29 June 2015
Those concerned about Iran’s remaining capabilities following a nuclear deal should remember that nuclear hedging and nuclear restraint are inextricably linked.
Patricia Lewis

Dr Patricia Lewis

Research Director, International Security


A South African RSA-3 LEO Rocket, one of the missiles intended to be used in the country's nuclear arsenal, on display in a museum in Pretoria. Photo by Rute Martins/Leoa's Photography. CC by-SA 3.0.
A South African RSA-3 LEO Rocket, one of the missiles intended to be used in the country's nuclear arsenal, on display in a museum in Pretoria. Photo by Rute Martins/Leoa's Photography. CC by-SA 3.0.


Whatever the outcome of the nuclear negotiations due to be finalized this week, it is important to remember that Iran will retain the technical capability to develop nuclear weapons for some considerable time to come.  This ’freeze and rollback’ period is seen by some, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, as a concern, but could actually be useful in enabling a genuine approach to building trust with Iran.

Two sides of the same coin

Nuclear rollback can take place in many different ways. It can be enforced – as in the case of Iraq in the 1990s – or can be brought about due to significant political change and domestic support – such as in South Africa and Brazil.

One deliberate strategy is nuclear hedging, which is to explore and develop a nuclear weapons capability without actually crossing the weaponization line until there is a decision to do so for political or security reasons – whether that decision is made public or kept secret. Nuclear hedging can be characterized as a form of nuclear weapons capability that stays just short of illicit.

An alternative approach is nuclear restraint, in which a nuclear weapons capability is kept in check and restraints are communicated publicly. Nuclear restraint measures could include decisions, for example, to restrain the degree of uranium enrichment, or to not conduct a nuclear weapons test, deploy nuclear warheads or separate plutonium. Such communicated restraint is designed to demonstrate good will and a desire to be seen a responsible player in the nuclear realm.

Israeli scholar Ariel Levite noted (in the 2002 International Security article ‘Never Say Never Again’) that nuclear restraint and nuclear hedging are inextricably linked, and could even be thought of as two sides of the same coin. 

A history of restraint

Nuclear restraint has been employed throughout the history of nuclear weapons development in many countries and in many guises. Indeed, nuclear restraint is part of a hedging strategy and a hedging strategy is part of nuclear restraint.

During the long periods of decision-making on which direction to take, most countries that eventually decided against nuclear weapons kept restrained capabilities for years as an insurance policy. Allowing for some restrained nuclear hedging during the rollback period provides the cover that politicians often need to demonstrate that they are playing their cards well and that they will not be made to look naive or foolish.  

For example, while South Africa acceded to the NPT and participated in IAEA inspections from 1991, it did not publicly announce the existence of the nuclear weapons programme and its subsequent dismantlement until March 1993. In those two years, South Africa had the opportunity, materials and brainpower to reverse its decision to dismantle should it have wanted.

Similarly, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brazil developed a full uranium fuel cycle, produced uranium enriched to levels below 20 per cent and had the technical capability to have gone down the weapons route. The army, navy and air force each had active nuclear research programmes − there were even preparations for a nuclear test. By 1991 however, the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials (ABACC) was created and Brazil renounced all interest in nuclear weapons.  Few today would accuse Brazil of an active nuclear weapons programme and yet the materials, the technologies and nuclear knowledge are still in place. What have changed are the political relationships and the large, sustained degree of nuclear transparency in the region.

But perhaps one of the greatest examples of restraint in the development, production and deployment of weapons of mass destruction is to be found in Iran itself.

Throughout the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, Iraq deployed and used chemical weapons against Iran.  It is estimated that between 50,000-100,000 Iranians suffered from the chemical weapons attacks, with many still suffering today. Iran developed a chemical weapons capability towards the end of the eight year war but ‘following the establishment of [the] cease fire, the decision to develop chemical weapons capabilities was reversed and the process was terminated.’ Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini then pronounced a fatwa against the production and use of chemical weapons in retaliation against Saddam Hussein’s forces. In such circumstances there are few countries that would have shown that kind of restraint.

The lesson is rollback and restraint is possible and realistic. There is no genie to be squashed back into a bottle. Indeed, even under a deal, Iran will be left with the ability and the right to enrich uranium to less than five per cent and its ability to do so will be supported through IAEA inspections and other confidence-building measures.

Iran has shown that it can restrain itself in the chemical weapons domain. It should at least be given the opportunity to demonstrate the same in the nuclear realm.

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