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A diplomatic endgame with Iran? The case for optimism

[Note from Erica Chenoweth: This is a guest post by Matthew Fuhrmann, a political scientist at Texas A&M University and an expert on nuclear proliferation. For more recent Monkey Cage posts on the Iran deal, see Erik Voeten’s posts here and here.]


The United States and its partners achieved a diplomatic breakthrough over the weekend in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran pledged to freeze or roll back key parts of its program for six months in exchange for limited sanctions relief.  President Obama praised the agreement, saying that it “opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure.”

Yet others are not so sanguine. The deal has drawn fire domestically and internationally – for example, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “historic failure.” Critics assert that the deal reduces pressure on Iran without ending its capacity to make nuclear bombs.

So, is the deal good news for the United States?  Does it suggest that Washington can ultimately find a permanent diplomatic solution to the crisis?

The answers depend on Iran’s intentions – particularly whether Tehran is hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear arsenal. If that is the case, the skeptics might be correct: Iran’s cooperation may be nothing more than a ploy to buy time. However, it is also possible – as I argued back in 2011 – that Iran has a flexible view of its nuclear future, in which case the deal could be a prelude to a comprehensive bargain.

Lacking crystal balls, no one outside of the ayatollah’s inner circle can be sure about Iran’s intentions. Yet there may be cause for optimism from the standpoint of nonproliferation.

Iran may be content with nuclear latency – having the technical capacity to make nuclear bombs without possessing an atomic arsenal. Sometimes called the “Japan option,” nuclear latency stems from the ability to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium. States with enrichment or reprocessing programs can produce fissile material, the most critical ingredient for making nuclear bombs.

Nuclear latency is surprisingly common: New data that I collected with Benjamin Tkach at Texas A&M University reveal that more than 30 countries developed latent nuclear capabilities. Most of these countries – in fact about two-thirds of them – never went on to acquire nuclear arsenals.

Why might Iran – or any other state – find nuclear latency attractive? Possessing advanced nuclear technology could provide states with greater international influence and prestige, even if they do not build nuclear bombs. Henry Kissinger recently implied, for instance, that Iran’s nuclear latency would compel its adversaries “to reorient their political alignment toward Tehran.” Nuclear latency might also be useful for deterrence: A latent nuclear power may be able to deter international conflict by threatening to build nuclear weapons expeditiously if it is attacked. To be sure, political scientists do not yet fully understand how nuclear latency affects world politics, but there is growing recognition that it could confer countries with political benefits (for example, see here, especially Chapter 12).

At the same time, nuclear latency may allow states to skirt some of the costs that accompany overt movement toward nuclearization, such as an increased risk of preventive war. Nuclear latency, then, could allow Iran to have its cake and eat it too.

What does this mean for the United States and its allies? If Iran’s ultimate goal is nuclear latency – not a nuclear arsenal – a complete diplomatic solution may be more feasible than the critics suggest. Yet there is bad news, too: If latency is what Iran desires, it is unlikely to scrap its advanced nuclear technology. Tehran would almost certainly stand firm on its “right” to enrich uranium to at least 5 percent U-235 – the level needed to fuel nuclear power plants. It may, however, agree to place limits on enrichment levels (states typically need to enrich uranium to the 90 percent level to make nuclear bombs). Hard-liners such as Netanyahu might find this unacceptable, since they have called for the complete dismantlement of Iran’s enrichment program.

In the end, though, achieving a final diplomatic solution may require some concessions from the United States. But this should not come as a surprise. Successful diplomacy often requires the use of both carrots and sticks. For example, the United States “won” the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, but only after it publicly pledged not to invade Cuba and privately agreed to withdraw nuclear missiles from Turkey. Face-saving measures may likewise be necessary to achieve a diplomatic endgame with Iran.



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John Sides · November 26, 2013

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