Does Iran deal help rein in nuclear weapons – or expand them?

The deal helps address Iran as the most immediate nuclear threat in the Middle East, but how it does that could be seen as a setback to nuclear nonproliferation.

Jason DeCrow/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) meets with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on April 27 in New York.

From the outset of his presidency, Barack Obama has placed a priority on nuclear nonproliferation, even calling in his signature Prague speech of 2009 for working towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

Now the Iran nuclear agreement that global powers including the United States are looking to finalize and sign by the end of June is emerging as the centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

The White House already touts the unfinished Iran deal as a significant piece of the Obama legacy, as fulfillment of both the Obama doctrine of advancing United States interests through engagement with America’s adversaries and the vision of a world gradually but progressively retreating from the nuclear precipice.

But among nuclear nonproliferation experts, the question of whether the Iran deal as laid out in the framework agreement reached last month advances or sets back the cause of nonproliferation – and Obama’s own vision of reducing the nuclear threat – receives a divided and generally cautious response.

The Iranian nuclear program and its repercussions across a volatile Middle East have presented the stiffest challenge to global nonproliferation prospects for more than a decade, so an agreement that verifiably constrains Iran’s nuclear advances for at least a decade and lengthens the so-called “breakout” time Iran would need to build a bomb is a considerable positive, supporters of the deal say.

“The greatest threat to the global nonproliferation regime is the threat of Iran getting nuclear weapons,” says Robert Einhorn, a former State Department special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“If you believe, as I do, that this emerging deal will effectively preclude an Iranian nuclear capability for at least a decade and will put in place an effective monitoring regime to last beyond that into the future,” Mr. Einhorn adds, “then I think it’s a clear positive for nonproliferation.”

But for the agreement’s detractors, the deal on the table risks opening a Pandora’s box of proliferation for one key reason: It accepts Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Even some proponents of reaching a negotiated settlement with Iran on its nuclear ambitions caution that the deal legitimizes Iranian possession of a process that can lead to production of the fuel for a nuclear weapon.

“The message this deal sends is that if Iran, which has violated any number of nuclear safeguards and doesn’t comply with the IAEA [the UN nuclear watchdog], can have an enrichment program, then anyone can,” says David Albright, president of Washington’s Institute for Science and Security and a regular consultant to US government agencies on nuclear issues.

“With this deal we’re going to have our work cut out for us if we want to keep enrichment technology from spreading in the Middle East,” he says.

While finding fault with many of the deal’s key provisions, Mr. Albright says reaching an accord with Iran was “necessary” – otherwise an Iranian bomb, or another military intervention in the Middle East to preclude that outcome, was right around the corner.

Still he says that on the broader question of global nonproliferation goals, the emerging deal is a retreat. “Essentially it sets back Obama’s vision set out in Prague in the sense that it lowers the limits on these dangerous technologies,” Albright says.

Even before Obama adopted the cause of nonproliferation the US position was to preclude the emergence of new nuclear-weapons states by discouraging the spread of either uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing facilities. Under the agreement Iran would convert its heavy-water reactor at Arak to preclude plutonium reprocessing.

Albright lauds the Iran deal for maintaining the prohibition on plutonium reprocessing but he says that acceptance of an Iranian enrichment program sets a new standard and “means that enrichment programs are now being legitimized anywhere.”

Proponents of the deal acknowledge that in a perfect world Iran would have no uranium enrichment program. However they say the second-best plan for limiting and closely monitoring Iran’s program was a realistic response to the fact that in Iran’s case the enrichment train had long ago left the station.

“Clearly accepting uranium enrichment was not the US’s first choice, it would’ve been great for Iran to give up enrichment altogether,” Brookings’s Einhorn says. “But that was never really in the cards.”

Critics of the Iran deal say that by sanctioning it Obama is stepping back from the high standards he set out in Prague, when he said that the rules of the international nonproliferation regime “must be binding” and that violators of the rules “must be punished.”

Instead, they say, Iran is being rewarded with a legitimized enrichment program. The risk now is that instead of serving as a lesson in what not to do, Iran becomes a model for attaining an enrichment program and nuclear status.

“The goal as I saw it at the outset [of negotiations with Iran] was to get a set of conditions so onerous that no one would want to follow the same path,” Albright says. “I don’t think they got that in this deal.”

But Einhorn counters that Iran has paid a price that is likely to prompt other countries, like Iranian rival Saudi Arabia, to think twice before launching into an enrichment program.

“The real precedent here is of a country that paid dearly for its enrichment program, what they got for their violations are sanctions that have devastated the Iranian economy,” Einhorn says. “And they’re going to be living under a terribly intrusive regime for 10-15 years,” he adds, “so I’m not sure the Iranian model is going to be an enticing one for other countries.”        

The Iran deal is not the only feature of Obama’s nonproliferation and disarmament policy. White House officials point to both the New START Treaty signed with Russia in 2010 and the nuclear security summits established by Obama to secure nuclear materials and prevent nuclear terrorism. Obama will hold his last such summit next year in Chicago.

But the Iran deal is likely to be the achievement that makes or breaks Obama’s nonproliferation legacy. If the agreement sets off a rush to join the enrichment club, Obama’s vision will look more like a blunder.

On the other hand, a deal that pulls Iran back from the nuclear threshold and relieves pressure for copycat nuclear programs across the Middle East will likely vindicate the Obama approach.

“If when Obama leaves office the Iran deal is in full implementation with Iran abiding by its constraints,” Einhorn says, “then I think rightly he could hold this up as a major enhancement of the global nonproliferation regime and a considerable step in moving forward the Prague agenda.”

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