Here's why the Iranian ship seizure won't derail the nuclear deal

U.S. Navy Riverine Patrol BoatsWikimedia CommonsUS Navy Riverine Patrol Boats, of the kind detained by Iran on Tuesday

Iran remains on an aggressive footing toward the US six months after the completion of the landmark Iran nuclear deal.

At the end of December, an Iranian war ship fired unguided missiles within 1,500 yards of a US aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran arrested US citizen and businessman Siamak Namazi in October and arrested a US green card holder the following month.

In November, Washington Post reporter and US citizen Jason Rezaian, who had been imprisoned in Iran was over a year, was secretly sentenced to a prison term of undisclosed length on espionage charges.

Finally, on Tuesday, two apparently disabled US Navy riverine patrol boats reportedly floated to Farsi Island, an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf. Iran seized the ships and 10 US personnel, then promised to release the vessel “promptly,” US officials said.

But despite the apparent escalation, one thing seems certain as fallout: The situation is unlikely to have any bearing on the implementation of the Iran deal, which is scheduled to take place later this month.

Like other nuclear arms-related agreements, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached between Iran and a US-led group of six world powers is predicated on the separation of nuclear proliferation from all other issues.

The JCPOA says nothing about Iranian behaviour in the Middle East or Iran’s strategic posture towards the agreement’s various parties. The thinking behind it is that the prevention of nuclear proliferation is of such overriding importance that it’s worth pursuing it on a separate track from other potentially complicating concerns.

This philosophy has underpinned several successful US non-proliferation efforts since the end of the Cold War.

The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, the landmark US-led effort to secure loose fissile material in four post-Soviet states, wasn’t conditioned on Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, or Kazakh cooperation in any other sphere. The agreed framework with North Korea did not require any North Korean action on any non-nuclear areas, even though it was signed on the cusp on a famine that would kill between 600,000 and 2.5 million people.

More recently, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and Russia, which entered into force in early 2011, is just about the only aspect of the US-Russian relationship unaffected by the crisis over Moscow’s aggressive policies in Ukraine.

The New START’s survival reveals the depths of the US’ and allies’ conviction that nuclear-proliferation issues can and should be considered separate of prevailing geopolitical factors. The treaty entails US and Russian inspection of each other’s nuclear arsenals in order to ensure compliance, which means that Russian weapons inspectors have visited US nuclear weapons facilities even after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.

The JCPOA operates on a similar premise. And the measurement of the deal’s success depends on whether Iran meets the agreement’s stockpile control benchmarks — not on whether it becomes a constructive global citizen.

And Iran has complied with the letter of the JCPOA so far, exporting nearly all of its fissile material, claiming to have modified the core of its heavy water reactor at Arak, and taking centrifuges offline.

The JCPOA assumes that nuclear proliferation is a matter of such overwhelming importance that it’s counterproductive to tie it to comparatively more mundane political or strategic questions.

At worst, this dis-aggregation sets the stage for nuclear blackmail: States realise that non-proliferation is such an outsized concern to the US and its partners that bad actors can extract concessions and gain dramatic freedom of action simply by threatening to go nuclear.

But in a best-case scenario, the separation reduces global nuclear tensions even in spite of mutual suspicion and even hostility.

If the Iran nuclear deal proceeds even in spite of Iranian hostility towards US citizens and military targets, it might lead policy-makers to eventually rethink the wisdom of such dis-aggregation, which has shown little proven ability to moderate Iran’s behaviour.

It hasn’t even gotten Iran to stop engaging in unhelpful behaviour within the nuclear sphere, as Tehran has stymied an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation into its nuclear weapons program and tested two nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in the months after the deal was reached.

And the idea might be thrown out altogether if Iran takes its newfound freedom of action as a signal to violate the JCPOA outright by flouting regulations that are, inevitably, non-binding under international law.

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