The Uses of Nuclear Ambitions -Ana Palacio

Read Time:4 Minute, 25 Second – The agreement reached in Geneva in the wee hours of November 24 between
Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security
Council, plus Germany) on Iran’s nuclear program proves a crucially important point:
the sanctions regime worked. The interim deal is Iran’s first compromise on its
nuclear program in more than a decade, and a diplomatic victory in a field long
overshadowed by the looming cloud of military intervention. Yet the euphoric
reaction seen in some quarters is misplaced.

Beyond the ambiguities and limitations of the six-month agreement, the negotiations
have clearly exposed Iran’s nuclear-weapons program and, more broadly, its
understanding that nuclear weapons remain a geostrategic status symbol. This points
to the difficulty of achieving a comprehensive agreement and the possibility that
the international effort could result only in a series of small deals aimed at
delaying Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon rather than removing the threat of
it altogether.

Beneath the headlines of the historic deal lies a limited and ambiguous agreement.
The joint statement released by European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton
and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif referred to the agreement as “a joint plan
of action” that “sets out an approach toward reaching a long-term comprehensive
solution.” While it includes a first step that “creates the time and environment
needed for a comprehensive solution,” the interim accord is really about
confidence-building measures. Indeed, the obligations that it lists are referred to
as “voluntary measures.”

At best, the agreement maintains the current status quo, and in some respects even
allows for further development of Iran’s nuclear program. In this sense, perhaps the
most troubling aspect of the interim deal concerns Iran’s yet-to-be-opened Arak
plant, which would offer a path to domestic plutonium production and weaponization.

Though the agreement reached in Geneva includes Iran’s pledge not to transfer fuel
or heavy water or commission its Arak reactor, there does not appear to be any
overarching moratorium on construction at the site. According to the International
Atomic Energy Agency, the Arak plant still lacks several major reactor components,
such as control-room equipment and cooling pumps. So, Iran, it seems, will be able
to advance its plutonium program during the six-month confidence-building period.
That loophole is all the more troubling in light of French press reports this week
concerning Western intelligence on the construction of facilities in Shiraz that may
be used to separate plutonium in order to create the fissile material needed for
nuclear weapons.

That Iran’s push to acquire the capacity to produce nuclear weapons is partly
motivated by security concerns cannot be denied. Nationalism, however, is a more
important factor. It is not just that all the great powers have nuclear weapons; the
problem, from Iran’s perspective, is that lesser powers – particularly neighboring
states such as Pakistan and Israel – have them. The Iranians regard themselves as
the heirs to a great and ancient civilization, and their ambition of achieving
regional preeminence reflects this. At the same time, they perceive their country to
be marginalized, discriminated against, and the target of aggressive international

Nearly 70 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the view persists
globally that gaining a seat at the grownup table of geopolitics requires nuclear
weapons. Germany is an exception, though hardly a geostrategic heavyweight; and
though Japan knows the horror of nuclear war, important domestic voices there are
calling for a change of its non-nuclear status.

This view of nuclear weapons as a shorthand for national greatness is reinforced by
the architecture of the non-proliferation regime, which firmly divides states into
two camps: nuclear haves and have-nots. That nuclear chauvinism is an attitude
reinforced by the “haves” of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – China, France,
Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – which also constitute the P5. As
long as possessing nuclear weapons remains a state’s clearest way to demonstrate its
bona fides as a great power, maintaining the potential to develop such weapons will
be too tempting for countries like Iran to forswear.

What is needed is a global shift away from the equation of nuclear weapons with
geopolitical greatness. Progress on various efforts to sever this link have not been
very encouraging, as was recently demonstrated by the Kremlin’s negative reaction to
US President Barack Obama’s proposal that both sides cut their nuclear stockpiles.
Meanwhile, non-P5 nuclear-weapons states continue to expand their arsenals, with
Pakistan and India estimated to have nearly tripled their stockpiles during the past

The interim agreement with Iran marks an important juncture. Above all, it shows
that international sanctions can bear fruit, and that a diplomatic way forward –
even if proves to be a narrow one – is possible. We can remain both ambitious and
realistic. But a comprehensive deal with Iran – and the need to preempt future
epigones – requires a broader change: a world that not only excludes the offensive
use of nuclear weapons but also acknowledges the ultimate unsustainability of their
deterrent power.

Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President
of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State.

Project Syndicate,

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