Thursday, November 22, 2007
Iran's Parallel Nuclear Track
The other day I flagged a story about Iran's ambassador to Syria offering Iran's assistance in developing a civil nuclear program, mainly because the remark seemed comically ill-timed. But today I ran across another story in the Iranian press reporting that Iran has offered its assistance to Egypt in the aftermath of Cairo's announcement that it would be seeking to develop a civil nuclear program. And yesterday, also, Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and head of its National Security Council, formulated an Iranian nuclear cooperation policy based on "...opposition to weapons of mass destruction, preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons as well as peaceful use of nuclear energy..."
If these articles are any indication, Iran is actually serious about becoming a regional supplier of civil nuclear technology. This would be a significant and destabilizing development, and not just because Iran's own civil program is not in compliance with the NPT according to the IAEA's latest report. As things stand, a country needs to be a member of the 44-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group in order to share nuclear material and technology under the auspices of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. And the chances of the US allowing Iran to accede to the group are somewhere between none and zero.
Which suggests that Tehran is testing the waters for introducing a parallel nuclear non-proliferation regime. It's actually a pretty cagey move. By offering to help the rest of the region develop nuclear capability, it assuages the fears that the Iranian program has raised among its rivals. And by presenting the image of a self-sufficient Muslim nuclear cooperation network, it appeals to regional pride.
I'm speculating as to Iran's intentions, and what's more, I don't think it's very probable that anything will come of its proposals. But the scenario raises the question of how to keep the nuclear non-proliferation dam from breaking should the psychological barriers to dual use nuclear proliferation fail. Already, three of the four nuclear states that remain outside the NPT (Pakistan, Israel and N. Korea) have at one time or another engaged in covert proliferation. As India emerges as a global power, it's only natural that it will begin to feel unfairly constrained by its nuclear pariah status, especially as the fierce industrial competition for civil nuclear contracts heats up.
Eventually, the constraining logic of the NPT will be called into question by enough states so as to challenge its legitimacy. And if we want to have any hope of keeping the nuclear genie in the lamp for the next half-century, we'd better have a revamped system that takes into account the changed realities of the nuclear landscape before that happens.