The Iran Deal Good for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament

Foreign Minister Rob Nicholson managed only a tepid response to the Iran nuclear deal. Canada is not encouraged by Iran’s track record, he said, and so “will continue to judge Iran by its actions not its words.” To the Government’s credit, it did promise an extra $3 million for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to help it monitor the actions that must now follow Iran’s words, but one might have hoped for at least a hint of enthusiasm for a comprehensive framework for ensuring that Iran’s civilian nuclear program will not be used to acquire nuclear weapons. Commentators from across the political spectrum have called the deal’s provisions much better and more detailed than expected. 

To be sure, all the requisite cautions apply. The deal is not yet finalized. There will be enough devils in the details to keep negotiators and their lawyers busy until the June 30 deadline. Implementation will produce its own doubts and crises, some sure to be engineered by the tenacious recalcitrance of US Congress on the sanctions question. And the world’s relations with Iran will, and should, remain fraught, inasmuch as the deal obviously doesn’t alter Iran’s human rights record or its irrational enmity toward Israel.

But it is in fact a very good deal, including for broader nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament objectives.

Key elements of the agreement include Iran’s commitment to: sharply reduce uranium enrichment, all of it confined to the minimum level required for civilian reactor fuel; no significant stockpiling of enriched uranium; and adherence to the nonproliferation regime’s highest transparency and accountability standards. In return, Iran gets sanctions relief.

The deal reinforces the importance of the decades-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its verification measures through the IAEA, both of which were crucial to getting a deal, and the deal could in turn strengthen both the NPT and the IAEA. The NPT has long set the global non-proliferation standard against which Iran’s actions are tested, and while the process of reaching the deal exposed some gaps in those standards, it will also help to close them.

The objective of the deal with Iran is not to deny it the “capacity” to build a nuclear weapon, it is to prevent it from actually building one. The know-how and the means to building nuclear weapons eventually accrue to any state with a civilian nuclear program and a reasonably advanced scientific/technology community. No deal will change that, so the purpose of the Iran deal, as is the purpose of the IAEA safeguards regime and the NPT generally, is to prevent such know-how from being converted into actual weapons.

That in turn relies on transparency and inspections, in perpetuity, and so the key measure of the value of the Iran deal is what it does to enhance transparency and inspections access, in Iran as well as for the safeguards regime generally.

Iran now promises, for example, to follow the IAEA’s Additional Protocol on inspections, allowing inspectors much greater access, including through surprise inspections, to both acknowledged and suspected nuclear-related facilities. This higher standard of access has been promoted for some time and has gained wide but not yet universal acceptance. Egypt, Brazil, and Argentina are among a small number of important states that have resisted and prevented the Additional Protocol from becoming obligatory for all non-nuclear-weapon states, but Iran’s adoption of it will change the dynamics of that discussion for the better.


The deal will also allow IAEA inspectors to reach beyond current standards to monitor the Iranian nuclear program’s full supply chain from uranium mining, to its refinement into yellowcake, to the manufacture of related technologies. Add to that the provision for “a dedicated procurement channel” to monitor and approve Iran’s acquisition from external sources of nuclear-related materials and technology, and the deal points to the potential for a significantly raised nuclear transparency bar.

On the disarmament front, the deal is good because, once implemented, it will confirm that the nuclear non-proliferation regime can work in the tough cases. That’s critically important for the simple reason that serious cuts by nuclear weapon states to their arsenals will not happen as long as they can credibly claim that the non-proliferation system isn’t capable of reliably identifying and reining in the cheaters. Excuses not to disarm are legion, but a successfully implemented Iran deal will significantly undercut proliferation scare mongering. The other big non-proliferation challenge, North Korea, obviously needs the same intense attention that produced the Iran deal.

The Iran deal also has the potential to encourage movement on a long-promised conference in support of establishing the Middle East as a zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction. The goal of a Middle East WMD-free zone has been formally agreed to in the context of the NPT, and while success is not imminent, Israel’s refusal to attend a conference to explore a framework for concrete action toward that end will be less persuasive one the Iran deal takes hold.

The path from this framework deal to a signed commitment and then to verified implementation remains strewn with many a proverbial pothole. But the jubilation in the streets of Tehran at the announcement of the deal and the wide support for the deal in the serious nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament community will make it all the harder for skeptics, including those in Ottawa, to prevail.

This post appeared in the Waterloo Region Record and Embassy Magazine in Ottawa, April 8, 2015


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