FPI Bulletin: Iran Deal Undermines Obama’s Non-Proliferation Goals

May 5, 2015

The nuclear framework agreement with Iran will not just legitimize Tehran’s nuclear ambitions; it will also undermine President Obama’s global campaign for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. In April 2009 in the heart of Prague, Mr. Obama pledged “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” He called for a series of treaties to limit the weapons programs of the established nuclear powers and for the reinforcement of a faltering non-proliferation regime. To stop nuclear proliferation, Obama said, “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” Instead, the White House is now rewarding Iran for its persistent efforts to subvert the non-proliferation regime. The message to other nations is clear; even the most flagrant violations by the most dangerous regimes will not provoke a decisive response from the United States or the international community.

Undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime

In Prague, President Obama endorsed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the basis for global cooperation to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. To strengthen the NPT, Mr. Obama said, “We need more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections. We need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause.” The latter would be especially important, since “we go forward with no illusions. Some countries will break the rules. That's why we need a structure in place that ensures when any nation does, they will face consequences.”

Despite that pledge, the framework agreement with Iran promises to lift sanctions and reintegrate Tehran into the global community while preserving the nuclear program it built illegally. Under the deal, Iran would continue to enrich uranium with half of its currently operational centrifuges and would be able to resume all of its nuclear activities in 10-15 years. This would make Iran a threshold-nuclear weapons state with the blessing of the international community.  This is a far cry from the standard elaborated in Prague, with its unequivocal pledge to bring violators to justice.

Yet the damage done by legitimizing the Iranian nuclear program extends far beyond the borders of Iran. According to Greg Jones of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center , if “non-weapon states have the ‘right’ to large centrifuge enrichment plants…then in fact the NPT is really a Proliferation Treaty and Iran will not be the last NPT member to use the guise of peaceful nuclear activities to acquire nuclear weapons.” In the Middle East alone, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, and Qatar are all pursuing civilian nuclear programs.  Indeed, The Daily Beast reported last year that Western and Israeli intelligence services were seeing signs that Saudi Arabia’s “long-standing interest in nuclear power…is growing more serious, and extends into nuclear enrichment.”  For nations threatened by a nuclear Iran, these civilian programs—some advanced, some nascent—could serve as the basis of a weapons program.

By allowing Iran to retain a large-scale nuclear enrichment capacity, the international community has ceded its ability to condemn countries that would seek the same.  Nonproliferation expert Christopher Ford explains, “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.’” He added, “If the terrorism-sponsoring, region-destabilizing, Security Council-flouting, nuclear safeguards cheats in Tehran can have 5,000 working centrifuges, who can’t?”

To make matters worse, the United States would be in the wrong if the next president sought to reverse the deal. Last month, Stephen Rademaker of the Bipartisan Policy Center told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “Iran will be the [legally] aggrieved party, not the United States,” should President Obama’s successor decide to pull out of a nuclear deal. “Iran will be fully justified in accusing our nation of violating its solemn international commitments,” he said, “Absent some Iranian violation of the agreement that we can point to justifying our action.”

Naïveté and Non-Proliferation

It is difficult to comprehend President Obama’s approach to non-proliferation unless one focuses on his belief that the behavior of other states hinges on demonstrations of good faith by the United States. The first recommendation the President made in Prague was for the U.S. to set a positive example by cutting its own nuclear arsenal. A few days before the speech, he touted the benefits “of reducing our nuclear stockpiles, which will then give us greater moral authority to say to Iran, don’t develop a nuclear weapons.”

There is, however, little evidence to suggest that reducing the size of the American arsenal has a positive influence on others.  “Since the end of the Cold War the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been cut by 80%,” notes former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Keith Payne. Yet the Chinese, North Korean and Iranian pursuit of nuclear capabilities has only intensified. Indeed, China has warned U.S. officials that North Korea already has 20 nuclear warheads, and could produce enough uranium to double its arsenal by next year. The bottom line, writes Payne, is “that foreign leaders base their decisions about nuclear weaponry largely on their perceived strategic needs, not in response to U.S. disarmament.”

If anything, the president’s cuts to America’s strategic arsenal may undermine U.S. efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons and sensitive technology.  In July 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that the United States could extend a “defensive umbrella over the region” if Iran acquires nuclear weapons—a statement widely interpreted to mean America would extend its nuclear deterrent to allies in the Mideast. Yet as Stephen Rademaker notes, U.S. allies will have plenty of reason to doubt Washington’s resolve, because the proposed Iran nuclear deal already abandons “the policy pursued for more than twenty years…to make sure Iran neither had nuclear weapons nor was on the threshold of producing them.” Furthermore, when America extended its nuclear deterrent to its allies in Europe, Japan, and Korea, the United States needed to increase its own nuclear arsenal to make its security guarantee credible.

President John F. Kennedy confessed in a March 1963 press conference that “personally I am haunted by the feeling that by 1970, unless we are successful, there may be 10 nuclear powers instead of four, and by 1975, 15 or 20....I regard that as the greatest possible danger and hazard.”  A half-century later, the world may once again be on the brink of a large-scale wave of proliferation.  Rebuilding the global nonproliferation regime will require the United States to rededicate itself to ground rules President Obama laid out in Prague: “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” This may even require walking away from a final deal with Iran, if its terms resemble the framework agreement.  If the United States does not return to clear principles and strong capabilities, both America’s allies as well as its adversaries will have strong reasons to pursue their nuclear ambitions.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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