What nonproliferation diplomacy can and can’t achieve

By Joshua Pollack | June 2, 2010

Multilateral diplomacy is hardly destined to become a spectator sport. For most people–for almost all people, really–“talk shops” like the United Nations fail to get the blood racing. If successful, they tend to produce results gradually, fitfully, and by a series of compromises.

Almost regardless of what Iran does, the United States has little reason to stop supporting nuclear restraint elsewhere.”

It goes without saying that the process takes patience and commitment. But it has taken a special brand of patience to create an effective sanctions regime in response to Iran’s noncompliance with its nuclear safeguards. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) opened its investigation of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear activities in late 2002, but not until September 2005 did the IAEA Board of Governors formally declare Iran to be in noncompliance with its nuclear safeguards and place the matter on the docket of the U.N. Security Council.

Even then, the better part of another year elapsed before the Security Council adopted its first resolution on Iran’s nuclear program, demanding the suspension of all activities related to enrichment or reprocessing. Faced with Iran’s refusal to accept the demand as legitimate, the Security Council adopted three additional resolutions over three consecutive years (i.e., 2006, 2007, 2008) imposing limited sanctions. In September 2008, the Security Council, divided over the merits of additional penalties, adopted a fifth resolution that merely affirmed what had come before.

Progress has been slow by any standard. After many delays, the Security Council is only now approaching a fourth round of sanctions. The draft resolution recently agreed upon by the permanent members of the Security Council does not threaten any of the oil and gas or nuclear power deals that Iran has arranged with its trade partners, but authorizes new interdiction measures and creates new obstacles for imports of conventional arms, missile tests, and the financing of proliferation.

Meanwhile, Iran shows no inclination to meet the demands of the Security Council, insisting that it enjoys an unconditional right to enrichment and reprocessing under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). So why, despite Iran’s record of concealment and intransigence, has it been this difficult to reach a consensus on sanctions?

A handful of reasons are often cited. Iran has struck major trade deals with Russia and China, cementing ties with two veto-bearing permanent members of the Security Council. Iran has also been intermittently willing to negotiate or make a show of cooperativeness with the IAEA. These gestures have “slow-rolled” and successfully divided the international community. The United States, too, has made a series of decisions that have impeded its ability to “work” the Iran issue: invading Iraq on the ultimately elusive grounds of weapons of mass destruction; becoming embroiled in a variety of disputes with Russia; and championing India’s exemption from nuclear export rules, to the dismay of many NPT member states.

These are significant reasons behind the hesitant movement toward tough sanctions. But a background factor, hidden in plain sight, has probably done more than anything else to complicate NPT enforcement efforts: the end of the Cold War.

There is no obvious way to get around this underappreciated structural factor. The NPT is typically described in terms of an interlocking pair of “bargains”; first, between non-nuclear-weapons states and nuclear-weapons states, which trade abstention from nuclear weapons for access to civil nuclear technology and progress toward disarmament; and second, between non-nuclear neighbors, which trade abstention for abstention. Less often mentioned is the third bargain, which is no longer operative: a deal between the United States and the Soviet Union to impose restraint on their respective allies.

Indeed, far from coming in third, this idea actually motivated the pursuit of the treaty in the first place. It was emphasized in the 1965 report of the Gilpatric Committee, which successfully urged the pursuit of the NPT upon the White House. The report correctly anticipated that Moscow was ready to link arms with Washington; after all, a West German bomb could be considered a fitting response to an East German bomb, or vice versa, but two Germanys with two bombs would make both superpowers worse off.

Today’s situation lacks this symmetry. Almost regardless of what Iran does, the United States has little reason to stop supporting nuclear restraint elsewhere. After all, if that policy of restraint were to fail in response to Iran’s nuclear program, it would probably happen in the Middle East, not in Europe or in the Far East. Because the United States has amassed a network of alliances and bases across the Middle East and assumed responsibility for its security affairs, the spread of nuclear weapons in the region would be more America’s problem than Russia’s or China’s.

This divergence of threat perceptions among the permanent members of the Security Council has meant that addressing the greatest challenge to the nonproliferation regime today has not always emerged as the group’s overriding concern. Little suggests that any officials in Beijing or Moscow actually wish to see Iran become nuclear-armed; in the mid-1990s, both governments chose to stop the transfer of sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle facilities to Iran. But neither are as alarmed as their counterparts in Washington about the possibility.

Faced with these circumstances, what’s a nonproliferation policymaker to do? One should keep in mind the three non-substitutable ingredients of multilateral treaty enforcement: heavy lifting, patience, and perspective.

First, the heavy lifting: To achieve anything, it is essential to minimize irritants in relations between permanent members of the Security Council and to restore good will between the nuclear-weapons states and the non-nuclear weapons states. A willingness to bargain along the way, and even to make unilateral gestures from time to time, is essential.

Second, the patience: A fair distance has already been covered, as evidenced by the New START treaty and the successful outcome of the 2010 NPT Review Conference. While inevitably a compromise document, the Consensus Final Document of the Review Conference contains achievements and points toward a stronger nonproliferation regime.

Third and last, the perspective: Sanctions are inherently limited. A fourth round may go some distance toward complicating Iran’s proliferation activities. Sanctions in general may even dissuade other countries from following the path that Iran has chosen. But sanctions alone are unlikely to persuade Tehran to change course. However distant the possibility appears today, some sort of diplomatic resolution will eventually be needed to find a way out of the present impasse.

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