New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Meditations on Iran and the Imperiled Nonproliferation Regime


Below is the text upon which Dr. Ford based his remarks on Friday, April 17, 2015, to an event at the Capitol Hill Club organized by Peter Huessy as part of a breakfast series sponsored by the Air Force Association, the National Defense Industrial Association, and the Reserve Officers Association.  The other speaker at this event was Bruce Klingner.

Good morning, and my warmest thanks to Peter Huessy for once again inviting me to talk at one of his excellent breakfast events here at the Capitol Hill Club.  It’s a pleasure to join you, and to share a podium with Bruce Klingner.

With my second book on China coming out in a couple of months, I had originally envisioned speaking to you today about the growing challenge that the People’s Republic of China and its global ambitions pose to our interests and to the “operating system,” underpinned by U.S. power, that has made the countries and peoples of the Asia-Pacific as free and prosperous as they are today.

Since Iran seems to be on everyone’s minds these days with the recent announcement at Lausanne of the basic framework for a proposed nuclear deal, however – and begging Peter’s forgiveness – I think I will stick more to the nonproliferation side of contemporary security debates in order to offer some thoughts about the ongoing Iranian nuclear crisis and its relationship to the future of the nonproliferation regime.  Naturally, everything I say here will be entirely my own views, and will not necessarily represent those of anybody else in the U.S. Government.  And since I would prefer still to have a job on Monday morning, I also hope you’ll forgive me for not publicly taking a position on any legislation currently before the Congress.

With those caveats, I believe there still are some things to be said about Iran and nonproliferation – especially because I think there has been far too little discussion of the ongoing Iran crisis in the context of the nonproliferation regime.

To begin with, the Iran crisis isn’t just about how to solve or manage a single, peculiar problem.  This isn’t a one-off: it’s not just about Iran.  Since the invention of nuclear weapons, the international community has struggled with how to minimize the dangers they present, and for the last half-century or so a major part of its response to nuclear dangers has been the maintenance of a global, multilateral regime dedicated to slowing or stopping the spread of such weapons.  Yes, the Iran crisis is about whether or not (or how soon) Iran acquires nuclear weaponry, the implications of empowering its hegemonic regional ambitions and sponsorship of terrorism with economic reintegration to the world community, and the impact of Tehran’s nuclear capabilities upon its neighbors and regional security.  But it is also about the future of the global nonproliferation regime itself, with implications far beyond the Middle East and well into the future.  There is no separating these aspects.

Of course, remembering that we are, in effect, negotiating the future of the nonproliferation regime – and, indeed, whether it is to have a real future – does not necessarily drive any particular conclusion with regard to what terms to settle for in the current talks.  But I am worried that both our negotiators and much of our foreign policy commentariat have tended to lose sight of the nonproliferation forest for the Iranian trees.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the United States had a fairly principled position on such matters, and when the particularistic incentives of negotiating with Iran and the needs of the nonproliferation regime ran hand-in-hand: violations of nuclear safeguards and of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) were unacceptable and cheaters should be held accountable, countries must not be permitted to flout legally-binding Chapter VII resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, it was important to international peace and security not to allow the nonproliferation regime to decay through the spread of those fissile material production capabilities that permit countries the technical “option” of developing nuclear weapons, and it was critical to keep nuclear technology and material out of the hands of terrorists and those who sponsor them.

It was our view that it was bad to spread fissile-material production technology because this spread was destabilizing.  Proliferating the technical “option” of weaponization spreads the scope of the nuclear security dilemma, encouraging additional countries alarmed by their neighbor’s acquisition of this “option” to hedge their bets by acquiring it too, thereby creating new and very dangerous escalatory possibilities for essentially any crisis involving such so-called “virtual” nuclear weapons states.

Such spreading capabilities also raises the possibility of a Schlieffen-plan-style mobilization race from “virtual” to “actual” weapon state status – a grim competition in which the party that got a bomb first would have a powerful incentive actually to use it before the other guy got his.  Hence the importance to international peace and security not just of ensuring the nonproliferation of weapons themselves, but of controlling the spread of their enabling technologies.

Nobody has rebutted the arguments inherent in this basic game theory problem.  What’s changed is the degree to which people care.  That earlier, principled position clearly isn’t quite where we are anymore.  Now, we seem to have all but endorsed Iran’s view that all countries – apparently including sponsors of terrorism – have an “inalienable right” to enrich uranium or process plutonium, we have promised to rescind all those pesky Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran suspend its nuclear program, and we seem to be arguing mainly over (a) how long Iran should have any restrictions on the uranium enrichment that it will be permitted to continue doing, (b) how much confidence Iran will permit us to acquire that it isn’t moving faster, and (c) how quickly we will lift sanctions in order to reward them for their success in driving a truck through the nonproliferation regime.

Negotiators often tend to focus upon the immediate problem at hand, and seek to solve it as much as possible on its own particularistic terms.  This is understandable.  It is seldom attractive to bring more problematic issues into an already tough series of negotiations, and this is especially the case when factoring in bigger-picture perspectives make it more difficult to secure agreement from the other side, and when the costs and dangers of present-day concessions won’t be felt until much later?  But the immediate concerns of negotiating – and the fear of diplomatic “failure” – can lead diplomats to downplay the impact of the precedents they are setting as they cut their deals.

