On April 2 in Lausanne, Switzerland, Iran the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) reached a breakthrough on the parameters of an agreement to verifiably roll back and constrain Iran’s nuclear program. As 30 leading nonproliferation specialists detailed in an April 6 statement, a comprehensive agreement based on these parameters would be a net win for nonproliferation and international security.
Yet, a concern repeatedly voiced against the developing deal, which would allow for a limited Iranian uranium-enrichment program, is that it will encourage other regional states to build their own domestic enrichment facilities, thereby placing them closer to being able to build nuclear weapons in the future.
It is true that Iran’s Sunni Arab rivals are nervous about the prospects of a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran, both because they fear it will leave Iran with too much nuclear capacity and enhance Iran’s position in the region.
But a final deal based on the Lusanne parameters would establish long-term, verifiable restrictions on Iran's sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities, many of which will last for 10 years, some for 15 years, some for 25 years, and some permanently. This should reduce the likelihood of a cascade of regional fuel making. The alternative is no comprehensive P5+1 and Iran nuclear deal, which would result in an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program with less monitoring. This poses more of a threat to regional security and would be more likely to increase the possibility of a cascade of regional fuel making.
Prior to the November 2013 interim agreement, Iran had been expanding its capacity to enrich uranium for more than a decade. However, no state in the region responded by developing enrichment, or plutonium-reprocessing capabilities, though states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan announced their desire to pursue nuclear energy programs.
As Colin Kahl, the Vice President’s national security advisor, put it at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting on May 14, “it makes absolutely no sense” that a world in which Iran’s program is significantly curtailed will have “a higher potential for the Saudis and others acquiring nuclear capabilities that would tee them up for nuclear weapons.”
In addition, as Iran has no doubt learned, developing the capability to produce nuclear fuel is time-consuming, technically challenging, expensive, and, in a region as volatile as the Middle East, potentially threatening to one’s neighbors. With or without a nuclear deal, the barriers facing additional would-be entrants to the nuclear fuel-making club will remain high.
Some claim that Saudi Arabia could avoid the difficult task of developing its own breakout capability by simply buying nuclear weapons or fuel-making technology from Pakistan. But given Pakistan’s rejection of Saudi Arabia’s request to militarily aid Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen, it’s hard to believe that Pakistan would take the far more drastic step of abetting Saudi proliferation.
Perhaps most importantly, pursuit of nuclear fuel-making by U.S. partners in the region in response to an effective comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran would greatly strain their relations with the United States, their largest and most reliable security benefactor. As President Obama said in a May 19 interview, the protection the United States provides to its Arab partners “is a far greater deterrent than they could ever hope to achieve by developing their own nuclear stockpile or trying to achieve breakout capacity when it comes to nuclear weapons, and they understand that.”
Iran’s neighbors have expressed concern that a comprehensive deal leading to the removal of nuclear-related sanctions but not a prohibition on nuclear fuel-making would leave Iran too close to the bomb and lend international legitimacy to Iran’s enrichment program.
Yet while a final deal requiring the permanent dismantlement of Iran’s enrichment program would be ideal from a nonproliferation perspective, it’s not a realistic or achievable option, nor is it necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
As Kahl noted, “Iran already has a path to the bomb today, and blowing up diplomacy doesn’t get you off that path, nor, frankly, would military action, which would delay the program for significantly less time than the duration of the deal we're talking about here.”
“When one considers what is necessary to block Iran's path to nuclear weapons,” he added, “no other realistic alternative gets you a decade of a one-year breakout cushion, a generation of insight into their entire nuclear infrastructure and permanent commitments on Arak, the additional protocol and the NPT.”
Iran’s neighbors are also worried that a nuclear deal portends a lessening of U.S.-Iran enmity and an end to Iran’s isolation. According to Middle East expert and Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Reidel, “The Saudis, Emirates, and Bahrainis want Iran to be a permanent pariah under sanctions indefinitely. They are not worried about centrifuges; they are worried about subversion and intimidation.”
These anxieties will need to be managed and addressed. The May 14 summit meeting organized by President Obama with America’s Gulf Cooperation Council allies was a step in that direction.
Security assurances to and cooperation with partners will continue to be part of U.S. efforts to stem proliferation in the Middle East after a comprehensive deal. U.S. bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and regional adherence to the Additional Protocol can also reduce proliferation risks. In addition, the United States and its P5+1 partners should use the time created by a comprehensive deal to make progress toward a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and pursue a multinational fuel supply arrangement for the region.
If the P5+1 and Iran close the deal on a final agreement implementing the Lusanne parameters, and the United States is sensitive to the security concerns of its allies, Tehran can be turned around in its course towards a nuclear weapon, buttressing nonproliferation worldwide. It is the failure to secure a comprehensive deal to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran that would strike a much larger blow to the global nonproliferation regime.