Being Realistic about Nuclear Proliferation

by Peter Jenkins

Earlier this week, after a closed White House briefing on Iran, Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) said: “Instead of preventing proliferation, we are managing proliferation. If we enter a new world order where we are going to manage proliferation…. that is a different and far more challenging world.”

It seems likely that he was consciously echoing Henry Kissinger, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 29: “Nuclear talks with Iran began as an international effort … to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option. They are now an essentially bilateral negotiation over the scope of that capability through an agreement that sets a hypothetical limit of one year on an assumed breakout. The impact of this approach will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.” 

What Corker and Kissinger are suggesting is that:

  • Iran’s uranium enrichment program equals nuclear proliferation.
  • Preventing Iran from acquiring uranium enrichment facilities is an affordable option for the United States.
  • Depriving Iran of its enrichment facilities would be lawful.

In all three cases, they are wrong.

To Enrich Is to Proliferate?

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) defines nuclear proliferation, in the case of non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) like Iran, as the manufacture or acquisition of nuclear weapons. It does not equate the acquisition of uranium enrichment facilities, or their use for peaceful purposes, to proliferation. .

NNWS that possess an enrichment capability include Japan, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Germany, and the Netherlands. Those countries are never described as proliferators.

There is no proof that Iran intends to use its enrichment capability to make nuclear weapons. Iran has come under suspicion because the enrichment programme began clandestinely and because of secret intelligence suggesting (how reliably?) past research into making nuclear weapons. A charge of nuclear weapon intent, based on that evidence, would not meet the standard of proof—“beyond all reasonable doubt”—that prevails in criminal courts in Britain or the United States.

An Affordable Option?

If prevention were an affordable option, we can be pretty sure that President George W. Bush would have gone for it. That he didn’t tells us to listen to common sense: dismantling Iran’s enrichment capability and ensuring that it stays dismantled would entail exorbitant costs. It would require the United States to invade Iran, locate all its nuclear facilities, destroy them, round up and intern many of Iran’s nuclear engineers, and maintain the occupation for several generations, if not in perpetuity as Iranians are good at bearing historical grudges.

If I were an American taxpayer and voter, I think I would blanch at that prospect.

To Heck with the Law!

The international order about which Kissinger has written so eloquently over the years is not anarchic. It rests on concepts and conventions that are held to constitute “international law.” Under international law, depriving Iran by force of its enrichment capability would only be lawful if the United States were authorized by the UN Security Council or reacting, in self-defense, to an armed attack on the United States (or a US ally) by Iran (or an Iranian ally).

The Security Council has not authorized the forcible destruction or dismantlement of Iran’s enrichment facilities (and is unlikely to do so in the absence of proof of intent to use those facilities to make weapons). Iran is not threatening the United States or any US ally with armed attack, still less mounting one.

Of course because the United States is more powerful than all other nations put together, it can get away with a cavalier approach to its international obligations. It would be surprising, though, if this is what Kissinger is advocating. He, more than most, understands the long-term value of a functioning international law-based order, and the likely long-term costs of undermining that order.

Prevention the Norm?

Corker and Kissinger speak as though hitherto the United States has always succeeded in preventing nuclear proliferation.

That is not the case. In the 1950s the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom became nuclear powers. In the 1960s it was the turn of France, China, and Israel; in the 1970s India and South Africa; in the 1980s or 1990s Pakistan; and under President George W. Bush North Korea.

“Managing Proliferation”

The word “managing” can imply acquiescence in proliferation, and perhaps this was Kissinger’s intention. It would be less misleading – if also less catchy! – to describe the policy that the United States and its allies have pursued for the last 60 years as: “managing the inevitable spread of nuclear technology in ways that minimize the risk of its non-peaceful use.”

Without doubt that is the objective of the current negotiation with Iran. Iran is being asked to:

  • Reaffirm its commitment under the NPT to remain a NNWS
  • Provide international inspectors the access they need to verify compliance with that commitment
  • Make amends for the clandestine nature of some of its past nuclear activities by holding back until the program’s fully transparent and peaceful nature has been certified
  • Show it knows that it has far more to gain by remaining in good standing under the NPT than by becoming an international pariah.

Far from being misguided, risky, naïve, pusillanimous or foolish, that approach is the only real chance of ensuring that Iran does not join the list of post-1945 nuclear proliferators.

