What do past nonproliferation failures say about the Iran nuclear agreement?

By Leonard Weiss, September 1, 2015

In September, Congress will vote on a bill to rescind US adoption of the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), the agreement negotiated by the P5+1 with Iran that limits the main elements of Iran’s nuclear program for the next 15 years and other elements for the next 25 years. Supporters of the agreement believe that the provisions of the JCPOA make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to cheat, break out of the agreement, and begin building a nuclear arsenal without the return of the crippling economic sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. Opponents of the agreement, led mainly by right wing politicians and organizations in Israel and the United States, have excoriated the Obama Administration for leading the negotiations for this agreement, claiming that it is worse than nothing and that a better outcome could have been achieved with a tougher negotiating strategy. Charles Krauthammer, a prominent right-leaning columnist for the Washington Post, called it “the worst international agreement in American diplomatic history,” in which “the catalog of capitulations is breathtaking…”

In a more measured critique of the agreement that appeared in the Huffington Post on August 16, David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), invoked a number of past nonproliferation failures to argue that the Obama administration’s assurances on the implementation of nuclear safeguards, prohibitions, and other verification measures under the agreement are insufficient to provide “trust on matters that directly affect our core interests regarding American and global security.” This phraseology and the AJC mission, as described on its website, mean the committee sees American and global security as one with “the well being of the Jewish people.” Whether its opposition to an agreement that definitely rolls back Iran’s progress in obtaining the means to manufacture nuclear weapons for at least the next 15 years is in keeping with the AJC’s mission is debatable, and polls reveal that many members of the Jewish community in the United States do not agree with the AJC position on the Iran agreement.

But the AJC is a significant international advocacy group that the New York Times has described as "widely regarded as the dean of Jewish organizations in the United States." And Harris is a major figure in Jewish circles. He's the longtime leader of the AJC, a regular speaker at major international conferences, and the author of seven books and hundreds of articles for major news organizations, and he has articulated his opposition to the agreement in a manner that requires a response from those who profess a commitment to and have spent a considerable amount of their professional lives promoting nonproliferation. Harris’s attempt to view the Iran agreement through the lens of past nonproliferation failures proceeds from some fundamental misunderstandings or distortions of the history of those failures. Rather than repeating the conditions for failure, the Iran agreement reflects some lessons learned from them. 

That is not to say that the JCPOA is a paragon of an agreement; it has not taken care of all the concerns about Iran heading for a nuclear weapon capability or the weapons themselves. There are questions about how the inspection regime Iran has agreed to will work in practice. The agreement is time-limited, and there is no guarantee that Iran will not simply pick up where it left off when the main parts of the agreement expire in 10 to 15 years, though there are some features that will remain for 20 and 25 years, and others are effective in perpetuity to provide longer term impediments to creation of a nuclear arsenal.

But the problems with the agreement track the problems with the nonproliferation regime more generally, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) itself. And some of these problems reflect the schizoid nature of nuclear power, in which weapon materials are unavoidably produced in the fission process, and where the most popular type of nuclear reactor (using light water as a moderator) requires uranium enrichment technology that can also be used to make nuclear weapons without the aid of a reactor. The temptation to create such weapons will always be enhanced by the presence of nuclear technology as an energy source. Indeed, before the Iranian revolution, the Shah of Iran had begun a nuclear weapons program whose discovery during the Carter Administration caused a draft nuclear cooperation agreement between Iran and the United States, which had been supported by Henry Kissinger, to be scrapped. The nuclear industry had even taken out ads touting the Shah’s support for nuclear power, and there is no record of Israeli opposition to such an arrangement, despite the publicly expressed desire by the Shah to follow the construction of reactors with a reprocessing capability that would have allowed the production of plutonium from reactor spent fuel.

In line with its attitude during the Shah’s reign, the government of Iran claims a right to advanced nuclear technology, including enrichment, under the NPT, and the JCPOA does not challenge this claim. Indeed, such a challenge would fly in the face of the stated provisions of the NPT and the manner in which the world nuclear enterprise has developed. That is a general nonproliferation problem inherent in nuclear power technology, and some countries have taken advantage of it to put themselves on the path to weapons. They have been helped in some cases by weak nuclear supplier rules and in other cases by indulgence via the neglect of the major nuclear nations to enforce their own nonproliferation principles and laws due to their other foreign policy concerns. Some of these instances of nuclear indulgence led to a number of nonproliferation failures.

But to invoke those past failures in the nonproliferation record in an argument over the JCPOA, implying that the signers of the JCPOA may replicate those failures in some way with Iran, ignores the circumstances under which those failures occurred—and the much different circumstances surrounding the current response to Iran’s current nuclear program. This difference between past failures and the current Iran agreement is made clear by the record of nuclear diplomacy involving four countries that did not sign the NPT or withdrew from it, namely Israel (not referenced by Harris), India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

The secret Israeli path. The Kennedy administration was the last to try to stop Israel’s march toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Although the Israeli prime minister at the time, David Ben Gurion, promised that the Dimona project being built in the desert would not be a nuclear effort capable of producing weapon materials, he lied. After it became evident that Dimona was a nuclear project and the United States demanded access to the site for an inspection, the Israelis, after stalling for time, allowed an inspection team to visit, but bricked up an access door to a sensitive part of the project, so the US team was unable to see it. They also provided phony information purported to be operating data for the reactor.

