Why Technical Solutions Can’t Solve Nuclear Problems
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Why Technical Solutions Can’t Solve Nuclear Problems


On Friday The National Interest published an article I wrote arguing that the U.S. endgame with regards to Iran should be a rapprochement rather than a narrow nuclear deal.

In support of this position, I made two general arguments. First, I suggested that seeking a political rapprochement as the ultimate endgame was the only way the U.S. and Iran could achieve a lasting nuclear deal. In particular, Iran would have some confidence that the political dynamics that give rise to its desire for a nuclear capability would be ameliorated. Secondly, I argued that a rapprochement with Iran would be highly beneficial to the U.S. in a number of ways irrespective of Iran’s nuclear program.

A few hours before the article went live, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gave an interview to The Washington Post in which he was asked about a possible rapprochement.

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First, he was asked: “Do you have authority from the Supreme Leader to settle other issues outside the nuclear file, such as Syria? What if Iran were invited to Geneva 2, would you participate?” He responded by saying, “My government has full authority based on discussions with the Supreme Leader to negotiate any issue that is necessary to be negotiated to preserve Iran’s security and national-security interest.” He added that Iran would participate at Geneva 2 if invited, as long as there were no preconditions.

Next he was asked about the possible “opportunity for normalization of relations [with the U.S]. What is the path to normalization? Should it include opening embassies, for example, as is normal with countries?” Rouhani began his answer by stating that Iran feels that U.S. Middle East policy is misguided, before saying that if he met with Obama they’d discuss “the prospects ahead and our hopes for that future. The notes and letters and exchanges between us are in that direction, and they will continue. We need a beginning point. I think that is the nuclear issue.”

When again asked about the broader spectrum of Iran-U.S. relations, Rouhani stated, “Once the nuclear file is settled, we can turn to other issues. After resolution of the nuclear issue there are no impossibilities in term of advancing other things forward. The foundation for all this is the confidence that has to be built. That clearly will help everything else. Everything is possible after the settlement.”

As some very informed people pointed out to me, it seems that Rouhani’s comments contradict my point that making rapprochement the endgame is necessary to get Iran to place significant limitations on its nuclear program. This was not an unreasonable conclusion to draw, although I don’t ultimately think it’s valid. I said specifically in the piece that a nuclear deal and sanctions relief were necessary before a rapprochement could take hold, but argued that a narrow deal on Iran’s nuclear program was insufficient.

However, the exchange did underscore to me that, in my desire to make the case for why a rapprochement with Iran was in the U.S. national interest, I had given short shrift to explaining why a rapprochement is necessary for a lasting nuclear deal. This was a mistake as it is at least as important as making the case for rapprochement.

Put simply, the problem with a narrow nuclear deal is that it tries to impose a technical solution on a political problem. A narrow nuclear deal would focus on such things as: how many cascades Iran has installed and operating; what level of purity Iran is enriching to, the size of its enriched uranium stockpiles, and how intrusive a monitoring regime in Iran is. These components are no doubt essential to verify Iran’s compliance with any deal.

But a technical solution in and of itself cannot solve Iran’s nuclear issue because nuclear problems, at their core, are political problems. That is, countries don’t pursue nuclear weapons as some sort of nationwide science fair project. Rather, the decision to pursue nuclear weapon programs is a political decision made at the highest levels of government for political reasons.

In Iran’s case, like most others, the underlying rationale for seeking a nuclear weapons capability is its insecurity. Since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003, the principal source of this insecurity has been America’s massive military superiority, and the possibility that it might someday be unleashed on Iran.

Of course, Iranian leaders understand that neither the American people nor their president currently have any desire to invade another Middle Eastern country, particularly one the size of Western Europe. What they don’t know for sure is whether this will still be the case in 5, 10, 15 or 20 years down the line.

If U.S.-Iranian relations continue to be highly antagonistic, the possibility that American attitudes will change cannot be ruled out. After all, Saddam Hussein could have hardly anticipated that al-Qaeda would launch a massive attack on the U.S. homeland, much less that the U.S. would turn its guns upon him in response. Given this recent history, how can Iran be sure that it won’t be caught in the cross-fire if, for example, a group of Shi’a Bahrainis, angered by America’s support for the Sunni Monarchy in their country, attack the U.S. homeland?   

Some may find it preposterous that Iranian policy today is driven by what may or may not happen five or 10 years from now. But this ignores the nature of a nuclear weapons program. As Jacques Hymans explains: “The average timeline to the bomb for successful projects launched after 1970 was about 17 years” and “Iran’s nuclear weapons project is now a quarter-century old.” Thus, were Iran to wait to make substantial progress on its nuclear program until it was clear the U.S. was going to attack—or even clear the U.S. was debating the possibility—it will have waited too long.

The flip-side to this of course is that if Iranian leaders cannot be confident the U.S. won’t attack them in the future, the U.S. certainly cannot be sure the Iranians won’t one day, when circumstances are favorable to them, decide to kick out the UN inspectors and make a dash for the bomb. Thus, while reaching a nuclear agreement would be hugely positive, unless it is followed by a political solution to the U.S.-Iranian rivalry, it will always be unstable.

No need to take my word for it: the empirical record is quite clear on this point. Thus, to stave off a war in the early 1990s, the U.S. and North Korea worked out a technical solution to Pyongyang’s nuclear problem. Despite spotty compliance by both sides, throughout the rest of the Bill Clinton administration the U.S. and the DPRK made gradual progress toward resolving their long-standing rivalry.

But just when it seemed a fundamental change in the bilateral relationship was within reach, George W. Bush was elected U.S. president. In assuming the Oval Office he brought with him a team of advisors who were fierce critics of the so-called “Agreed Framework.” Far from following up on the recent progress in U.S.-DPRK relations, the Bush administration was soon placing Pyongyang on a short list of evil states in the world. It would invade one on that list soon thereafter.

Thus, once it had become clear that the U.S. had created a fiasco for itself in Iraq, North Korea manufactured a crisis, scuttled the Agreed Framework, and made haste toward a nuclear weapons capability. Overcommitted in Iraq, the U.S. could do little but stand by and watch as North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006.   

It’s not always the proliferating state that gets the last laugh however. Take the case of Libya. Impressed by the U.S. military’s quick overthrow of Saddam in 2003, and having made almost no progress in three decades on his nuclear program, Muammar Qaddafi decided to turn it over to the West. Although this gesture won him sanctions relief, a larger rapprochement between Libya and the West (or anyone else for that matter) never materialized.

Thus, when a domestic uprising took root in Benghazi, the West had no few qualms about serving as the rebels’ air force. This air support changed the course of the civil war. Not only was Qaddafi soon forced to flee the capital and his power, he then found his retreat from the rebel forces cut off by NATO sorties. Just hours after being paraded around for cameras as huge crowds of Libyans beat and spit on him, Qaddafi arrived at the hospital in rebel custody sporting a hole in the back of his head.

This week at the UN General Assembly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to use the North Korea example to argue against a nuclear deal with Iran. Even as he does, opponents of a deal in Tehran are likely using the Qaddafi example to try and persuade Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to not support a nuclear deal with the U.S.

They are both right that these cases must be taken into account but wrong in the lessons they draw from them. There are diplomatic solutions to nuclear problems; they just happen to be political, not technical, in nature.

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