The Iran Deal and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation Efforts

By Adam Mount

July 26, 2015

Though the atomic bomb was first developed in 1945, it was not until 1957 that the U.S. intelligence community conducted its first forecast of how nuclear weapons might spread around the world. That first estimate concluded that some ten countries had the capability to build the bomb in the next decade. Six years later, President John F. Kennedy warned that the 1970s could see a world in which twenty-five countries possessed nuclear weapons. This counterfactual—what would the world look like without the nonproliferation regime?—is one of the most important and vexing questions in international politics.

Thankfully, this is only a counterfactual. The nine nuclear weapons states that exist in the world today are still too many, but this number is a far cry from what might have been. Nevertheless, this month’s deal with Iran is an historic step for nonproliferation: for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear era, no country is publicly known to be pursuing a nuclear weapon.

As the calendar counts down the sixty days that Congress has to review the deal, the U.S. political system is embroiled in debate over the merits of the deal for the United States and the Middle East. The Iran deal is also significant in that it is an enormous testament to the effectiveness of the complex system of international institutions that govern the nuclear world. In the case of Iran, the process for detecting states seeking nuclear weapons and returning them to compliance worked as intended: the IAEA and national intelligence agencies detected noncompliant behavior in a timely fashion; when Iran refused to resolve the concerns, the IAEA referred its case to the UN Security Council, which imposed strict and escalating sanctions; finally, tireless multilateral negotiations reached agreement about how to bring Iran back into compliance with its international obligations and imposed unprecedented safeguards to constrain the program from prohibited activity.

The negotiations set new standards for rigor, cooperation, and creativity, generating several novel instruments that could serve as valuable tools for correcting future proliferation challenges, including a monitored procurement channel through which the international community can approve Iran’s purchases of sensitive components, a requirement that Iran ship its enriched uranium out of the country for downblending, and unprecedented verification measures. In short, the agreement with Iran strengthens the system of institutions that not only must take on the difficult task of verifying this agreement, but must also work to catch and restrain the next aspirant.

(See also: How Antimatter Could Stop Iran From Cheating On the Nuclear Deal)

The agreement could not come at a better time for the global nuclear regime. Those components of the regime that are already in place are wracked by discord, while other essential pieces have not yet been allowed to enter into force. Though attention has focused on the negotiating teams in Vienna, the Iran deal is proof that the regime functions best as a coherent whole. Each component faces real challenges and needs continued attention if the regime is to thrive.

In addition, diplomats and analysts around the world should explore new proposals for limiting nuclear dangers. Among the most promising are the proposals for a global regime to control fissile material, regardless of its form, purposes, or location. Versions have been proposed by Amb. Richard Burt and Jan Lodal and by the Nuclear Futures Lab at Princeton University.

The approach is related to those provisions in the Iran deal that require Iran to ship its nuclear material out of the country for reprocessing, downblending, or conversion. Currently, the IAEA is working on a global version, an international fuel bank, that would provide countries with an assured supply of low enriched uranium that can be used for peaceful purposes. In subsequent years, world powers should work to ensure that the bank gains broad acceptance and expands its mandate to cover other forms of sensitive material and provide other services to states.

(Read more:The Tiny, Cash-Strapped Agency at the Heart of the Iran Deal)

The nuclear nonproliferation regime rightly elicits skepticism among politicians and analysts around the world. Deep-seated concerns over national security and justice kept the world powers from designing and implementing a rational and comprehensive regime to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. The existing system was pieced together over the decades by different statesmen with evolving motives. Yet, the Iran agreement proves that the system can still generate new ideas under pressure; meanwhile, proposals like the fissile material agreements discussed above offer a distinct hope of recovering the rationality and comprehensiveness that underwrite a sustainable and effective international regime.

Though decades of concerted effort have severely constrained nuclear proliferation, the regime is more important than ever. World powers will rely on the regime as they attempt to implement the Iran deal, roll back the North Korean nuclear program, gain more information about recent events in Syria, and detect the next nuclear aspirant in time to prevent a tenth nuclear state. Like other areas of global governance, the nuclear nonproliferation regime needs to continually improve if it is to survive. At this precarious moment, world powers should not allow themselves to become complacent or to disparage the regime to score political points at home. The world must rededicate itself to building a regime that can make the world safe from the most dangerous weapons.

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By Adam Mount // Adam Mount is a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.

July 26, 2015