A Belated Victory for Non-Proliferation

By Chris Patten : Chancellor of the University of Oxford
July 17,2015
Chris Patten
Chancellor of the University of Oxford
Chris Patten

The last British governor of Hong Kong, a former EU commissioner for external affairs, Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

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Iranians celebrate on the streets following a nuclear deal with major powers, in Tehran July 14, 2015(Photo by Reuters/TIMA)

LONDON--Let us give praise where it is richly deserved. Despite all the criticism they faced, US President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, stuck doggedly to the task of negotiating a deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program. Together with representatives of the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany, they have now succeeded.

The main terms of this historic agreement, concluded in the teeth of opposition from Israel, Iran’s regional competitors (particularly Saudi Arabia), and the political right in the United States, seek to rein in Iran’s nuclear activities so that civil capacity cannot be swiftly weaponized. In exchange for inspection and monitoring of nuclear sites, the international economic sanctions imposed years ago on Iran will be lifted.

This is a significant moment in the nuclear age. Since 1945, the terrifying destructive force of nuclear weapons has encouraged political leaders to search for ways to control them.

Not long after the destruction of Hiroshima, President Harry S. Truman, together with the Canadian and UK prime ministers, proposed the first non-proliferation plan; all nuclear weapons would be eliminated, and nuclear technology for peaceful purposes would be shared and overseen by a United Nations agency. Truman’s initiative subsequently went further, covering most of the non-proliferation issues that we still discuss today.

But the proposals ran into outright opposition from Joseph Stalin, who would accept no limit to the Soviet Union’s ability to develop its own nuclear weapons.

Why Iran's important

So the nuclear arms race began, and in 1960 President John F. Kennedy warned that there would be 15, 20, or 25 nuclear states by the mid-1960s. “I ask you,” he said in 1963, “to stop and think for a moment what it would mean to have nuclear weapons in so many hands, in the hands of countries large and small, stable and unstable, responsible and irresponsible, scattered throughout the world.”

Two developments averted the nightmare of reckless nuclear proliferation. First, several countries capable of developing nuclear weapons concluded--in some cases, even after launching programs--that to do so would not increase their security.

To their credit, South Africa and a number of Latin American countries took this route. Second, self-denial was greatly reinforced by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), negotiated after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Since entering into force in 1968, the NPT has been central to holding the line on the spread of nuclear weapons. Nowadays, apart from the original nuclear powers--the US, the UK, France, and Russia--the only other countries with these weapons are China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.

The Iran negotiations were vital to ensuring the integrity of the system. The danger, of course, was that Iran would move from developing civil nuclear power to making its own weapons. This would inevitably have caused other countries in the region, probably beginning with Saudi Arabia, to go the same way.

The failure of Bush strategy

There is an important lesson to be learned from more than a decade of negotiation with Iran. Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, was his country’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. Iran’s president at this time was the scholarly moderate Mohammed Khatami, with whom I at one time attempted to negotiate a trade and cooperation agreement on behalf of the European Union. Progress was stopped by disagreement over nuclear matters.

Khatami’s attempts to open a dialogue with the West fell on stony ground in President George W. Bush’s Washington, and eventually he was replaced by the populist hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But in Rouhani’s discussions on proliferation back then, Iran had offered the three EU countries with which it had begun negotiations a reasonable compromise: Iran would maintain a civil but not a military nuclear capacity.

This would have capped the number of centrifuges at a low level, kept enrichment below the possibility of weaponization, and converted enriched uranium into benign forms of nuclear fuel.

The British representative to the IAEA at this time, Ambassador Peter Jenkins, has said publicly that the negotiators from the EU were impressed by the Iranian offer. But the Bush administration pressured the UK government to veto a deal along these lines, arguing that more concessions could be extracted from the Iranians if they were squeezed harder and threatened with tougher sanctions and even a military response.

We know how the Bush strategy turned out. The talks collapsed: no compromise, no agreement. Today, a deal has been concluded; but it is less good than the deal that could have been reached a decade ago--a point worth keeping in mind as the likes of former Vice Present Dick Cheney and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu start hollering from the sidelines.

As it is, not only will an agreement add cement to the NPT; it could also open the way to the sort of understanding with Iran that is essential to any broad diplomatic moves to control and halt the violence sweeping across western Asia.

(C)Project Syndicate