Withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty Is Iran’s Last Option
Late last month, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), Ali Shamkani, said that withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was 'one of the three options' Iran was considering in the case of US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. Other Iranian officials both on and off the record have given similar warnings, but they have not carried as much weight as the SNSC, the prime decision-making body over the nuclear dossier and national security matters.
Iran is no stranger to threatening to pull out of the NPT. Between 2004 and 2012, as the nuclear crisis gathered increased momentum, conservative and prominent figures in the Iranian political establishment regularly threatened withdrawal. A notable remark came from Ali Soltanieh, Iran’s former ambassador to the IAEA, who said in a statement to the Board of Governors, in 2012, that any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would lead it to withdraw from the NPT. Despite these tensions, Iran remained a party to the treaty (although it was not in compliance with its safeguards agreement with the IAEA).
Iran is less likely to exit the NPT now than it was before JCPOA was agreed, because doing so may isolate it. Tehran will seek to avoid this outcome now that it has the moral upper hand over the United States, following President Trump’s withdrawal from the accord. So, rather than clearly indicating intent to leave the treaty, the current statements should be read as rhetoric and posturing intended to stand up to President Trump’s opposition to the JCPOA.
Iran will instead opt for a measured and pragmatic response to US actions, depending on whether the Europeans deliver the economic benefits of the JCPOA. If they don’t, in the first instance, Iran may renege some of the quantitative provisions of the JCPOA—for example by installing more than the permitted number of 6401 centrifuges, and stockpiling uranium enrichment beyond the permitted 300 kilograms. So once more, we could return to the game of accumulating centrifuges on the one hand and sanctions on the other, as occurred between 2005 and 2014. During that period, Iran amassed 19000 centrifuges, and at the same time, a wide array of US, UN, and EU sanctions were imposed.
A second measure Tehran may take is to slow down or stop implementation of the Additional Protocol, as was agreed in the final 2015 accord. Under the Additional Protocol, Iran commits to provide the IAEA Complementary Access to nuclear and suspected nuclear facilities, as well as extensive information on all parts of its nuclear fuel cycle. If Iran halts these additional confidence-building measures, the international community would go back to having more limited oversight of Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran originally signed the Additional Protocol in 2003, but its Parliament never ratified it. Tehran implemented it voluntarily from 2003 to 2006, but suspended implementation after its dossier was referred to the UN Security Council. Today the vast majority of states (122), including Iran, have implemented the Additional Protocol; so, if Tehran stops implementation, it would be among a minority of states not playing ball. That would further limit the durability of the JCPOA, and place Iran further outside non-proliferation norms.
Another option would be for Iran to decrease the number of inspections and monitoring and verification measures by refusing access to key nuclear facilities and sites, and generally by playing all-too-familiar games with the IAEA. Up until 2013, Iran was slow in providing the UN agency with information and explanations about its nuclear program. But Iran may not go to the extremes of North Korea by fully expelling the inspectors. However, an ‘Iraq scenario’ is also possible, whereby the US would question the credibility of IAEA findings.
By this stage, and following in U.S. footsteps, Iran would have effectively withdrawn from the JCPOA in a series of incremental measures that would finish killing the deal. In refusing any changes to the accord, Iranian officials have stated that one of the options is to fully withdraw. This would inevitably involve an expansion of Iran’s nuclear activities, non-implementation of the Additional Protocol, reduced cooperation with the IAEA, all while remaining a member of the NPT. While the JCPOA was never a perfect solution, it was certainly better than no agreement at all.
Emma Scott is currently a Research Assistant with Project Alpha in the Centre for Science and Security Studies, War Studies Department Kings College London. She is also a Communications Assistant with the European Middle East Research Group, an Iran-focused group. Her work on Iran has featured in Europe’s World, Lobelog Foreign Policy, World Politics Reviews, and the Middle East Institute in Washington. She speaks intermediate Farsi.
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