How the Iran Deal Erodes the Nonproliferation Treaty

"What the international community agrees and does with Iran now and in the near future will have broad consequences in the longer term."

Diplomats and other experts often refer to nonproliferation “regimes,” i.e. systems of laws, norms, and practices intended to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction The nuclear nonproliferation regime, based on the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty and the statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency as the implementing body, has a spotty record.

It did not succeed in preventing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from developing an advanced weapons program, though the IAEA, under UN authority, clearly did an excellent job of dismantling Iraqi nuclear infrastructure after the first Gulf War, as became clear later on, after the 2003 invasion.

Intensive U.S. bilateral diplomacy helped block North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT, initially announced in 1993, for a decade. But Pyongyang then tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006. Iran remains party to the NPT, but nonetheless managed to flaunt its obligations under the treaty for quite some time.

There is, in fact, a solid “pragmatic” argument, to borrow a term from outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, for the ad hoc Iran nuclear deal signed July 14. Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey is right that, at this point, Congressional rejection of the deal would not open the way to a better agreement. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, at least as written, portends a better outcome than was achieved with North Korea, and one should avoid overstretching the analogy between the two cases.

But the Iran deal does confirm, in my view, a definitive turn in how the international community deals with cases of suspected nuclear proliferation. It is no accident that Security Council Resolution 2231, endorsing the JCPOA, states explicitly that it “should not be considered as setting precedents,” but, practically speaking, that will prove no more than a pious hope.

Instead of talking about the nuclear nonproliferation regime, we now should admit that the North Korean and Iranian cases have moved us into the realm of ad hoc approaches to individual cases of suspected nuclear proliferation. In the future, the international community may have to address new concerns that some state is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. (This might come in response to past or future Iranian actions, though not necessarily.)

It makes sense to examine the Iran deal with an eye to precedents for a possible next case of suspected proliferation. The JCPOA, with its unanimous Security Council approval, is now firmly part of the international record, and potential future proliferators will be reading the text carefully, and scrutinizing the deal’s implementation.  Effective verification is unlikely to be entirely smooth and simple.  For reasons of personal history, I insist on keeping in mind the Iranian regime’s overall record when working to ensure implementation of the JCPOA.  But it also is unwise to look only backwards.

Debate on the Iran deal in the United States has been intensely partisan. Criticisms of specific aspects of the JCPOA, however, should not be dismissed as nothing more than assaults on the president and his administration. Some criticisms are substantive and relevant to how we address proliferation concerns in the future. How credible, for example, is the snapback sanctions mechanism? True, the United States or another Security Council member with veto power could cause the legal basis for sanctions to be re-imposed, but essentially at the cost of driving Iran out of the deal and thus scuttling it.

The notion of a reliable 5 to 3 “Western” majority for votes in the Joint Commission created by the JCPOA also could prove illusory. EU foreign policy chief Mogherini made a point of covering her hair in Tehran on July 28, though she had not done so on a trip to Saudi Arabia, and she later spoke optimistically of high-level EU/Iran trade and energy talks by the beginning of next year. On July 29, French Foreign Minister Fabius was in Tehran trying to build bridges. None of this is actually shocking, but it suggests that the concrete benefits of normalized relations with Iran will flow more to our West European partners than to the United State., and this could promote divergent views on Iran in the future.