Did this deception result in any negative consequences for Israel? No. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, against the advice of his senior arms control advisor, would not use a pending shipment of fighter planes to Israel to pressure that country to alter its nuclear plans and sign the NPT. When Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, became president, he held a secret meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, in which he apparently established the policy that the United States would not interfere with Israel’s nuclear weapon program as long as the Israelis did not openly test weapons or otherwise admit to their possession. This policy has been followed by every US president since. This was a nonproliferation failure, but it occurred because, unlike the case with Iran, the United States was willing to tolerate Israeli nuclear weapons. Israel is believed to have an arsenal of 80 to 200 warheads, including boosted and thermonuclear weapons.

India's special arrangement. In 1970, during the Nixon Administration, US intelligence agencies determined that India intended to use plutonium extracted from a Canadian-supplied research reactor that contained US heavy water for a nuclear explosive test. Subsequently, an aide-mémoire was delivered to India that said such a nuclear test would be a violation of the terms of sale of the heavy water, which required that it go toward “peaceful use” only. Four years later, the Indians exploded their nuclear device, and the Nixon Administration, via Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, issued an anodyne statement containing no criticism of this violation of the US-India trade agreement on heavy water. It took later action by Congress, in the form of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978, to stop nuclear trade with India unless India adopted full-scope safeguards (inspections and materials accounting) on its nuclear program.

The ban, which was reinforced with additional sanctions after India’s 1998 series of nuclear tests, did not survive the aftermath of 9-11. The George W. Bush administration successfully lobbied the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to make an exception for India to the NSG-adopted requirement of full scope safeguards, so the administration's nuclear cooperation agreement with India in 2005 could be implemented. The agreement allows for civilian nuclear trade with India and does not impede India’s ability to make as many nuclear weapons as it wants with its own materials. Indeed, the agreement has the potential to spur more weapon production by India, which can now substitute foreign uranium supplies for India’s indigenous uranium in its domestic electricity production, thus releasing more indigenous uranium for weapons. This decision by the Bush administration was a conscious decision to recognize India’s nuclear arsenal—which is now estimated to be between 90 and 100 warheads—and not impede its expansion. The India nuclear arrangement has no parallel in the negotiations over the JCPOA, which is intended to block Iran from producing even one warhead during the tenure of the agreement.

Pakistan, A.Q. Khan, and US negligence. While the United States has no nuclear cooperation agreement with Pakistan beyond the provision of a small power reactor under the Atoms-for-Peace Program, US intelligence agencies became aware in the 1970s that Pakistan was planning to mount a nuclear weapon program, and by the late '70s had procured enough materials, equipment, and technology via the efforts of metallurgist A.Q. Khan to build a large centrifuge enrichment plant. In the meantime, Congress had passed two laws in the mid-'70s (the Symington and Glenn amendments to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961) that provided for sanctions against countries importing reprocessing or unsafeguarded enrichment technology. President Jimmy Carter used the Symington Amendment to temporarily sanction Pakistan for its enrichment plant.

But after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Reagan administration, with the assistance of Congress, waived the Symington and Glenn amendments, allowing Pakistan to receive military assistance despite its movement toward a nuclear arsenal. For the next decade, until the Soviets left Afghanistan, the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations kept assistance to Pakistan flowing, even as they assured Congress that its diplomacy with Pakistan was bearing fruit in terms of limiting Pakistan’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon. Congress’s skepticism of this claim was reflected in the passage of new laws in the mid-'80s, including the Pressler and Solarz amendments, whose application would have blocked military and economic assistance to Pakistan because of its nuclear activities. Those laws were not enforced for several years in regard to Pakistan, which escaped meaningful punishment for violating US export laws.

Assistance to Pakistan ended in 1990 after the Soviets left Afghanistan and the United States finally employed the sanctions called for by the Pressler amendment because of the President’s inability to formally determine that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device. (Most observers believe Pakistan’s first weapon was completed in 1987, but the annual presidential certification required by the Pressler amendment to keep assistance flowing to Pakistan continued for the next three years.)

US fecklessness in regard to Pakistan’s nuclear program did not end with the 1990 cutoff. After 9-11, as the United States took military action to oust the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the George W. Bush administration restored military assistance to Pakistan. This restoration occurred even though, during the 1990s, A.Q. Khan had used his network of suppliers to spread nuclear weapon technology to other countries, including Iran, Libya, and North Korea. The Libya transactions would have involved the sale of thousands of centrifuges and the associated equipment and materials to build a major centrifuge manufacturing plant that could produce enough highly enriched uranium for several nuclear bombs per year. As such, it was the biggest deal made by the Khan network, and would have led to a small nuclear arsenal commanded by then Libyan leader Moammar Ghaddafi, which might have sparked a nuclear arms race in the region.

