October 15, 2015 | Monograph

Proliferation Fallout from the Iran Deal: The South Korean Case Study

FDD Press

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Report written by Soo Kim with a Foreword by Mark Dubowitz. 


The nuclear agreement with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), fails to achieve the stated goal of the P5+1: blocking all pathways to an Iranian nuclear bomb. Iran has merely agreed to certain limitations on its nuclear activities —a departure from the original U.S. policy goal of dismantling Iran’s illicit nuclear infrastructure. And even these modest restrictions are fatally flawed because they disappear over time. Iran, instead, will mothball certain equipment and reduce enriched uranium stockpiles for ten to fifteen years, after which Tehran can expand its nuclear activities and build an industrial-scale infrastructure powered by advanced, much more efficient centrifuges. As the United States and its partners dismantle the global sanctions regime, Iran can build greater economic resiliency against potential, future sanctions pressure.

The JCPOA will have long-ranging effects on the Middle East and on Iran’s ability to project power in an already unstable region. As the global arms embargo ends after five years and the ban on ballistic missile development disappears after eight, Iran’s military advancement will be unencumbered. Its terrorist proxies will likely benefit from greater access to Iranian cash and from Iran’s ability to legally purchase the best of Russian and Chinese heavy weaponry. A future U.S. president may find that sanctions are no longer available as an effective deterrent against Iranian nuclear weapons development or regional aggression, leaving U.S. military force as the only viable option.

Given the deeply-flawed nature of the JCPOA, it should come as no surprise that bipartisan majorities of both the House and Senate opposed the deal and that the American public overwhelming rejected it. Some members of Congress who ultimately decided not to vote against the deal did so after issuing lengthy—and anguished—statements outlining its shortcomings. Of these flaws, perhaps the most dramatic over the long term will be the impact of the Iran deal on the global nonproliferation regime.

The JCPOA reversed decades of U.S. and international policy of denying Iran the ability to enrich uranium domestically. Iran, in turn, claims that the JCPOA recognizes its “right” to enrich under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—despite U.S. claims to the contrary. Prior to the announcement of the JCPOA, 34 countries with civilian nuclear programs purchased nuclear fuel on the open market instead of engaging in domestic enrichment or repossessing. Only five countries (excluding Iran) with peaceful nuclear energy programs produced their own fuel. A decade from now, how many countries will have domestic enrichment or reprocessing capabilities? How will the proliferation of industrial-scale civilian nuclear programs—with many more countries on the threshold of nuclear weapons status—affect global security and stability?

In the following report, former CIA analyst and FDD National Security Fellow Soo Kim examines the South Korean nuclear program to assess how the Iran deal may have irreversibly undermined global nonproliferation standards. A strong U.S. ally, Seoul has nonetheless indicated its desire for enhanced nuclear capabilities, including the ability to produce nuclear fuel domestically. While South Korea’s primary motivations are related to domestic needs and regional security, the Iran nuclear deal—as well as other inconsistencies in U.S. nuclear policy—has provided Seoul with a predicate to push back against U.S. restrictions on expanded nuclear activity on the Korean peninsula. Indeed, as the report explains, the most recent round of negotiations on the U.S.-South Korean civilian nuclear cooperation agreement has already opened this door.

In the wake of the Iran deal, policymakers in Congress and in the Executive Branch need to grapple with the impact of the JCPOA on the spread of nuclear weapons. While the Middle East remains of deep concern, Northeast Asia is a potential tinderbox of nuclear proliferation given Chinese and North Korean nuclear weapons programs, not to mention Japanese threshold nuclear capability. That’s certainly how policymakers in Seoul view their security needs. This timely report provides useful policy recommendations to tackle this challenge and a particularly insightful appendix on who’s who in South Korea’s nuclear decision-making hierarchy. The report is a must-read for members of the arms control community, Congress, the Obama Administration, presidential campaigns, and anyone seeking to mitigate the impact of the Iran deal on global proliferation.

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