Iran is increasingly putting Washington in a nuclear bind. On the one hand, it refuses to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its uranium enrichment-related activities or to clarify its past suspect nuclear weapons pursuits. On the other, it has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the 2015 nuclear deal unless Washington lifts economic and trade sanctions against Iran and allows it a robust “peaceful” nuclear program. It hardly helps that Tehran is now enriching uranium to 60 percent — close to weapons-grade.
Israel, meanwhile, is also turning up the heat. Israeli military officials publicly oppose President Biden’s efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal and are planning to take covert and overt military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
How will this story end? The short answer is we don’t know, but one possibility — that Iran will try to withdraw from the NPT — now needs to be taken seriously. Are we ready for this? NPEC thought it would find out.
Early in August, it held a week-long diplomatic simulation of a crisis in which US intelligence confirms that Iran intends to withdraw from the NPT. The Israelis fortify this finding in the game by sharing and, subsequently leaking, photographic intelligence that Iran is building several implosion devices.
The game featured some prominent players, including a former UN deputy general director for disarmament, a former director of the CIA’s Nonproliferation Center, a former assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, and players from Egypt and Israel.
Rather than spoil the drama of how the game unfolds, I’ve attached the game’s key takeaways below. The most important of these is that the United States will have to work much harder to develop its own sources of intelligence on Iran and far more closely with key allies and the IAEA if the NPT’s restrictions are to prevail not just in a crisis with Iran, but, with any bad luck, with future Irans.
This report reflects what happened during a three-move diplomatic simulation NPEC hosted in August 2021 and in the game’s three preparatory meetings. The simulation was set in the present day (summer 2021). Participants responded to a scenario in which Iran threatened to withdraw from the NPT, after which Israel released photos of Iran secretly manufacturing implosion devices. Participants assumed the roles of members of the U.S. National Security Council, key foreign officials, and members of the United Nations Security Council. In the first move, the U.S. President, responding to the crisis, called a National Security Council Principals Committee meeting to draft a U.S. resolution to the U.N. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. presented this resolution during a mock U.N. Security Council meeting in the second move. The resolution did not pass. In the third move, participants debated what strategies might ensure the future viability of the NPT and prevent Iran from breaking out and making a bomb.
The simulation produced five takeaways:
1. The NPT’s future enforcement will depend on Washington working with like-minded nations far more than it has ever done before. The game’s play demonstrated that Washington’s authority to convince other members of the U.N. to enforce the NPT has declined as a result of its nuclear misadventures with Iraq and North Korea. Not only will the United States have problems convincing China and Russia to take action against Iran, but it will also have difficulty doing so with a good number of friendly states. This disadvantage will persist for some time. As such, it is vital to gain general agreement on a common sense reading of the NPT. Fabricating nuclear warheads awaiting the insertion of nuclear explosive cores — are and should be understood to be clear violations of the treaty. Also, country-neutral rules should be in place that stipulate that states withdrawing from the NPT must clearly be in compliance and must still keep their civil nuclear materials and activities under IAEA safeguards.
2. The IAEA is likely to become the first stop for any future NPT enforcement. The game’s play demonstrated the advantage of the United States and like-minded nations making a direct appeal to the IAEA director general to conduct special inspections to confirm evidence of a violation. In the future, this will likely be necessary before taking any major U.N. action. This will require the United States to share its most sensitive intelligence with key allies and the IAEA to convince the director general to secure corroborating evidence of possible NPT violations. To make enforcement of NPT violations more effective it would be helpful if both the IAEA and the U.N. had full-time staff to work such issues. Finally, to be ready to react properly to possible NPT and IAEA violations and withdrawals, the United States should encourage key U.S., allied, and international organizational staff to participate in simulations of such scenarios.
3. Washington and other like-minded nations must resolve the growing tension between relying primarily on the national use of force against NPT violators versus applying broad diplomacy pressure. States most interested in blocking Iran from getting the bomb (e.g., Israel) believe force must be used to achieve this goal and have little faith in actions of the U.N. or the IAEA to enforce the NPT. They favor having the United States conduct military strikes unilaterally or with a limited number of allies against NPT violators. For them, the NPT cannot survive unless violators clearly understand they will pay a high price, whether authorized by the U.N. or IAEA or not. Another view is that such authorization is critical to long-term, international support of the NPT and IAEA. Resolving the tension between these two views will be central to securing the NPT’s survival. Getting this right is of no small moment: The NPT still remains the sole international legal justification for taking enforcement action against states that might try to acquire nuclear weapons.
4. If Iran does get the bomb, sanctioning it economically would still be useful to stigmatize its behavior and strengthen future enforcement of the NPT. Imposing significant economic sanctions until Iran comes back into compliance would be useful to keep Iran in a penalty box until and unless it comes back into compliance with the treaty. With Iran stigmatized, it would be easier to act earlier against lesser violators of the treaty. Stigmatizing bad behavior early would shore up adherence to the NPT far more than taking tougher action later.
5. Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear arsenal and its refusal to limit its nuclear weapons efforts puts America and like-minded nations at a disadvantage in enforcing the NPT in the Middle East and beyond. Some believe asking Israel to limit its nuclear weapons programs in any way would imperil its security. Others believe it’s absolutely essential to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons – a goal whose ultimate achievement is essential to Israel’s survival. The NPT review conferences have repeatedly called for creation of a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone, and Iran has accused Israel of nuclear hypocrisy. On these matters, the United States has backed Israel and insisted that Israel does not have a nuclear arsenal. Although this approach has worked for many decades, it will be more and more difficult to sustain.
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