The big question at the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) 2016 was the absence of Iran and North Korea. What implications did their absence have? Or what implications would their presence have had, if any?
The participants at the NSS seem to meet no clear criteria except that they are seen as responsible players on the Global nuclear scene in western perception. To note is the fact that all NSS summits have been held in the US or treaty allies of the US. The 2012 summit was the only one that included new members – again all NATO allies except for Gabon – invited for nuclear “good behaviour”. For Gabon this included legislating a new regulatory mechanism as well as concrete progress on export controls. Through the life of the NSS, from 2010 to 2016, Iran and North Korea have been seen as being outside the nuclear consensus and have therefore been excluded from the summit.
Iran’s notable absence at the 2016 NSS, in spite of the success of the nuclear deal, is perplexing to most. However the reality is more complex. There are a number of interplaying factors in this respect.
In the case of Iran, President Barack Obama probably did not want to tip the equilibrium both at home and abroad. Given the commencement of an election year and significant domestic opposition to the nuclear deal, inviting Iran would have had unpredictable repercussions at home. Most notably, given the virulent opposition of several Israeli lobbies (although divided in their opposition) in the US, and their importance in election funding, an invitation to Iran would have had severe consequences for the Democrats. There were also several external factors at play here. Saudi Arabia, an invitee since the first summit, is vehemently opposed to the deal seeing it as somehow signifying a power shift in the Persian Gulf. A rapid reintegration of Iran into the nuclear fold therefore would have been extremely counterproductive for US diplomacy with its Gulf Allies.
The question for Iran is whether it missed out by not being present at the Summit. As it turns out not being invited was opportune for the Iranian government as well, given the domestic tightrope it has to walk. On one hand, being seen at the summit would have been a reaffirmation of Iran’s re-entry into the comity of nations. On the other hand, hardliners in Tehran, who are averse to western rapprochement, would have seen this as a step too far – given the public self-criticism inherent in the reporting requirements. At the end of the day it will still take Iran a long time to reap the benefits of the deal. Participation, or the lack thereof, in the summit would not affect the JCPOA. Therefore inviting Iran would not have had any tangible benefits to the international community or to Iran.
North Korea is a different case. While Iran is seen as reintegrating with the international community, North Korea seems to be regressing with ever more provocative actions. In such a climate an invitation to North Korea would have been seen as legitimising its rogue behaviour. On the one hand a US invitation to North Korea could have created a forum where, given Russia’s abstention and a balance heavily in favour of the US and its allies, significant pressure could have been brought to bear on it. On the other hand, the absence of Russia would have left China playing a lone action role as North Korea’s defender; leading to isolation, a siege mentality within the summits dynamics and possibly recalcitrant behaviour from China. It is important to note, that the aim of the NSS was not to score diplomatic points or act as a forum for embarrassing ones opponents or pushing them to the wall. It was meant to be a consensus building body, and leaving North Korea out, achieved this goal. An invitation to Pyongyang would then seem highly unrealistic as the NSS prioritises nuclear security and this would have meant a hijacking of the security agenda by the non-proliferation agenda.
Moving beyond the Summit, what does the immediate future hold for Geopolitics? The fact remains that Iran and North Korea are currently classified as proliferators, who will require much time and effort to become a part of the system. The NSS have become the annual meeting of stakeholders in that system, who are now looking at issues of standardisation and best practices, far removed from the world of proliferation. On balance then the NSS did not add to Non-Proliferation imperatives, but excluding Iran and North Korea did not damage those imperatives either, and in Iran’s case might have been the best option to exercise.