The Iran nuclear deal isn’t so great — for Iran
Our study examines both the potential benefits and costs of nuclear latency. We studied the effect of latency on political, economic and military outcomes, using the Nuclear Latency (NL) dataset. This dataset examines every state that possessed either enrichment or reprocessing facilities in a given year, during the 1945-to-2012 period. The data includes 32 countries, including Iran and North Korea as well as states like Sweden and Japan.
We explore the association between nuclear latency and international benefits such as military assistance, as well as trade benefits and economic aid. And we look at the potential costs, including the likelihood of sanctions. We also examine whether nuclear latency brings about certain military benefits including deterring attacks and successfully compelling adversaries to achieve political aims.
Here’s what we found: States with latency get little bang from their latent capabilities. Latent states may be emboldened to pursue their goals more aggressively. But when these states take risks and actually start a crisis, latency doesn’t help compel adversaries to concede. Additionally, the deterrence claim is not supported — we see little evidence that states with nuclear latency are any less likely to be attacked.
Further, states may actually pay more direct costs for staying latent. They are less likely to receive economic benefits, such as economic and/or military aid. In fact, they may feel the brunt of economic sanctions for their possession of nascent nuclear capabilities.
What did latency mean for Iran?
Our research suggests that states on average suffer more burdens than benefits once they acquire nuclear latency. This is consistent with Iran’s recent experience, once its latent status was uncovered in 2002. Iran saw punishing rounds of economic sanctions, threats of military force and political isolation, an oil embargo, and attacks aimed at delaying its nuclear production (Stuxnet).
The Iranian case thus far confirms the expectations of our analysis: Iran gets no major security or bargaining advantages by retaining some nuclear capabilities under the terms of the JCPOA. Indeed, Iran is arguably worse off now for having historically pursued enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, given the bite of the sanctions regime (and the international isolation). Concerns that Iran may be benefiting from the JCPOA’s retention of its nuclear latency are overblown.
There’s one small benefit, it seems. To date, the JCPOA has reduced the likelihood of military force against the Islamic Republic of Iran. But if the United States scuttles the deal and starts making public threats about taking preventive military options, the net effect may be to drive Iran to restart its nuclear weapons program.
The long-term merits of the JCPOA cannot yet be known — but it seems a safe bet that pulling out of the deal would likely push Iran toward developing a nuclear weapon, what the deal was meant to prevent in the first place.
But given that latency is fundamental to the ultimate acquisition of weapons, we cannot overlook the possibility that Iran might one day surpass latency to becoming weapons-capable. If there are renewed threats of military force and sanctions, Iran may seek to cut its latency losses and reap the benefits of being a full-fledged nuclear state.
Rupal N. Mehta is an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (@Rupal_N_Mehta).
Rachel Elizabeth Whitlark is an assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology (@RachelWhitlark).