asked to abide by.
As the calendar counts down the sixty days that Congress has to review the deal, the U.S. political system is embroiled in debate over the merits of the deal for the United States and the Middle East. The Iran deal is also significant in that it is an enormous testament to the effectiveness of the complex system of international institutions that govern the nuclear world. In the case of Iran, the process for detecting states seeking nuclear weapons and returning them to compliance worked as intended: the IAEA and national intelligence agencies detected noncompliant behavior in a timely fashion; when Iran refused to resolve the concerns, the IAEA referred its case to the UN Security Council, which imposed strict and escalating sanctions; finally, tireless multilateral negotiations reached agreement about how to bring Iran back into compliance with its international obligations and imposed unprecedented safeguards to constrain the program from prohibited activity.
The negotiations set new standards for rigor, cooperation, and creativity, generating several novel instruments that could serve as valuable tools for correcting future proliferation challenges, including a monitored procurement channel through which the international community can approve Iran’s purchases of sensitive components, a requirement that Iran ship its enriched uranium out of the country for downblending, and unprecedented verification measures. In short, the agreement with Iran strengthens the system of institutions that not only must take on the difficult task of verifying this agreement, but must also work to catch and restrain the next aspirant.
The agreement could not come at a better time for the global nuclear regime. Those components of the regime that are already in place are wracked by discord, while other essential pieces have not yet been allowed to enter into force. Though attention has focused on the negotiating teams in Vienna, the Iran deal is proof that the regime functions best as a coherent whole. Each component faces real challenges and needs continued attention if the regime is to thrive.
The deal reduced any incentive for other states in the region to seek sensitive nuclear technologies. In the absence of a deal that reversed Iran’s march toward de facto nuclear-weapons status, Saudi Arabia and possibly other states would have had a motivation to seek similar capabilities. Some Saudi luminaries have said that the kingdom should in any case now enjoy the same technologies that Iran is allowed to have, but there is little likelihood of this coming to pass in the foreseeable future. There is little basis for an indigenous enrichment programme and no country will legitimately provide this technology. All 48 members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group are enjoined from doing so by the NSG guidelines, which India has also pledged to follow. Pakistan has stated it will not help Saudi Arabia acquire nuclear weapons, and its refusal to join the intervention in Yemen shows that Islamabad and Rawalpindi are under no obligation to Riyadh. This leaves North Korea as the only state-actor option for enrichment technology. Pyongyang, too, should offer a pledge of no onward proliferation.
The author debunks five of the most common arguments against the nuclear deal with Iran, focusing on the effect that it will have on restraining nuclear proliferation both in Iran and in the region.
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Mark Fitzpatrick offers up a list of twelve ways that the nuclear deal with Iran reinforces the global nonproliferation regime.
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The author argues that the deal reached in Vienna reflects the success of the nonproliferation regime, which while straining under its history and the weight of its institutions still managed to achieve a historic first: "for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear era, no country is publicly known to be pursuing a nuclear weapon."
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South Korea expressed hope Thursday for a final deal between Iran and six global powers on Tehran's nuclear program, saying it could positively affect efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.
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The authors find that on balance, the nuclear deal with Iran is likely to strengthen the nonproliferation regime, having the potential "to prevent the possibility of nuclear
proliferation in the Middle East while also setting positive precedents that can be applied globally."
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The authors report on recent research showing that in the past, pragmatic concessions to nascent nuclear states contributed more to nonproliferation than it detracted from it, and they conclude the same will likely be the case with the Iran deal.
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