June 4, 2016 – brookings.edu (from May) – The global nuclear nonproliferation regime has been remarkably resilient, with no new entrants to the nuclear club in the last 25 years.
But observers believe that could change and that we may be heading toward a “cascade of proliferation,” especially in the Middle East.
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The presumed trigger for a possible Middle East nuclear weapons competition is Iran, which has violated nonproliferation obligations, conducted activities relevant to the development of nuclear weapons, and pursued sensitive dual-use nuclear technologies without a persuasive peaceful justification. Tehran’s nuclear program—combined with provocative behavior widely believed to support a goal of establishing regional hegemony—has raised acute concerns among Iran’s neighbors and could prompt some of them to respond by seeking nuclear weapons capabilities of their own.
In July 2015, negotiations aimed at preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and heading off a regional nuclear arms competition resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The JCPOA provides for deep reductions in Iran’s existing uranium enrichment capacity and the re-design of its planned plutonium-production reactor, which together effectively eliminate its capability to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons for at least ten to fifteen years.
It also calls for highly intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring measures, many of which are unlimited in duration, capable of providing confidence in Iranian compliance. In exchange, the JCPOA requires the suspension and eventual termination of U.S., European Union (EU), and Security Council nuclear-related sanctions against Iran.
U.S. supporters of the JCPOA argue that the removal of the near-term risk of a nuclear-armed Iran will sharply reduce the incentive for regional states to acquire their own fissile material production capabilities or nuclear weapons. Opponents claim that, by legitimizing Iran’s enrichment program, permitting Iran to ramp up its nuclear infrastructure after 10- 15 years, and facilitating an economic recovery that will enable Iran to greatly boost the resources devoted to its nuclear program, the JCPOA itself will be the catalyst for proliferation in the region.
So far, legislative efforts to disrupt the JCPOA have not made much progress. New legislative bills have been put forward that would do various things, ranging from renewing the Iran Sanctions Act (which is largely suspended as a result of the JCPOA but formally sunsets at the end of December 2016) to prohibiting the United States from purchasing the heavy water Iran produces in excess of its JCPOA threshold to recreating the entirety of the now suspended U.S. secondary sanctions structure in order to penalize Iran for its ballistic missile tests and human rights violations.
Several Democrats in Congress, including JCPOA supporters, joined Republicans in rebuking the Obama administration for allegedly having second thoughts about sanctioning Iran for its ballistic missile tests in October and November 2015, which violated U.N. Security Council resolutions (although not the JCPOA). As it turned out, the Obama administration was only delaying the imposition of sanctions to avoid jeopardizing the January 16 release of the five detained Americans. The missile sanctions were imposed the day after the detainees were released, which at least temporarily reduced interest in new missile sanctions, at least among Democrats.
The upcoming U.S. presidential election—and future presidential transitions during the planned lifetime of the JCPOA—introduces an additional measure of uncertainty about the durability of the nuclear deal. Because the JCPOA is a political commitment and not a legally binding undertaking, a future U.S. president could decide to walk away from the agreement. But campaign rhetoric is often an unreliable indicator of positions taken by newly elected leaders.
In February 2016, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated publicly that “we see signs that countries in the Arab world are preparing to acquire nuclear weapons, that they are not willing to sit quietly with Iran on the brink of a nuclear or atomic bomb.”1 Ya’alon did not offer any evidence for his statement. It is, of course, possible that Israel has access to information unavailable to the authors (or even to the U.S. government). But the current study has not found indications that any of Iran’s neighbors are making preparations to acquire nuclear weapons. Indeed, our research and analysis suggest that none of them are likely to pursue nuclear weapons or succeed if they do.
However, even if key regional states are satisfied that Iran is living up to its JCPOA commitments and that the deal can be effective in preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons for at least 10 to 15 years, they will remain concerned by what they (and American critics) see as one of the deal’s major flaws—that its restrictions on enrichment and reprocessing will eventually expire, some after 10 years and others after 15. Once those restrictions lapse, Iran would be legally entitled under the JCPOA to ramp up its enrichment capacity to “industrial scale” and reduce to a matter of weeks the time it would need to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a single nuclear weapon. It would also be free to develop the capability to separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel.
JCPOA critics in Washington and elsewhere cite the expiration of key enrichment and reprocessing restrictions to claim that the nuclear deal merely defers but does not prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. They argue that the deal’s termination of sanctions will greatly strengthen the Iranian economy and provide the resources needed to aggressively pursue nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems when the restrictions expire.
As long as the Iranian regime remains the same, this debate over whether Iran will opt for nuclear weapons when key restrictions expire is unlikely to be resolved conclusively in the minds of Tehran’s Middle East neighbors. For the foreseeable future, they will remain uncertain of what Iran will do beyond 15 years.
Transitions in the leadership of the United States, Iran, and perhaps other countries—as early as the 2016 U.S. presidential election as well as subsequent transitions likely to take place during the life of the JCPOA, including in the position of Supreme Leader—could introduce additional uncertainty about its sustainability. The unraveling of the nuclear deal, for any reason, would allow Iran to build up its nuclear capabilities sharply even before years 10 and 15, alarming neighboring states.
Future transitions in Iran could also affect the longevity of the nuclear deal. The new Majlis elected in February 2016 will be more balanced between moderate/reformist leaning, centrist conservative, and hardline conservative members than its predecessor, which had a more conservative complexion. As a result, it is possible that Rouhani and the JCPOA will receive less criticism than in the old Majlis. But the labels assigned to these parliamentary groups are relative and misleading, as the Iranian system worked to ensure that truly reform-leaning politicians were ineligible to compete for Majlis seats. Moreover, the Majlis has comparatively little political power in the Iranian government in any event, and unelected hardline elements of the regime may continue to make the JCPOA a target, especially in the run-up to Rouhani’s re-election bid in 2017.
Also complicating the picture, sooner or later, but almost surely before critical provisions of the JCPOA expire, 76 year-old Ali Khamenei will pass from the scene and a new supreme leader will become the crucial Iranian voice on the future of the nuclear deal. At this stage, speculation is futile as to whether Iran’s new supreme leader will be more or less committed to the JCPOA or more or less intent on possessing nuclear weapons. But this inevitable transition is another reason why the long-term operation of the JCPOA cannot be taken for granted.
In March it was reported llah Ali Khamenei is currently hospitalized in serious condition at a hospital in Tehran, according to unofficial reports.
Khamenei is suffering from prostate cancer that has reportedly spread to the rest of his body.
French newspaper Le Figaro quoted Western intelligence officials as saying that the cancer was discovered about ten years ago. “The cancer is in stage four, in other words has spread.” Doctors estimate “he has two years left to live.”