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. Farhang Jahanpour:

    It was a mistake for Iran to join NPT; another colossal one committed by the Shah of Iran.

    It was also a mistake for Iran to remain in NPT after the nuclear test of India and Pakistan in 1998; another colossal mistake this time made by Mr. Rafsanjani.

    Iran’s continued existence and cohesion as a state is no longer possible without being armed with nuclear weapons.

    Remaining within NPT is a long-term suicide-pact for Iran and the Iranian people.

  2. fyi:
    I can understand where you come from, but I do not agree with you. I believe that nuclear weapons are obsolete except for an end-of-time scenario. Instead of encouraging nuclear proliferation we should put pressure on nuclear powers to get rid of their weapons. It has been established by scientists that the use of nuclear weapons even in a limited conflict, say a war between India and Pakistan or Iran and Israel if Iran also had nuclear weapons, would have such terrible consequences that it would create devastation even thousands of miles away.

    Those who rely on nuclear weapons for security are living in a fool’s paradise. Israel has nuclear weapons but they have not stopped her from being engaged in conflicts abroad and unrest at home. Pakistan has nuclear weapons but she has been under almost constant drone attacks by the United States. Germany, Japan or Brazil are not any less respected or less secure for not having nuclear weapons. South Africa gained much by giving up her nuclear weapons that the apartheid regime had manufactured in collaboration with Israel. What threatens Israel is not a nuclear Iran, but its apartheid policies at home and constant wars abroad. She will gain in respect and I believe in security if she joins a nuclear-free Middle East. Equally, Iran will be much more secure if she improves the quality of human rights at home and follows a more collaborative foreign policy.

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