If there is one thing on which Democrats and Republicans can agree, it is that it is undesirable for countries other than the United States to possess nuclear weapons. For this reason, America’s nonproliferation policy has traditionally been characterized by strong bipartisanship. It is notable, therefore, that support for the recently negotiated Iran deal splits along party lines. But on closer inspection, what is truly puzzling is that anyone supports the agreement at all. In striking this deal, the Obama administration abandoned a decades-old mainstay of U.S. nonproliferation policy, and opponents are right to reject it. The United States has always opposed the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies—uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing—to all states, including its own allies, and it is a mistake to make an exception for Iran.
From the beginning of the atomic era, American scientists understood that these sensitive nuclear technologies could be used to make fuel for nuclear energy or for nuclear weapons, and the United States immediately began working to close off this pathway to the bomb. The McMahon Act of 1946 made it illegal for the United States to share nuclear technologies with any country. Even countries like Britain and Canada that had helped America invent the bomb during the Manhattan Project were cut off.
Later, under President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, the United States loosened restrictions on nuclear cooperation somewhat, but it always drew a bright line at uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing because the risk of proliferation was simply too great.
When other advanced industrial countries succeeded in developing sensitive nuclear technologies and, in some cases, the bomb without American help, Washington came to understand that international coordination was needed. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was opened for signature in 1968, and when India conducted a nuclear test using plutonium reprocessed from a Canadian-supplied nuclear reactor in 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger convened other nuclear powers to establish the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a cartel designed to restrict the international transfer of sensitive nuclear technologies.
These controls have mostly proved effective, but when they were insufficient, the United States went on the offensive to stop the spread of sensitive nuclear technologies on a case-by-case basis. It even played hardball with friends, forcing Taiwan and South Korea to shut down reprocessing programs in the 1970s and convincing France to cancel the sale of a reprocessing plant to Pakistan in 1978. As one Taiwanese scientist remarked at the time, “After the Americans got through with us, we wouldn’t have been able to teach physics here on Taiwan.”
To be sure, Washington has been willing to barter with outlaw states over illegal nuclear programs in the past, but its terms remained clear and uncompromising: Sensitive nuclear technologies are not allowed. The 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea permitted light-water nuclear reactors, but not plutonium reprocessing. When it became clear that Pyongyang had been cheating on the deal from day one by secretly enriching uranium, Washington sought to shut that program down, demanding nothing less than “complete, verifiable, and irreversible disarmament.”
In an agreement with Libya in 2003, a textbook example of successful nuclear diplomacy, U.S. military aircraft transferred over 55,000 pounds of nuclear equipment out of the country, including its stockpile of centrifuges and centrifuge parts, within weeks of concluding the deal.
Washington’s unbending position on sensitive technologies always sat in uneasy tension with the “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear technology granted in Article IV of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but when a superpower is willing to enforce its interpretation of international law, it can, and in this instance did, have a profound effect.
This history helps explain why, when the existence of Iran’s covert nuclear program came to light in 2003, the United States immediately and reflexively declared that Iran would not be permitted to enrich uranium. It was not an unreasonable or unexpected demand; it was simply a restatement of U.S. nonproliferation policy over the past half-century.
The international community understood America’s position and slowly climbed on board, demanding that Iran suspend enrichment in six separate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The P5+1 resolutely held this line for nearly a decade as the pressure began to mount on Iran, but then, suddenly, the Obama administration abandoned this cornerstone of American foreign policy.