Will U.S. Sanctions Snapback Force Iran Out of the NPT?

As U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook made clear in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, if the United States fails to secure an extension to the arms embargo against Iran that expires in October, it is willing to try and force the reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran. This so-called “snapback” measure would also dissolve the Iran nuclear deal. Setting aside questions over the legality of such an attempt, it is simply bad policy. It is unlikely to do much to achieve its stated goal of preventing Iranian conventional arms purchases (already a relatively low risk). It will deepen the rift between the United States and Europe. It will undermine the credibility of the United States and the Security Council. And it will facilitate the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program.

Missing from Mr. Hook’s analysis is any serious consideration of these risks or the potential Iranian reaction. This is short-sighted: Iran might not get a “vote” at the UN Security Council, but it certainly gets to respond. On this front, Iran has threatened its own “nuclear option” if UN sanctions are reimposed: Abandon the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This would pave the way (legally, at least) for Iran to produce nuclear weapons. Iran would be only the second country to ever withdraw from the NPT, the other being North Korea.

If only because of the potential game-changing implications of this Iranian reaction, this scenario requires further examination. At least four issues stand out as relevant for consideration when trying to predict, understand, and plan for such an outcome.

First is the question of likelihood: Would Iran actually leave the NPT? Iranian politicians have periodically made this threat going back many years. The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council floated this possibility in 2018 prior to the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Yet the United States left the nuclear deal, and Iran remained in the NPT. There is also a certain degree of political theater at work in these statements: Iranian foreign minister Zarif made his threats in January of this year in front of Iranian lawmakers.

The current threats are likely primarily intended to deter the snapback of sanctions. But that doesn’t mean we should treat these as empty threats. While it is hard to know exactly how much sway advocates of NPT withdrawal have within Iran, Tehran probably hasn’t decided whether it would take this step, and it likely won’t do so until after a snapback is triggered. Moreover, Iran wouldn’t need to make this decision immediately: It can wait. No doubt, Russian, Chinese, and European reactions to the snapback will matter. If Tehran believes the United States is diplomatically isolated and that other parties have no intent to actually honor the snapback, Tehran could easily choose to maintain the diplomatic high ground and remain in the treaty.

Second, what is alarming about possible Iranian withdrawal in the near term is not so much that it would be legally free to produce nuclear weapons, but the risk that the international community would be “flying blind” without inspectors on the ground to monitor Iran’s program. But it is important to remember that while NPT withdrawal could mean the removal of international inspectors, it doesn’t have to. The more important document that governs what International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors can do is known as a safeguards agreement, signed between the agency and the country accepting the monitoring. While the NPT and safeguards are closely related, being an NPT signatory is not inherently required for inspectors to have on-the-ground access. Indeed, Israel, India, and Pakistan—three countries that have not signed the NPT—have safeguards arrangements with the IAEA (although more limited in scope than most other countries).

This provides an opening for the United States and the international community. Iran could choose to withdraw from the NPT to satisfy domestic imperatives while allowing inspectors to continue to have access to Iranian facilities. This would help provide the international community with some confidence—albeit, perhaps less than it has now—that Iran is not moving to produce nuclear weapons, despite having the legal ability to do so. Presuming Iran isn’t building nuclear weapons, providing such access would be in Tehran’s interests to avoid escalation. It is beyond the scope of this analysis to assess what, if any, changes would need to be made to Iran’s existing safeguards arrangements with the IAEA to allow inspections to continue, but the bottom line is that NPT withdrawal need not mean an end to inspections.

Third, Iran’s withdrawal from the NPT would not be immediate. Under the terms of the treaty, Iran is required to give three months’ notice. Of course, like North Korea, Iran could simply ignore this requirement. But doing so would fuel suspicions that Iran was dashing to a weapon and up the chances of a military strike. It is, therefore, likely that an extended period of negotiation could play out during which Russia, China, and Europe attempt to persuade Tehran to remain in the treaty. Although a somewhat risky strategy, Iran could attempt to extract benefits and leverage from having declared its intent to leave the NPT but being somewhere short of actual abandonment. Here again, what other parties are prepared to offer Iran—or what type of penalties they are prepared to put in place—will influence Iran’s decision. This buys time for a diplomatic solution, but it leaves an extended period of uncertainty and crisis in place.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, withdrawing from the NPT does not mean that Iran has decided to produce nuclear weapons. For the reasons detailed above, Tehran’s departure from the treaty would primarily be a political statement. Let’s be honest: the legal restrictions against nuclear weapons development in the NPT matter, but they are not the primary barrier between Iran and the bomb. Rather, it is Tehran’s belief that trying to build a weapon would be detected (or assumed, if Tehran bars inspectors), result in a military response, and therefore fail. Withdrawing from the NPT would not change any of these basic facts.

However, by lowering the political barriers to nuclear weapons, NPT withdrawal does increase the odds that Iran might choose to develop nuclear weapons in the future. Without the NPT, nuclear weapons advocates in Iran would have a powerful case to make that Tehran faces fewer constraints and repercussions, and Iran’s nuclear intent can change. A new Supreme Leader could have a different calculus when it comes to the risks and benefits of nuclear weapons. In addition, decreased international monitoring over a period of time and the absence of enhanced measures included under the JCPOA, such as the Additional Protocol, might tempt Tehran to engage in covert work believing that it could get away with it undetected.

A decision by the United States to invoke the snapback provision would be a strategic error. It would come with a range of negative consequences, few benefits, and kick the current crisis between the United States and Iran into overdrive. But even if Iran decides to leave the NPT, there is a decent chance that an arrangement can be found that allows the international community to retain sufficient confidence that Iran isn’t dashing for a bomb. The real risk lies in the potential for future weaponization by Iran, and the precedent that this saga would set for future proliferators and managing proliferation risk. It is not desirable for countries to believe they can illicitly acquire nuclear capabilities and leave the treaty free to produce nuclear weapons. But nor is it desirable for future proliferators to conclude that engaging in diplomacy is futile because, at the end of the day, the United States is unwilling to hold up its end of the bargain.

Eric Brewer is deputy director and senior fellow with the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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