Will Iran Follow North Korea’s Path and Ditch the NPT?

As tensions escalate, Iran’s leadership appears to be considering withdrawing from the global nonproliferation framework entirely.

An Iranian flag flies in front of the Bushehr nuclear power plant during an official ceremony to kick-start work on a second reactor at the facility on Nov. 10, 2019.
An Iranian flag flies in front of the Bushehr nuclear power plant during an official ceremony to kick-start work on a second reactor at the facility on Nov. 10, 2019. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran has recently pushed each side into a series of escalatory moves and countermoves. Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, his administration has hoped that Iran would eventually relent and make concessions on its nuclear program, missile development, and regional activities, but it seems increasingly likely that Iran may instead decide that its best path forward is to follow North Korea’s example and withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), long considered the global cornerstone for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. (Three years after pulling out in 2003, North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon.)

The mainstream view in Iran until recently was that withdrawing from the NPT would bring further diplomatic isolation, lead to increased sanctions, and court a U.S. military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Therefore, it would be counterproductive to Tehran’s larger aspirations of regional leadership and reintegration into the international community. But recent events have caused Tehran to reevaluate those ambitions, as they seem increasingly far-fetched. In the past year, the prospect of withdrawing from the NPT has transformed from a fringe idea among hard-liners in Iran into a real policy option that resonates with a surprisingly large spectrum of Iranian society.

Iran still maintains that it does not seek nuclear weapons, but as the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed on March 3, Iran has nearly tripled its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to 1,021 kilograms (1.1 tons) since November 2019. This amount, if further enriched, would be enough for a nuclear bomb, if Iran decided to cross the line.

It hasn’t helped that diplomatic relations between Iran and the other parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have rapidly deteriorated. Since May 2019 Iran has scaled back on its commitments, and on Jan. 5, it announced it would no longer abide by the operational restrictions on the low-enriched uranium stockpile, enrichment capacity, percentage of enrichment, amount of enriched material, and research and development.

In response, three of the remaining parties to the accord—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (known as the E3)—triggered the deal’s dispute resolution mechanism. Iran takes issue with this, arguing that it already triggered the mechanism itself after the United States pulled out of the deal in 2018. The E3 and the European Union disagree and have been trying, with middling success, to persuade Russia and China to side with them on the matter.

This measure—if all steps are exhausted—could ultimately refer Iranian noncompliance to the U.N. Security Council and trigger the snapback of U.N. sanctions within weeks. However, as long as no party declares that Iran has not taken steps to resolve the dispute, it can remain bottled up indefinitely in the Joint Commission, the body charged with overseeing the accord. Since Iran has not taken further provocative steps, such as enriching to 20 percent, the other parties seem content to kick the can down the road.

This is for the best. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has stated that if U.N. Security Council sanctions are reimposed, Iran may exit not merely the nuclear deal but also the NPT. It is not just the prospect of U.N. economic sanctions that upsets Iranians, but the notion of again falling under provisions of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which allows the Security Council to take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security.”

The idea of withdrawing from the NPT is not new, but is now being discussed widely in moderate circles, including by the speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani. This turn in strategic thinking is due to the ramping up of U.S. sanctions, particularly on oil sales and what Iran sees as the failure of other parties to provide sanctions relief promised under the deal. Under these circumstances, Iranians increasingly believe they have nothing to gain from the deal and little more to lose by going rogue—since their country is already being treated as an outcast. The heightened tensions with Washington and the increasing possibility of conflict add to Iranians’ sense that the cards are stacked against them no matter what.

To the Iranian government, U.S. pressure could potentially become an existential threat to its survival.

Iran’s strategy since 2003 can best be described as nuclear hedging: The country has been developing nuclear capabilities in order to maintain the option of building a weapon in the future should it decide to do so, while also downplaying and sidestepping international opposition in order to build negotiating leverage. However, the heavy toll from Trump’s efforts since 2018 to deprive Iran of oil revenues appears to be changing Iran’s cost-benefit calculus.

