Big Question: Both sides can present the outcome as a victory to domestic audiences, but who really wins in this Faustian bargain?
By Wyn Bowen and Matthew Moran, at Kings College London
An important milestone in the Iranian nuclear saga was reached this week. After lengthy and intense talks in Lausanne, Iran and the P5+1 reached a broad framework agreement that, if successfully implemented, will set the path towards resolution of one of the most pressing issues in international security.
While the finer details have yet to be elaborated, the significance of this deal should not be underestimated. It will do much to defuse tensions around the Iranian nuclear programme and represents the culmination of more than a decade of political wrangling.
While it is far from a perfect deal – many will argue that it rewards Iranian bad behaviour – the alternative would have been no deal at all and a significant deterioration of the diplomatic and security context.
For western powers, the agreement will roll back elements of the Iranian programme and maintain an acceptable distance between Tehran and the bomb.
Among the measures announced, Iran’s 19,000 centrifuges will be reduced by two-thirds and the underground enrichment facility at Fordow will be converted into a research facility with enrichment activity confined purely to Natanz alone.
For Iran, the deal allows it to keep a good amount of its nuclear programme while providing phased relief from economic sanctions as Tehran takes steps to implement the final deal if it is agreed by the end of June. If Iran fails to implement a deal then the sanctions will ‘snap back’ into place.
Crucially, a delicate dance of diplomacy has allowed both sides to present the outcome as a victory to domestic audiences, even if the naysayers – particularly in Tehran and Washington – will remain potential thorns in the side of successful implementation of the deal.
But if the deal constitutes a pragmatic solution to a complex problem, it is also something of a Faustian bargain. While limiting Tehran’s nuclear activities and providing for an intrusive inspection regime, the deal also leaves Iran with a considerable enrichment capacity and the technical know-how to advance its nuclear programme at speed.
Iranians celebrate in the street of Tehran, Iran, after nuclear talks between Iran and World powers ended in Lausanne, Switzerland (AFP/Getty)
We have argued elsewhere that Iran’s nuclear programme is best described in terms of nuclear hedging, a strategy based on the ability to acquire nuclear weapons relatively quickly should Tehran decide to do so.
The agreement reached in Lausanne implicitly recognises and gives legitimacy to this strategy. In this context, the compromises that paved the way for a deal raise a whole new set of non-proliferation challenges.
One might think that a comprehensive agreement that constrained Iran’s nuclear weapon potential would do much to address the fears of its neighbours. But this is not necessarily the case as the uncertainty associated with nuclear hedging, even at a relatively low level, poses almost as many challenges as the certainty of nuclear weapons acquisition.
The problem is that the value of hedging is a matter of perception. Certainly, hedging holds some weight as a tool of coercion or deterrence, but there is no absolute truth here and the value that Iran attributes to its position may well differ from how, say, Riyadh views the situation. What Tehran’s neighbours will agree on is that the legitimacy given to Iranian hedging by the new deal demands a tangible response.
At the least, Iranian hedging could add symbolic weight to Iran’s aspirations to regional hegemony.
At worst, an inflated sense of the value of its position could embolden Iran in a conventional military sense and contribute to further conflict in the region, potentially pitting Shia Iran against its Sunni Arab neighbours. The recent announcement of a new joint Arab military force amidst what many describe as a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Yemen is of particular concern in this regard.
Longer term, the likely response to the new deal is a hedging ‘cascade’ in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is already investing significantly in nuclear development and, in a recent interview, former Chief of intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal hinted at this very scenario: ‘whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same’ and ‘if Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it’s not just Saudi Arabia that’s going to ask for that’.
This is not a quick solution – none of the Arab states currently have any significant nuclear infrastructure to speak of – but the Iranian approach will certainly provide regional players with food for thought.
And what of Israel’s bluster?
Benyamin Netanyahu, Israeli’s prime minister, has done his utmost to prevent an agreement and in the process has placed an unprecedented level of strain on Israel’s relationship with Washington. So how will he deal with the outcome?
Despite its maximalist position, Israel has long been aware that prolonged Iranian hedging was the most likely outcome of diplomatic engagement with Iran. Indeed, a recent RAND study suggested that Israel has been ‘reconciling itself to the idea of Iran as a nuclear “threshold state” — and is preparing to make the best of the situation’.
Israel will continue to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities closely, looking for any suggestion that Iran is trying to reduce its distance from the bomb. In practice, however, the low level of hedging that the deal affords Iran should have little effect on Israeli red lines regarding stockpiles of enriched uranium.
Under the terms of the deal, Iran will not have anything like the stockpiles of enriched uranium that caused such concern prior to the 2013 interim agreement. Of more concern to Israel are the possible secondary effects of hedging; the conflict with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), and Iran’s central role in combatting this non-state actor, is already providing Tehran with the means to increase its influence in the region and hedging may compound this.
Implications for the non-proliferation regime
Beyond the regional context, the deal sets a precedent that has important implications for the NPT and the non-proliferation regime as a whole. Tehran has highlighted the potential for a state to use civil nuclear development as a cover for a proliferation strategy that brings it relatively close to the bomb while remaining a member of the NPT, and, crucially, leaving open the possibility of full re-engagement with the international community without sacrificing its hedging capability.
Iran has also shown how diplomatic due process can be exploited as a means of dissipating pressure and creating room for manoeuvre. The path here is not pain-free, sanctions have exacted a heavy toll on Iran’s economy, yet Iran has succeeded in acquiring a hedging capability without incurring the isolation that, say, Libya did for its proliferation efforts.
The danger now is that other states may well follow suit. Nuclear hedging could prove an attractive option for states seeking at least some of the deterrent and coercive benefits that nuclear weapons can bring.
Clearly, a hedging cascade is preferable to the spread of nuclear weapons themselves, yet it poses real risks, not least because it could prove difficult to contain ‘hedgers’ at low levels of latency.
With the proliferation of hedging in the Middle East, for example, rivals could enter a security dilemma of sorts with each one monitoring its neighbour, alert for a dash to the bomb. The uncertainty of widespread hedging could also foster an escalatory spiral as states seek to optimise their hedging strategy. And with the threshold so close, at least some would consider the final steps to the bomb.
The outlook here seems bleak, yet there is a positive angle. The deal with Iran has constrained its nuclear activities and at least partially defused a dangerous situation. On a larger scale, it also highlights the need to find innovative new ways of addressing proliferation challenges in the 21st century.
Ultimately, the nature of the Iranian nuclear challenge has changed and the approach for dealing with this challenge must too. Iranian nuclear hedging is now a reality of life in the Middle East and this fact must form the basis of the international response.
The question is no longer how to achieve complete rollback of Iran’s nuclear programme, rather it is how Iran can be contained at a low level of latency whilst minimizing the risk that hedging poses, both in terms of regional proliferation and in terms of the broader impact on nuclear governance and the non-proliferation regime. This is arguably now the greatest challenge confronting the NPT regime if it is to remain a viable tool for international security management in the years ahead.
Wyn Bowen is professor of non-proliferation and international security at Kings College London. Twitter: @WKBowen
Matthew Moran is deputy director for research development at the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) at Kings College London. Twitter: @MoranCSSS
Courtsey: The Telegraph