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. I want to know what Misters Kissinger and Corker call it when they “allow” Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea become not nuclear threshold states, but fully nuclear states with huge arsenals. And what do they call it when a huge number of other countries are virtually nuclear threshold states who can go nuclear within weeks before UN even finds out, not a year. Is that, like, “managing” proliferation, “looking the other way” proliferation, “pick and choose” proliferation, or “hypocritical and ridiculously unmanagable proliferation”. Regardless of what these two call it, the world doesn’t work in accordance with the vision of these two and the camp they represent. In fact, America itself doesn’t work in accordance with their vision. Heck, I’d venture a bet that even their own households don’t bend to their will. The world works based on risk/cost analysis that’s meaningful to the actors when they consider the neighborhoods they’re in, what they need and what goals are. The whole of NPT was supposed to rid the entire planet of these horrible weapons by 1- preventing non-nuclear nations from going nuclear and 2- working to have nuclear nations reverse and reduce to zero their nuclear arsenal. Instead, what has happened is that it has become nuclear club by invitation for VIPs effort and we, the citizens of the world have been hoodwinked to accept a certain status quo and not question it.

    I demand a nuclear free world. That’s the only way I can come across as an honest observer when I debate against citizens of those nations who want the (false) sense of security and (bogus) prestige of having nukes. Misters Kissinger and Corker can take their hypocrisy and whistle dixie all they want.

  2. And what to say about the other countries in the M.E. that are planing to build Nuclear plants? Are the Israelis going to bomb them when they get far enough along in the project? Insanity is where this is heading. Here we have the stooges in the U.S.Congress tooting their collective horns against Iran for having any sort of Nuclear program, while at the same time, willing to invest $Billions to renew all the Nuclear bombs/delivery systems involved in its own arsenal. The “we got ours” tough sh*t on you because we don’t want you to have any.

  3. What worries many people who are genuinely in favor of non-proliferation is that if the opponents of a deal with Iran succeed despite all the concessions that Iran has made, they will weaken the entire NPT and the inspection regime. It should be remembered that the NPT was initially proposed by the five nuclear powers as part of a bargain with the countries that had not developed nuclear weapons. According to the NPT, the non-nuclear states have the “inalienable right” to make use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes provided that they do not develop nuclear weapons. In return, the nuclear powers made a commitment to reduce and ultimately to get rid of all their nuclear weapons in good faith, something that they have failed to do.

    Iran was one of the first countries to ratify the NPT. Later on, in order to strengthen the provisions of the NPT, non-nuclear states were told to accept the Additional Protocol and IAEA safeguards, to allow more intrusive inspections of their nuclear activities to ensure compliance with the provisions of the NPT. After the revolution, for a number of years Iran suspended her nuclear activities that had started under the Shah with Western support and encouragement. However later on, Iran openly called on the countries that had assisted her in the past with her nuclear program to help her complete the work. Bushehr nuclear power plant whose construction had started in 1975 by German Kraftwerk Union AG was more than 85 per cent complete when the German Company withdrew from Iran. All Western countries turned down Iran’s request.

    So Iran’s nuclear program after the revolution was not illicit or clandestine, as she had openly announced her intention to resume her nuclear activities and had called on Western countries to complete the work that had started prior to the revolution. However, as all of them turned her down, Iran had no option but to turn to other sources, as well as to start enrichment at home.

    During the nuclear talks with the European Troika from 2003-2005, Iran in practice agreed to abide by the Additional Protocol. She even voluntarily suspended enrichment for over two years, but as the United States insisted that Iran had to stop all enrichment activity, Iran resumed her enrichment to below five per cent, but when her request for uranium fuel at 20 per cent for the research reactor that had been built by the Americans was turned down, Iran started to enrich uranium to below 20 per cent.

    After Iran started negotiating with the P5+1, and especially since signing the Joint Plan of Action, she has abided by all the requirements of the agreement as confirmed by the IAEA. In fact, not only has Iran in practice accepted the Additional Protocol, it has even moved beyond its provisions, by stopping enrichment at 20 per cent, suspending the activities at Fordo, agreeing to modify the heavy water reactor in Arak, allowing constant inspection and, on the whole, rolling back many of her nuclear activities. To demand that Iran should go further and completely stop enrichment is in total violation of the NPT and international law, and a sign of complete hypocrisy in view of Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.

    Instead of calling on Iran to stop enrichment, the time has come to force Israel to submit to the same inspection regime as Iran. Israeli officials have always claimed that Israel would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East. If that is the case, she should not object to opening her nuclear facilities to international inspection in the same way that Iran has done. The only solution to the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program and the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region is to seriously push for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

  4. me again.

    What if a group of wiser heads, like Flynt Leverett and Dan Joyner, Richard Butler, Chas Freeman and Phil Giraldi, joined forces to inform and advise Mr. Corker that he could be a nuclear nonproliferation hero if he persuaded his Senate committee to bring Israel to the nonproliferation table.

    Mr. Butler’s diplomatic skills are legendary: It was at his dining room table in 1995 that Iran, Egypt, and other states in the region agreed to the permanent extension of the NPT, on the promise that a conference would be convened to discuss a nuclear-free Middle East; and at which Israel’s nuclear status would be on the table.

    That is what is needed to bring about the intent of the NPT.

    Mr. Corker could ensure his place in history were he to persuade the US Senate to deliver on the promises made in 1995.

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