A nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers would generally strengthen nonproliferation efforts, according to a new report by Jeffrey Kaplow and Rebecca Davis Gibbons at the Rand Corporation. But a nuclear deal poses risks as well. Allowing Iran to maintain an enrichment capability may “tempt some states to expand their nuclear infrastructure as part of a hedging strategy.” The following is an excerpt from the report.
February 12, 2015
This analysis begins by positing that a final nuclear agreement is reached between Iran and the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany (P5+1). One of a series of RAND perspectives on what the Middle East and U.S. policy might look like in “the days after a deal,” this Perspective examines the deal’s implications for the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Slowing or stopping Iran’s nuclear development is an important nonproliferation accomplishment, but the international community will need to find ways to mitigate some of the deal’s negative consequences. Although the parties have struggled to come to a final agreement, recently extending the deadline for talks, the broad outlines for a nuclear agreement are in place. Without predicting that a deal will ultimately be signed, the potential for reaching an agreement is great enough to warrant planning for such an outcome. (See the box on p. 2 for the assumed terms of an agreement.)
The nuclear nonproliferation regime is the set of institutions and agreements aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Its cornerstone, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), boasts near universal membership: Only four states— India, Pakistan, Israel, and newly independent South Sudan—have never signed, while North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003. Many analysts have credited the NPT with a substantial role in limiting nuclear proliferation since it entered into force in 1970. Under the treaty, non–nuclear weapons states agree not to develop or possess nuclear weapons in exchange for access to peaceful nuclear technology and the promise that all states will pursue good-faith efforts toward disarmament. To verify that nuclear technology is not being used for weapons purposes, states conclude nuclear safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), allowing inspectors to verify their declarations and monitor nuclear facilities and activities. When the Board of Governors of the IAEA finds states to be in noncompliance with their agreements, such findings are reported to the United Nations (UN) Security Council. It was such a referral of Iran’s case in 2006 that led to the series of sanctions that ultimately helped bring Iranian leaders to the negotiating table in earnest in 2013.
A completed deal with the Iranians represents good news for the nuclear nonproliferation regime overall. An agreement will reassure some states about the effectiveness of the regime and could contribute to stronger IAEA safeguards in the future, offering inspectors a better chance of detecting undeclared nuclear activities. At the same time, however, an agreement will almost certainly allow Iran to maintain a uranium enrichment capability. This may tempt some states to expand their nuclear infrastructure as part of a hedging strategy. A nuclear agreement with Iran also effectively legitimizes a domestic nuclear infrastructure that was built despite Iran being found in noncompliance with its agreements under the NPT. These downsides to a deal could pose additional challenges to the credibility of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and potentially ease the path for nuclear pursuit by other states in the future.
A deal with Iran does more to strengthen the nonproliferation regime than to harm it, but the international community would do well to recognize the costs of this approach and seek ways to mitigate any damage. In the face of the negative precedent set by a deal, the United States should work to limit the further spread of enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) capabilities and focus new attention on the importance of enhanced IAEA safeguards measures. Ultimately, efforts to promote the long-term success of a deal will go a long way toward strengthening the regime itself.
In this Perspective, we describe the benefits of an Iran deal for the nuclear nonproliferation regime, then turn to an analysis of the costs for the regime, including the negative precedent set by allowing Iran to maintain a uranium enrichment capability. A deal with Iran may make it more difficult to limit the spread of ENR technology. We explore this possibility in the context of U.S.–South Korean relations, in which Seoul’s access to sensitive nuclear technology has become a key point of contention. Finally, we conclude with policy recommendations for mitigating negative aspects of a nuclear agreement with Iran.
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