After shipments of centrifuge parts bound for Libya were seized and the deal with Khan was exposed, Ghaddafi decided to renounce Libya’s nuclear program and declare foreign purchases of components for it. The United States and its allies then finally took action to close up some of Khan’s suppliers and force the Pakistanis to retire him to his luxurious villa, where he resides today. Some may view this US action as a “mitigation” of proliferation that occurred. Others may see it more accurately as the proverbial locking of the barn after the horse has escaped, and a result of willful negligence. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal—assembled through Khan's efforts—is now estimated to be between 100 and 110 nuclear warheads.

The circumstances of the Pakistan precedent make its repetition extraordinarily unlikely in the case of Iran.

The collapse of the North Korea framework. More than 60 years of mutual hostility between the United States and North Korea, punctuated periodically by threats of military action, has led North Korea to acquire a small nuclear arsenal. During a particularly fraught period in the 1990s, the United States made diplomatic efforts to head off the construction of a North Korean nuclear weapon and a possible war. The result was the so-called Agreed Framework, in which North Korea agreed to mothball its nuclear production facilities and make its nuclear history transparent, in return for the construction of two nuclear reactors for generating electricity and ongoing shipments of heavy crude oil. Unfortunately, while the Agreed Framework barred the use of reprocessing of spent fuel so that plutonium could not be extracted, it was not explicit in also barring enrichment technology, although the United States argues that such a ban was understood at the time.

In any case, North Korea began a clandestine centrifuge enrichment program and was challenged on it during a visit by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in October 2002. Relations between the two countries slid precipitously downhill from there, ultimately resulting in a halt to oil shipments, the abandonment of the Agreed Framework, a decision by North Korea to withdraw from the NPT, and the commencement of North Korea’s reprocessing of stored spent fuel rods to obtain plutonium for a small number of nuclear weapons, one of which it tested in October 2006. North Korea has performed two more tests since then and is believed to possess 8 to 10 nuclear warheads.  

No one can say with assurance that a different diplomatic approach to Israel, India, Pakistan, or North Korea would have resulted in a different outcome in any of those countries. It is clear that nonproliferation took a back seat to other foreign policy concerns in regard to India, Pakistan, and Israel, and that cold war politics and the history of the Korean War prevented the kind of engagement with North Korea that might have altered its decision to go for the bomb. The reality is that nonproliferation did not rise to the top of the bilateral agenda with any of these countries until the internal forces pushing toward nuclear weapons had become irresistible, and they had nuclear weapon acquisition virtually in hand. The failure to pursue early engagement and intervention in these countries portended later diplomatic failure that led to the construction of these countries' first nuclear bombs, which, ironically, except for Israel, occurred on the watch of conservative presidential administrations (Nixon/India, Reagan/Pakistan, G.W. Bush/North Korea).    

But the US nonproliferation policy on Iran has been resolute since the Iranian revolution, and Tehran has not yet taken an irrevocable step toward the construction of a weapon. The argument by Harris, which uses the past nuclear indulgence shown to India and Pakistan (he could have added Israel) as evidence that the JCPOA may result in a nonproliferation failure, ignores the dedicated and relentless diplomacy over more than a decade that has induced Iran to agree to limits on its nuclear program. The strong sanctions visited on Iran are, in themselves, sufficient evidence of nonproliferation commitment of the United States and other members of the P5+1—commitment that was missing in the cases Harris references. As long as this commitment remains intact, the JCPOA will work as designed, and an Iran with nuclear weapons will be an unlikely prospect for the duration of the agreement.

If there is an argument to be made that past nonproliferation failures should have better informed the response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it should proceed from an appreciation of the security concerns and history of the proliferating countries. At bottom, the security concerns of Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea drove them toward nuclear weapons as a deterrent against powerful adversaries whom they feared might attack them. The same calculus is used in Teheran. Calls for regime change—against a background of military intervention elsewhere in the Middle East and a history of subversion by the United States in Iran itself—exacerbate Tehran’s security concerns and make the nonproliferation problem much harder to deal with.

The JCPOA has given the world some breathing space to work toward a longer-term solution to Middle East nuclear anxieties, which would be greatly eased by the transformation of the Middle East into a nuclear weapons free zone. Creation of such a zone would require the development of an atmosphere of trust, and the solution of a number of political problems that thus far have appeared intractable. But that was how the Iran situation appeared to some observers before the breakthroughs that resulted in the JCPOA.


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Javed Mir
Javed Mir

–the United States was willing to tolerate Israeli nuclear weapons. Israel is believed to have an arsenal of 80 to 200 warheads, including boosted and thermonuclear weapons–

Tolerance for Israel but sanctions for Iran – unparalleled hypocrisy by a so called super powere.