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What Can Argentina and Brazil Tell Us About Iran?

By Taylor Marvin

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1, March 30, 2015. State Department photo.

As the ongoing nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran enter their final stretch opposition to any potential deal is becoming more strident. Building on the efforts of Republican Senators and others wary of a nuclear deal, former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has a characteristic op-ed in the New York Times calling on the US to abandon the diplomatic process and attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure instead.

Despite the attention Bolton’s call for war has received, there isn’t much in his op-ed that hasn’t been heard before. Like other many arguments in favor of attacking Iran, Bolton doesn’t dwell on the immediate or longer-term consequences of strikes (see Robert Farley for this). More interesting is Bolton’s brief mention of previous American efforts to avoid nuclear proliferation.

Bolton attributes India, Pakistan, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons to American and Western “inattention.” But — despite warning that “Iran will not negotiate away its nuclear program” — he writes that sound policies have contributed to ending other states’ nuclear ambitions:

“Successive administrations, Democratic and Republican, worked hard, with varying success, to forestall or terminate efforts to acquire nuclear weapons by states as diverse as South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. Even where civilian nuclear reactors were tolerated, access to the rest of the nuclear fuel cycle was typically avoided. Everyone involved understood why.”

Bolton mentions these states’ nuclear programs to suggest that the Obama administration’s “increasingly frantic efforts” to negotiate with Iran are considering an unprecedented and dangerous concessions — continuing enrichment. Noting only that US policymakers “worked hard” to avoid nuclear proliferation gives Bolton leeway in these historical examples, but ultimately they are irrelevant to the negotiations with Iran.

South Korea and Taiwan benefit from US security guarantees, vastly reducing the security value of developing their own nuclear weapons. And since apartheid-era South Africa actually built a small number of nuclear weapons, only to abandon them before democratization, this example is only relevant if Bolton is arguing that the US should ignore the nuclear issue and instead focus on on Iranian human rights — something he clearly does not believe.

The South American example is occasionally mentioned in arguments favoring regime change as a means of blocking Iranian nuclear ambitions. (via Rob and j.r. hennessy). The history of Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs is not well known in the US. As Mitchell Reiss writes in Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities, these states pursued clandestine nuclear weapons programs under their military governments in the 1970s and 1980s. Driven by the their rivalry and a desire for prestige, these nuclear weapons programs were shuttered through mutual negotiation and agreements barring weapons but which allow civil and maritime propulsion nuclear activities. Today both countries generate a small portion of their electricity from nuclear power. Brazil is in the process of building a nuclear-powered attack submarine, enriches small amounts of low-enriched uranium (with European involvement), and is generally thought capable of producing nuclear arms in a few years if it chose to do so.

Bolton includes Argentina and Brazil to fill out an otherwise short list and argue that the US should not tolerate any Iranian nuclear enrichment. But the substantial differences between the Argentine and Brazilian nuclear programs and Iran’s make this comparison, even Bolton’s fleeting one, misguided.

First, both Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear weapons ambitions encountered substantial technical issues and had made little progress, which made it easier to negotiate an end to programs that were still far from success and not yet core national prestige projects. These negotiations also took place within the context of both countries’ returns to democracy, which undercut the military factions pushing for nuclear weapons and allowed civilian leaders more leeway to abandon the policies of the previous military governments. Barring a democratic revolution — which might not touch the nuclear issue, if enough Iranians outside the regime support the nuclear program — the dynamics of President Rouhani’s push to build regime support for a deal has little in common with Argentina and Brazil.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, who opposed the nuclear weapons program. Agência Brasil photo by Sergio Lima, via Wikimedia.

Secondly, again as Reiss writes, the peaceful end to Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs benefited from the United States’ distance from the negotiations. Both countries had refused to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which they viewed as a hypocritical double-standard that barred them from the same nuclear status the superpowers enjoyed. Aside from pushing controls on sensitive technologies (which slowed down Argentina and Brazil’s progress) and pressure to accept safeguards and oversight, America’s low commitment to the process probably encouraged cooperation. America’s leading role in the negotiations with Iran, however, must be reconciled with a revolutionary state which defines itself in opposition to the West.

Finally, negotiations to mutually end Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear programs was just one piece of the process of ending the two countries’ military and political rivalry. Despite Argentina’s war with the UK over the disputed Falklands Islands and its rivalry with Chile — which prompted the widespread mining of Chile’s long border and almost led to war in the late 1970s — Argentina and Brazil were each other’s greatest external rivals. While war between the two was always distant — Reiss titles his chapter “Rivals, Not Enemies” — both countries’ nuclear programs were fueled by the fear that the other would acquire these dangerous and prestigious weapons and the other would not. Aside from the general prestige of nuclear weapons, easing tensions and the return to democracy removed the security rational for nuclear arms.

Of course, none of this applies to Iran, which is surrounded by sectarian and political enemies. US lawmakers regularly threaten Iran, as do its Israeli and Gulf state allies whose actions the US may or may not control. This is a far more complex security situation than that facing Argentine and Brazil in the 1980s. Similarly, the mutual ratcheting down of tensions was critical to avoiding a South American nuclear arms race. As Reiss writes, the “Latin American example strong suggests that resolution, or at least amelioration, of outstanding political disagreements must precede cooperation in the nuclear sphere.” Since the US has little ability to improve relations between Iran and its rivals, this comparison is irrelevant. Bolton certainly has no interest in resolving the political conflicts between the US, its Sunni allies, and Iran.

It remains unclear whether Iran and the P5+1 will reach an agreement, or if Iran has any intention of actually following an accord which trades nuclear oversight in exchange for sanctions relief. It is also unknown if, unlike Argentina and Brazil, Iran’s substantial investment in its nuclear efforts and their importance in the state’s ideology of resistance will even allow it to reach an agreement. The Obama administration, the P5+1, and Iran are in new territory.

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