From Mark T. Clark
One of the more pressing problems facing the new administration of Barack Obama will be dealing with the incipient Iranian nuclear program. During the primaries and election, Obama only said that we will need a robust international effort to stop the program. Broadly speaking, however, he seems inclined towards nuclear disarmament, opposed to nuclear deterrence, and disinclined to use conventional military force. Given the repeated failure of diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s program, it is difficult to predict the types of proposals the new administration may consider. However, at least one has been proffered.
The first of presumably many new proposals was made recently by David Albright and Andrea Scheel of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). In their publication, Albright and Scheel fret that countries in the “conflict-prone” region of the Middle East are planning the addition of at least 12-13 new civil nuclear power reactors and that such countries may acquire, through reprocessing, enough plutonium for as many as 1,700 nuclear weapons by 2020. The authors note that many countries could pursue nuclear weapons development “[b]ecause of growing insecurity in the Middle East resulting from Iran’s nuclear progress in defiance of United Nations Security Council demands…”
The authors believe that the next administration must take the lead in getting all the other Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) countries to condition the sale of nuclear reactors on the requirement that recipient states agree to greater transparency of their nuclear power programs. The NSG countries should “insist on adequate international inspections of these countries, including the adoption of the Additional Protocol, and develop mechanisms to remove spent fuel from the region.” The Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement, monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, is designed to provide more intrusive inspections of a country’s nuclear program.
The authors note that “[t]raditional safeguards are not adequate to detect countries conducting secret plutonium separation or enrichment efforts.” Several states of the Middle East, including Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria, avoided detection on clandestine nuclear programs while adhering to traditional inspections by the IAEA. So at first blush, their proposals may seem to appear sensible.
Yet while the authors seem to recognize some of the underlying problems, their solution(s) simply ignore them. In this technically competent but politically naïve piece, the authors acknowledge the following: Iran’s nuclear program is the impetus for the other states in the Middle East to pursue nuclear weapons, yet no new effort to enforce existing sanctions or regimes is proposed. Iran suspended its compliance with the Protocol in 1996, and the authors have no answer to Iran’s actions. To top it off, Russia—a principal NSG country—continues to construct the Bushehr reactor despite Iran’s actions. Egypt announced in 2007 that it will not sign the Protocol, but Russia has not attempted to prevent its firms from bidding on a nuclear reactor at El Dabaa. In each case, the political will to build nuclear weapons or support the building of the infrastructure necessary for these weapons is simply ignored. A new “norm” that ignores the failure of more fundamental norms of nonproliferation seems unlikely to work any better.
But the authors go further. The authors exhort the incoming Obama administration to make it a key priority to persuade Israel to join in negotiating a universal treaty that bans the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. In the interim, they argue, the Obama administration should press Israel to suspend any production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.
If it strikes the reader as odd that the authors do not recommend any actions against the recalcitrant state, Iran, but do against a state, Israel, that is not a member of the Nonproliferation Treaty, there may be a reason. As Stephen Walt argued years ago in his book, The Origins of Alliances (before he flip-flopped on all his work about how states behave under the influence of domestic actors), of all the states in the world, only the United States had some measure of control over Israel’s behavior, some means to influence the course of their actions. The United States had no comparable influence with other states, and neither did the Soviet Union over its erstwhile allies in the Middle East. The authors want success only where it can be had, with Israel, but not where the thornier problem of political will resides, with Iran.
Solutions that push for universal norms, while ignoring political realities, will produce illogical prescriptions. The central problem of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons remains unaddressed by the authors’ proposals, and ignores the more troubling concern with Russia’s irresponsible actions as a principal NSG country.
Other strategies are available, strategies that do not require force. A strategy of targeting Iranian banking practices has been shown to be an effective “sanction” on Iranian behavior, cited in a recent article. Other “smart sanctions” may be available to the new administration, including targeting Iran’s reliance on importing gasoline.
The ISIS proposal is probably the first of many proposed “solutions” to come that address the problem of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. It won’t be the last. One can hope, however, that the new administration will heed wiser counsel to address the tougher problem of dealing with Iran’s drive towards nuclear weapons. In this case, wiser counsel may focus on policies that address the source of the problem, and not the symptoms.