Michael KreponArms Control Implications of the War in Ukraine (V): Proliferation

Quotes of the week:

“History gives us no reason to expect that a nation’s first atomic bomb, if simply designed, will fail.” — Fred Chrles Iklé, Bernard Brodie, Alexander George, et.al., “The Diffusion of Nuclear Weapons to Additional Countries: The Nth Country Problem”

“Once again, Pollyanna is silenced and Cassandra is doing all the talking.” – Walter Lippmann, 1935

One consequence of Putin’s folly in Ukraine is that the denuclearization of North Korea appears more remote than ever. Changes in the disposition of the U.S. forces and patterns of prior assistance to South Korea might well be required to keep proliferation in Northeast Asia contained to North Korea.

Iran’s nuclear ambition tops most lists of challenges to the NPT regime, including my own. Iran’s nuclear program has already prompted hedging strategies by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and other states. The more Iran seeks to advance its nuclear capabilities, the more pronounced these hedging strategies will become.

I’ve never subscribed to arguments that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated during President Barack Obama’s second term was a harbinger of doom. States that agree to deep cuts in their enriched fissile material holdings, as well as long-term and real-time monitoring of production techniques are not in a hurry to fabricate nuclear weapons. The perceived pursuit of nuclear capabilities can, however, have benefits, especially if accepting constraints provides sanctions relief.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, John Bolton, and other tear down artists found the restrictions imposed by the JCPOA to be unacceptably lax, just as George W. Bush, Bolton, et. al. found the Clinton administration’s partial constraints on North Korea’s bomb making capabilities to be woefully insufficient. In both cases, useful constraints were replaced by no agreed constraints. The doomsayers have a habit of manifesting what they warn against.

For good measure, the Trump administration blacklisted Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. All too true, but the point of this exercise wasn’t moral indignation; it was to prevent the resuscitation of the Iran nuclear deal. Among many other nefarious pursuits, the Revolutionary Guards run Iran’s nuclear program. Unsurprisingly, Iran began to surpass the constraints of the JCPOA after Trump killed the deal.

There is no clear, long term, achievable solution to the Iranian nuclear program — not by diplomacy and not by military strikes — until Iran is governed differently. Until then, successful management of nuclear danger will have to suffice.

The JCPOA was a reasonable management strategy, but since Trump walked away from an agreement Tehran was adhering to, Iran has crept significantly closer to key thresholds, previously agreed monitoring arrangements have been bypassed, and chains of custody for fissile material have been broken. All of this was predictable after Trump’s exit.

Prospects for the deal’s resuscitation seem weak. There is insufficient support for deal making on Capitol Hill, and absent both majority and bipartisan support, a reconstituted deal – assuming one could be closed – doesn’t have much of a future.

If plans for resuscitation of the nuclear deal are interred, Iran’s leaders have an important decision to make. They can press forward with fissile material enrichment and production, and restart weapon design work – if they have not already done so. But taking these steps would likely accentuate hedging strategies by Iran’s competitors, reinforce the case for continued sanctions, and increase the risk of military strikes against bomb making facilities.

And yet, if Iran’s leaders exercise demonstrable restraint, they could suffer the same consequences – more hedging by competitors, continued sanctions, and the possibility of military strikes. Tehran has no good options, just as the United States and its partners in these negotiations have no good options.

If Iran has no reasonable hope for sanctions relief and meager prospects for a resuscitated nuclear deal, what then? And how will Putin’s aggressive war against Ukraine affect Tehran’s choices?

Iran’s deciders could choose to go for the Bomb or remain within reach of possession. Either way, they’ll have the company of competitors in the Islamic world. Analytically speaking, it’s better when your competitors don’t possess nuclear weapons. Consequently, Iran could have more national security by staying below the bomb making threshold than by crossing it. But analytics aren’t always decisive. Just look at Putin.


  1. Arash P (History)

    Last time Iran signed a deal, it signaled to Iran hawks in the US that pressure against Iran works and prompted them to go for the “maximum pressure”!
    There is no way in the world Iran can stop US from going after it. Saddam gave in to all demands including allowing inspections of every site in Iraq and US went after him anyways. Same for Ghaddafi in Libya.
    Ironically, the surest way for Iran to get sanctions relief is going for the bomb. After all, it is in no ones interest to have riots and possible civil war in a middle eastern country with a nuclear arsenal!
    The case of nuclear proliferation in the middle east by Turkey and Saudi Arabia is over exaggerated. They both enjoy protection from the US and US has a lot of influence over them to dissuade them from going nuclear. In any case, that is not Iran’s problem. Iran’s main adversaries in the region, US and Israel are already armed with nukes and US does not even need nukes to be able to cause significant damage to Iran in case of a military conflict. Other countries in the middle east going nuclear are Israel’s problem not Iran’s!