Amid heated debate over the risks and advantages of the Obama administration negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran, some of its potential secondary consequences have received less attention.
Any deal will likely allow the US-listed state sponsor of terrorism to operate several thousand uranium enrichment centrifuges. The agreement would place restrictions on Iran’s ability to accumulate uranium past a certain level of enrichment for a period of 10 years, temporarily cutting off Tehran’s path to a nuclear weapon and transforming relations between Iran and the US.
Critics worry that a deal would exchange existing the Obama administration’s leverage for a series of limited and non-binding commitments that wouldn’t even roll back Iran’s existing nuclear infrastructure.
But there could be second-order consequences to even a successful agreement. If neighbouring countries believe that Iran will exploit a deal’s various shortcomings or ambiguities, they may build up their own nuclear capabilities to counter a country that many Middle Eastern states believe to be an expansionist, revisionist power hostile to the region’s existing order.
And that could have implications even beyond the Middle East. As the Wall Street Journal reported on March 12, South Korea has entered into a $US2 billion nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia, which includes “a plan to study the feasibility of building two nuclear reactors … in the Arab country over the next 20 years, according to Saudi state media.”
Saudi Arabia’s choice of partner shows just how the nuclear aspirations of Middle Eastern states could complicate American diplomacy around the world. Since 2010, South Korea and the US have been negotiating the terms of their nuclear cooperation. Under a deal signed that year, the US provides various forms of civilian nuclear assistance in exchange for Seoul’s promises that the country won’t develop an indigenous uranium enrichment capability.
That agreement expires in March of 2016 and has been under strain in recent years. In the early 2000s, North Korea pulled out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and began illegally enriching uranium. Some in South Korea have long wanted the country to develop its own enrichment capability, partly in order to punish North Korea for breaking its promise not to introduce enrichment to the Korean peninsula.
But the US and South Korea are close allies, and Seoul is a democratic country firmly in the international mainstream. South Korea isn’t going to just break its agreement with a major ally, and it hasn’t had problems purchasing enriched uranium on the open market. The US prohibition on South Korean enrichment has held.
Still, Middle Eastern regimes’ emerging desire for nuclear technology could provide an opportunity for Seoul to establish itself as a global leader in nuclear energy. And Saudi Arabia is a logical partner.
“Saudi Arabia has very big nuclear power ambitions,” Mark Hibbs, an expert in nuclear policy at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace explained to Business Insider by email, citing the Middle Eastern country’s growing population and energy needs. “So they have made clear that in principle they want to build a dozen or so power reactors. They could succeed in this, but the questions are how fast and with whom do they partner. They don’t have any nuclear power technology and few nuclear experts, so they are looking to set up as many cooperation relationships with nuclear vendor states as they can.”
Saudi Arabia is also in discussions with the US, France, and Japan, Hibbs says. He’s optimistic that cooperation between South Korea and Saudi Arabia won’t lead to the kind of technological proliferation that worries US policymakers.
“I would not count on Korea launching any initiative with Saudi Arabia concerning nuclear fuel cycle matters in particular given that the US does not want more countries in the Middle East to enrich uranium,” Hibbs adds.
Hibbs also doesn’t think that a nuclear agreement that allows Iran to enrich uranium will lead to any unpredictable changes in South Korea’s behaviour. “The United States wants to discourage all countries from embarking on uranium enrichment programs, including South Korea, but the Koreans know that enrichment in Iran began as a clandestine program which Washington was not able to roll back to zero in multilateral negotiations,” he told Business Insider, adding that the Koreans have long understood that the US would leave Iran with enrichment capabilities under a final deal.
Still, Hibbs expects the US and South Korea to deal with their own outstanding enrichment issues in the final version of their bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, which is being negotiated at the same time as the Iran deal. South Korea could also have its enrichment capabilities enabled through diplomacy with the US — at the same time that Iran’s own program is recognised and Middle Eastern governments are seeking nuclear assistance from Seoul.
It’s a potentially tricky balance of interests. Countries all around the world want to build up their nuclear capabilities and prestige. The US has successfully managed their ambitions so far. But even a successful nuclear deal with Iran could change the landscape in ways that might be hard to envision in today’s world: As the Journal notes, experts and diplomats are seriously believe that a nuclear-armed Iran would convince Pakistan to sell the Saudis a nuclear weapon.
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