To Prevent Another Iran Disaster, Fix Nuclear Enforcement

Another country can’t slip through the cracks of nonproliferation.

In the post–Iran deal period, the international community in general, and the P5+1 in particular, face two major challenges. The first regards the rigorous implementation of the JCPOA, and the second pertains to the essential lessons that must be learned from the Iran case and applied going forward in order to avoid “future Irans,” as it were. The ultimate objective is to minimize to the extent possible all avenues to acquiring a military nuclear capability, for all nonnuclear-weapon state members of the NPT.

Because of Iran’s advanced nuclear program, many remain quite skeptical in the post–Iran deal period about the potential of the JCPOA to provide a long-term solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. Keeping Iran in check will require a sustained and determined international effort, but over the past eleven months, the strong international players have seemed more interested in getting back to business with Iran without jeopardizing the deal than in pushing back against Iran's aggressive moves. This calls into question how determined they will be to ensure that Iran is not able to ultimately present the world with a nuclear fait accompli.

But since Iran is probably not the last state that will harbor military nuclear ambitions, an additional challenge facing the international community—and especially the nuclear supplier states—is to work to minimize the likelihood that other states will follow in Iran’s footsteps. Indeed, now is the time to direct attention to the possible means for ensuring that what happened with Iran—from the initial Iranian violations of its NPT commitments, through the long years of negotiations which attempted to bring Iran back to the fold of the treaty, and culminating with the less than satisfactory Iran deal—does not repeat itself in other cases.

Where should these efforts begin? Many of the current efforts in the realm of nonproliferation are focused on the proliferating state itself, trying to compel these potential proliferators—namely, nonnuclear-weapons state members of the NPT suspected of violating their treaty commitments by working on a military capability—to give up their military ambitions. But equally important are steps to strengthen the self-control of the supplier states themselves, and a fair question is why more efforts are not being made in this direction.

In assessing the situation, we should take the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as our starting point, because this agreement among nuclear supplier states has sought to implement guidelines for nuclear and nuclear-related exports in order to contribute to efforts to stem nuclear proliferation. Initially (1974) the group had seven members, but membership has grown over the years to the current 48. The problem with the NSG is that it merely encourages its members to use their best judgment regarding problematic transfers, but does not strictly prohibit them. Moreover, with 48 members that have conflicting national interests, this is not the best forum for tightening controls.

Rather, attention should focus on the six states in the world today that are suppliers of nuclear power reactors: Russia, France, Japan, South Korea, China and the United States. These states should be able to control reactor sales, in a manner that does not enable the recipient state to divert material. The major proliferation concern is work on the fuel cycle, and therefore what should be prevented by the six states is the provision of elements that are essential to establishing the infrastructure for the fuel cycle.

As such, the suppliers should agree among themselves that they will only offer the recipient states a package. This package would include not only selling the power reactor, but committing to provide the fuel to run it, which would be an added economic incentive for the supplier state. In return for the commitment to sell fuel, the supplier state would have to insist that the recipient not work on the fuel cycle, as well as to either return all spent fuel to the supplier (best option), or agree that whatever the recipient does with the spent fuel must be in full coordination with the supplier state. If a state does not agree to these conditions, there should be no deal. Egypt, Jordan, and Iran are currently not willing to commit to these conditions, but if there was a deal among the suppliers, they would have no choice. If every power plant supplied to nonnuclear-weapons state members of the NPT came with strict controls regarding the fate of the spent fuel, this could go a long way to stemming proliferation concerns, regardless of the behavior of the receiving state.

Clearly a prime reason why the supplier states are not doing more in this regard is their economic interest to sell nuclear technology and components. As has always been the case when arms control efforts are focused on curtailing the supplier states, there is a contradiction between their economic interest to sell, and their security interest in halting dangerous sales. Given the economic interests that are at stake, convincing the suppliers that setting new rules or a code of conduct that will help curb nuclear proliferation is in their best interest might not be easy, but it is a worthwhile effort.