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The Iran Nuclear Deal Doesn't Change the Fact that Too Many Nukes Exist

The Doomsday Clock is still stuck at three minutes to midnight.

by Alix Jean-Pharuns
Jul 16 2015, 5:30pm

Image: Joe Klamar/Pool Photo via AP

A nuclear weapons deal with Iran has finally been signed, after months of negotiation. The agreement places heavy restrictions on Iran's ability to enrich uranium, the key component of making weapons-grade nuclear material. The White House is confident that Iran's ability to develop working nuclear weapons has been effectively stunted, but is the deal enough to turn back the Doomsday Clock?

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a nonprofit founded by former Manhattan Project scientists in 1945, is famous for its Doomsday Clock; a graphic that communicates how close human civilization is to disaster. In a chat with Motherboard, Sharon Squassoni, who directs the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in DC, explains why they probably won't be turning back the clock at all even in the wake of this Iranian deal.

"I'm not sure yet whether this is sufficient to move the clock back. Typically it takes more than one single agreement," she said. "I would argue that the current state of relations between the Unites States and Russia, coupled with all of the nuclear modernization programs, and climate change, and emerging technology... All of those things together were what prompted us to move the hands of the clock forward. I hope this is the start of greater collaboration in the Middle East, and even greater optimism about our ability to put in place restrictions that really work."

The deal calls for Iran to keep its concentration of enriched uranium below 3.67 percent, and to reduce the number of high-speed gas centrifuges down to 6,104, far below their current estimated number at around 19,000. Both limits would be held for 10 years, and the Obama Administration contends both are below what it would take for Iran to develop weapons-grade material. The deal comes with the added stipulation of constant International Atomic Energy Agency inspections for the next 15 years.

What happens after the time limits for inspections remain to be seen, but the agreement's proponents say two things are certain: Iran does not have a working bomb and these restrictions will make it harder for the country to gain one. Iran not becoming a nuclear power was a priority for the signatories of this agreement, and its ratification is a concrete step toward that goal. That's good news, but what about the rest of the world?

The ideal of nuclear disarmament is almost as old as nuclear weapons themselves, but in the last few years we've hit a stalemate. Getting all nine nuclear nations to come to an agreement about reducing the number of weapons has been long, slow work. Even getting Israel, the only nuclear state to not publicly discuss its nuclear arms, to openly admit it has weapons at all is difficult.

Nuclear weapons pose a threat with their very existence. The use of one, whether the consequence of a deliberate attack, a non-state force in an act of terrorism, or a terrible accident, has the potential to trigger an exchange In 2014 climate researchers estimated, with the use of a computer simulation, that even a "small" nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan of only 100 weapons would devastate the atmosphere globally. (Similar estimates date back to 1945.) There are around 15,700 nuclear weapons worldwide.

Patrick Morgan, a professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine, has called nuclear deterrence a form of "self-operated punishment activity." In other words, nuclear nations police the behavior of one another by entering agreements willingly, and threatening punishment should such agreements be broken. In Iran's case, crippling sanctions played a huge role in convincing the country to change its course of action. Such a pact is only viable so long as everyone plays along, however. If the threat of punishment isn't applied unilaterally, or if every nation doesn't agree to be subject to those punishments, it isn't binding.

That's the major stumbling block with nuclear disarmament right now. The two countries with the largest arsenals, the United States and Russia, aren't playing very nicely with each other. Russia's actions in Crimea have stained its reputation with its peers. With relations as terse as they've been since the 90s, neither country has much incentive to come to the table to continue a process that has seen progress in the recent past. As recently as 2010, the US and Russia signed The New START Treaty, which stipulated that the two countries meet certain arms reduction quotas by 2018. After that, the Doomsday Clock was pushed back to 6 minutes to midnight, twice as far as it sits now. Judging by how much the diplomatic relationship between Moscow and DC has deteriorated, enforcement of that deadline is in question. That's a huge problem.

"I would say right now we are at a stalemate," Squassoni said. "I think that President Obama's agenda relied on the engine of US-Russian collaboration, and given Russia's activities in Crimea, without US and Russian leadership together it's very hard to bring in the other nuclear weapon states. There have been pockets of progress… But the kinds of far-reaching collaboration that the US once had with Russia is gone. Even though we have a disagreement over implementation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, we can't even manage to sit down in the Special Verification Commission that we established under the Treaty. We have a mechanism to discuss our dispute. We're not even using it."

The sour relationship between the US and Russia puts the other nuclear nations in a weird position. Every other nuclear nation, with the exception of India, Pakistan, and Israel, were participants in the Iranian deal. Preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power was a priority for them, but reducing their own cache of weapons is not. They have no reason to reduce or to stop upgrading their own arsenals if the countries with the two biggest arsenals have stalled their feet in doing so. It's not as if nuclear war is likely any time soon, but for now, the Doomsday Clock will stay at three minutes to midnight.

Top image: Overview of a last plenary session of the talks on the Iranian nuclear program that was held at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria, Tuesday, July 14, 2015.