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Proliferation Persuasion: Coercive Bargaining with Nuclear Technology Open Access

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Why do states wait for prolonged periods of time with the technical capacity to produce nuclear weapons? Only a handful of countries have ever acquired the sensitive nuclear fuel cycle technology needed to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. Yet the enduring trend over the last five decades is for these states to delay or forgo exercising the nuclear weapons option provided by uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing capabilities. I show that states pause at this threshold stage because they use nuclear technology to bargain for concessions from both allies and adversaries. But when does nuclear latency offer bargaining benefits?My central argument is that challengers must surmount a dilemma to make coercive diplomacy work: the more they threaten to proliferate, the harder it becomes to reassure others that compliance will be rewarded with nuclear restraint. I identify a range of mechanisms able to solve this credibility problem, from arms control over breakout capacity to third party mediation and confidence building measures. Since each step towards the bomb raises the costs of implementing these policies, a state hits a sweet spot when it first acquires enrichment and/or reprocessing (ENR) technology. Subsequent increases in proliferation capability generate diminishing returns at the bargaining table for two reasons: the state must go to greater lengths to make a credible nonproliferation promise, and nuclear programs exhibit considerable path dependency as they mature over time. Contrary to the conventional wisdom about power in world politics, less nuclear latency thereby yields more coercive threat advantages.I marshal new primary source evidence from archives and interviews to identify episodes in the historical record when states made clear decisions to use ENR technology as a bargaining chip, and employ this theory of proliferation persuasion to explain how Japan, North Korea, and Iran succeeded and failed to barter concessions from the United States. By clarifying when countries are able to leverage steps towards the bomb for international political gain, my work advances our understanding of proliferation and coercive diplomacy.

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