Its economy shrank by 9.5 percent last year and is projected to remain flat in the coming year. Foreign investment has declined and oil exports have dropped dramatically. Iran’s currency, the rial, has deeply depreciated and inflation has risen dramatically, increasing the cost of living for ordinary people in Iran. Economic turmoil, in turn, has created a tense domestic situation: In November 2019, nationwide protests over the sudden increase in gasoline prices put new pressure on the government. The devastating impact of COVID-19, which has hit Iran particularly hard, exacerbates the gloom.

To the Iranian government, U.S. pressure could potentially become an existential threat to its survival. The government therefore needs a game-changer. Feeling driven into a corner, Iran could consider withdrawing from the NPT as the only option left to ensure self-preservation. In a sense, they are falling for the same fatalistic logic applied by hawks in Israel and the United States who argue that since a conflict with Iran is inevitable in the future, it is best to weaken their adversary and face any conflict now rather than later. Many of the political elite feel that they should take the gamble now rather than after a few years with more limited oil revenue.

If Iran does decide to withdraw, it would not necessarily imply a decision to build nuclear weapons. It considers that rejoining the NPT will be a valuable bargaining chip. In addition, it could openly accelerate its enrichment program for the purpose of building leverage for future negotiations. However, advocates of withdrawal point out that Iran is already suffering many of the same international consequences as North Korea—sanctions, pariah status—without any of the benefits.

Tehran is suffering now from problems that Pyongyang only encountered after withdrawing from the NPT. So why not build a bomb for the sake of regime security and regional prestige? After all, Iran complied with the nuclear deal for three years, only to ultimately be threatened with new rounds of sanctions.

Some hard-line voices in Tehran argue that a nuclear weapon capability would boost Iran’s regional status like never before and might also guarantee the regime’s survival, as the risk of toppling a nuclear government in an already destabilized region would be too high for the West. In short, they conclude, a nuclear-armed Iran would have an upper hand in the international community.

However, Iran is aware of the risks of following North Korea’s path. Despite its nuclear escalation, North Korea has not been able to negotiate tangible sanctions relief. Leaving the NPT would likely unite the international community—including China and Russia—against Iran, and could provoke the United States, Israel, and at least one of the Gulf states, or a combination of these powers, to launch military strikes against its nuclear facilities.

Such an attack, which would be hard to keep from expanding to a large-scale war, would destroy Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities in the near term, but would almost guarantee that Iran would continue to build nuclear weapons in clandestine facilities.

However, if faced with renewed military threats from the United States, and if the E3 continues to prove unable to defuse mounting economic pressure and potential U.N. sanctions, Iran is likely to take this step.

The government in Tehran is under immense internal pressure from hard-line factions and from the public. In the summer of 2021, a new, most likely hard-line, president will take office. If Iran has not obtained significant sanctions relief by then, it is possible that the new president will seek to achieve for Iran the status his compatriots yearn for—likely through negotiations, with the open question being whether this will occur before or after Iran has built a nuclear weapon.

With the future of the nuclear deal in doubt, it is essential for the Europeans, China, and Russia to take firm action on sanctions relief, as well as diplomatic and economic reintegration. Such actions and assurances would de-escalate the situation, decrease the possibility of military attack and slow down Iran’s policy shift.

The severity of COVID-19 in Iran gives the remaining parties to the deal a strong reason to provide sanctions relief and assistance in humanitarian fields such as sending medical supplies. Doing so would also show good faith and signal to Iranians the benefits of remaining part of the international community. It can also set a more positive foundation for diplomacy and encourage restraint on Iran’s part not to cross a red line on its nuclear activities.

It is vital that Iran continue its compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency and remain party to NPT, in order to keep the door open for future agreements and prevent the worst-case scenarios of war or a nuclear-armed Iran.

Mahsa Rouhi is a research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. She is also an associate with the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Twitter: @MahsaRouhi