The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed in 2015 by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, known as P5, plus Germany and Iran, significantly limited Iran’s nuclear program. At the time, some were critical of President Barack Obama’s diplomatic approach, rather than other coercive levers. Two years ago, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) called for a “credible threat of military force” so that the Iranians would abandon their nuclear weapons capabilities.
President Trump is expected to make a speech on Iran policy today. Reports now suggest that Trump will not recertify Iran’s compliance with the deal — though not tear it up entirely — and will push for tougher scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program.
Regardless of the details on the White House strategy on Iran, the deal has many vocal critics — President Trump chief among them. Implicit in much of the criticism of the deal is the assumption that Iran gains benefits or advantages from its ability to retain any nuclear infrastructure, compared to states that do not possess this technology.
In new research, we explore the benefits and burdens of “nuclear latency” — critical technologies short of weapons acquisition. Countries that have nuclear latency are in a state of technological limbo — they possess some technical and material ingredients for a bomb, but have not gone all the way to produce a nuclear weapon.
Contrary to what critics of the JCPOA believe, we found that latency yields few benefits and can bring significant costs to states — costs that Iran continues to pay under the JCPOA.
What does the JCPOA actually do?
The JCPOA, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, was designed to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The deal curtailed Iran’s access to the materials necessary to build warheads, dismantling the plutonium-based pathway to making a nuclear bomb, while dramatically scaling back the uranium-based pathway. Iran before the JCPOA had an estimated timeline of two to three months to actually manufacture nuclear weapons. This timeline is now over a year.
The net result is more time for the international community to intervene, should Iran move to “break out” and abandon its JCPOA commitments. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) oversees an extensive verification process, leaving the international community with a much better apparatus in place to observe the nuclear program up close, to ensure that Iran remains latent — and does not pursue nuclear weapons.
Once the IAEA certified compliance with the JCPOA requirements, Iran received a variety of benefits from the international community. These included the termination of an oil embargo, sanctions relief, and political re-engagement with the United States and global community. To date, this has facilitated between $100 billion and $150 billion in frozen Iranian assets flowing back into Iran.
Being a “latent” nuclear power isn’t all good news for Iran
Post-JCPOA, Iran remains a “latent” nuclear power, which means it has some indigenous ability to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium into fissile material that moves states closer to the bomb. This latent capability, according to some scholars, can help states deter attacks, even when they don’t actually possess an operational nuclear weapon. Others have argued that latent states may become emboldened to take more risks to achieve their goals internationally simply because they possess this technology.
But these potential benefits are only part of the story. Do states with latency incur other losses, compared to those with no latent capability at all?
Our study examines both the potential benefits and costs of nuclear latency. We studied the effect of latency on political, economic and military outcomes, using the Nuclear Latency (NL) data set. This data set examines every state that possessed either enrichment or reprocessing facilities in a given year, during the 1945-2012 period. The data includes 32 countries, including Iran and North Korea as well as states such as Sweden and Japan.
We explore the association between nuclear latency and international benefits such as military assistance, as well as trade benefits and economic aid. And we look at the potential costs, including the likelihood of sanctions. We also examine whether nuclear latency brings about certain military benefits, including deterring attacks and successfully compelling adversaries to achieve political aims.
Here’s what we found: States with latency get little bang from their latent capabilities. Latent states may be emboldened to pursue their goals more aggressively. But when these states take risks and actually start a crisis, latency doesn’t help compel adversaries to concede. Additionally, the deterrence claim is not supported — we see little evidence that states with nuclear latency are any less likely to be attacked.
Further, states may actually pay more direct costs for staying latent. They are less likely to receive economic benefits, such as economic and/or military aid. In fact, they may feel the brunt of economic sanctions for their possession of nascent nuclear capabilities.
What did latency mean for Iran?
Our research suggests that states on average suffer more burdens than benefits once they acquire nuclear latency. This is consistent with Iran’s recent experience, once its latent status was uncovered in 2002. Iran saw punishing rounds of economic sanctions, threats of military force and political isolation, an oil embargo, and attacks aimed at delaying its nuclear production (Stuxnet).
The Iranian case thus far confirms the expectations of our analysis: Iran gets no major security or bargaining advantages by retaining some nuclear capabilities under the terms of the JCPOA. Indeed, Iran is arguably worse off now for having historically pursued enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, given the bite of the sanctions regime (and the international isolation). Concerns that Iran may be benefiting from the JCPOA’s retention of its nuclear latency are overblown.
There’s one small benefit, it seems. To date, the JCPOA has reduced the likelihood of military force against the Islamic Republic of Iran. But if the United States scuttles the deal and starts making public threats about taking preventive military options, the net effect may be to drive Iran to restart its nuclear weapons program.
The long-term merits of the JCPOA cannot yet be known — but it seems a safe bet that pulling out of the deal would likely push Iran toward developing a nuclear weapon, what the deal was meant to prevent in the first place.
But given that latency is fundamental to the ultimate acquisition of weapons, we cannot overlook the possibility that Iran might one day surpass latency to become weapons-capable. If there are renewed threats of military force and sanctions, Iran may seek to cut its latency losses and reap the benefits of being a full-fledged nuclear state.
Rupal N. Mehta is an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (@Rupal_N_Mehta).
Rachel Elizabeth Whitlark is an assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology (@RachelWhitlark).