Despite progress on Iran, we still live in a dangerous nuclear world

High hopes. EPA/Ronald Zak

After more than a decade of precarious wrangling and last-minute diplomatic squeakers, there has at last been some actual progress on Iran’s nuclear programme.

After pushing through their March 31 deadline, Iran and the P5+1 negotiators at last secured the framework for the future or Iran’s nuclear research programme – a plan that many thought they would never be able to construct.

Some responded to the deal with renewed hope for an era of negotiated nuclear disarmament around the world and a major thaw in Western-Iranian relations. For others, especially hawks in the US and Israel, the deal is a potential disaster, a huge concession to a militaristic regime without proper safeguards that puts regional and global stability at stake.

Both these worldviews misread the deal. The negotiations have been invested with symbolic importance out of proportion to their actual impact, so it’s worth reminding ourselves of what they were really about.

Get in line

At its core, this is first and foremost an attempt to enforce the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory. The problem is that the NPT is a complex beast, with three main components that are not necessarily compatible.

It is principally designed to ensure disarmament among the P5+1’s nuclear powers – the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom. On top of that, it is meant to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to the have-nots that have signed it. But it also explicitly allows the “peaceful” uses of nuclear energy, and this is what Iran has always claimed to be pursuing.

Ask any nuclear physicist and they’ll tell you this does not matter: nuclear energy is, in principle, always dual use.This purely rhetorical distinction between peaceful and military uses of nuclear energy goes back to a Cold War propaganda ploy by US president, Dwight D Eisenhower.

It was Eisenhower who introduced the distinction we now take for granted in his “Atoms for Peace” speech at the United Nations in December 1953.

He wanted to show the world that the US was not in the business of destruction. He wanted to show that the United States, its allies and “the peaceful atom” were on the side of progress.

Nuclear energy, freed from its association with weapons, became the must-have item for any modern country. West Germany in particular, liked the idea; separated from the stigma of weapons of mass destruction, embracing nuclear energy offered a chance to reconstruct while repudiating the nation’s militarist and Nazi past.

As a result, West Germany became one of the key framers of the current NPT arrangement in 1968.

Ignore the ideological, geographical and economic differences and Iran’s position today looks structurally very similar to post-war West Germany’s: loudly proclaiming that it has only good intentions, but doomed to be met with the deepest suspicion.

The problem is that we in the West have forgotten the national pride that was attached to nuclear energy in the 1960s and 1970s. Iran still feels that pride; it still lives in the world for which the NPT was created. But Iran cannot outsource its national security in the way that West Germany did.

Wake up

If a detailed binding agreement can be locked down in the coming months, it will be a great success for classic diplomatic haggling and will open an avenue to engage fully with Iran on matters beyond the nuclear issue. But it is unlikely to have immediate follow-on effects for global nuclear disarmament.

Because Iran never formally left the NPT regime, it implicitly accepted the principle behind the legal consequences it suffered. The real problem is with the countries that have not signed up to the NPT, North Korea most prominent among them. More frightening still, no non-state actor intent on procuring a nuclear device will care about a treaty first signed five decades ago.

World public opinion has focused on the tense Iran negotiations, but in the process, we’ve pushed a bigger problem down the road. We have forgotten that we still do live in a nuclear age. And we badly need to wake up if we want to head off the problems that lie ahead – which may not have obvious diplomatic solutions.

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