There is, of course, some irony here.  Safeguarding international institutions and the rule of law used to be of enormous importance to critics of hawkish foreign policy stances.  When institutionalism and the rule of law coincide with hawkish predilections, however, they’re apparently now not such priorities: you don’t hear much in the press these days about the need to preserve the integrity of the NPT, the IAEA, and the authority of the United Nations Security Council.  But nonproliferation is indeed one of those occasional issues on which the law-and-institutions crowd and the security hawks have overlapping interests and priorities: it is perhaps the single most obvious area where a commitment to liberal internationalism coincides completely with a hard-nosed appreciation of what E.H. Carr once called “the factor of power” in international relations.

Our country has enormous security interests in the enduring integrity of the nonproliferation regime.  Whether or not Iran ultimately weaponizes, therefore – and whether its breakout option timetable stands at three months or twelve months – accepting and legitimating the spread of the “nuclear option” of fissile material production is a really big deal for the future of the international community, especially over the medium- and long term.

It might yet be the case that the alternative to driving this negotiated truck through the nonproliferation regime is worse than the damage an Iran deal would do to that regime.  Depicting the only possible alternative to the current framework as another convulsive Middle East war, that’s certainly what defenders of the Iran negotiations say.  They want this to be seen as a binary choice – “it’s this deal or war!” – since this framing predisposes the conclusion they support.

It’s not entirely clear to me, however, that they actually believe this.  I would suggest that the next time someone says that the alternative to this deal is an all-out war in the Middle East, you ask them what we’re supposed to do if the Iranians cheat on a final agreement.  The answer will probably be the one that the Obama Administration and its supporters have repeatedly given: if Tehran violates the deal, we’ll “snap” painful sanctions back on them in order to bring them around.  Similarly, if you ask what we’re supposed to do if Iran abandons the current talks, you’ll most likely hear that we should then impose sanctions on Iran that would be even more painful than those that helped bring it to the negotiating table in the first place.

These may or may not be persuasive responses, but such answers make it pretty clear that supporters of the proposed Iranian deal do not really believe that the only alternative to this agreement is war with Iran.  I all but guarantee that you’ll hear no supporters of this agreement suggest that if Iran walks out of these negotiations – or if it cheats – our own next step should involve B-2 bombers, JDAMs [joint direct attack munitions], and the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator.  But if attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure isn’t the only alternative then, it surely isn’t the only one now either.  Maybe the choices aren’t so binary after all.

And this is yet another reason why I’m so pleased to have Bruce also up there at the podium this morning to talk about North Korea: I think the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] case provides an interesting comparison point with regard to the impact of nonproliferation failures upon the nonproliferation regime as a whole.

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?

You might even imagine, though reasonable people might certainly disagree on this, that the nonproliferation regime might actually suffer less as a regime under at least some “no deal” scenarios.  It is not a given, for instance, that the entire sanctions corpus on Iran would collapse even if it were perceived that it was the United States that had gotten cold feet.  Very few of the current sanctions against Iran are actually specifically due to nuclear misbehavior in the first place – most of them having been imposed for anti-money-laundering (AML) reasons tied more to terrorism, human rights problems, or even missile proliferation – and there would thus be no justification for dropping this collection of non-nuclear sanctions even if the nuclear talks go well.  (Surely the Obama Administration wouldn’t condone terrorism, human rights abuses, or missile proliferation by dropping non-nuclear sanctions in return for a nuclear deal, would it?)

And even if we were somehow to remain the only country still interested in nonproliferation sanctions against Iran, the United States still remains the world’s largest economy, and a robust set of secondary U.S. sanctions would still force Iran’s would-be trading or financial partners to choose between dealing with us or dealing with the mullahs in Tehran.  Such an approach would win us few diplomatic friends in Europe and elsewhere, I’m sure, but, at the end of the day, if given such a choice, there would probably not be too many folks opting for trade with Tehran.

And so Iran might thus indeed still remain to a significant degree isolated, penned in by a fairly strong sanctions regime.  If Iran were also confronted over time by a growing suite of American and allied military capabilities designed to reduce the potential military benefits of actually weaponizing – and it were clear that we really would go after Iran militarily if we felt they were getting too close to weaponization – Iran’s defiant nuclear path might seem less attractive to other future would-be proliferators than it would in the wake of a negotiated deal on today’s terms.  The meta-message from this sort of “no deal” Iran scenario, in other words, might actually help the nonproliferation regime survive better than would a deal reached pursuant to Lausanne.

To be sure, it may be that the Lausanne framework still remains the best alternative out of a very poor set of choices.  But perhaps it isn’t.  I make these points not to claim that I am sure I have the right answer, but rather in order constructively to problematize the supposed certainties that have hitherto framed the Iran debate.  To my eye, proponents haven’t yet made their case for the current framework with quite the honesty this debate needs – in a way that acknowledges the implications for the nonproliferation regime as a whole and is alive to the non-binary nature of the range of alternatives before us.   I’d feel much less uncomfortable with our current course if they had made such a case, or if indeed it seemed that they even understood the problem in these terms.  So far, I'm worried.

Thank you.  I look forward to your questions.

-- Christopher Ford

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