The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is arguably the most comprehensive and verifiable non-proliferation agreement since the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It not only ensures against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but also recognizes the right to a peaceful nuclear program.
As more countries, including members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) develop nuclear infrastructures to meet growing energy demands, it is essential to build on the JCPOA and further enhance the NPT by pursuing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Free Zones with the objective of inhibiting proliferation, as well as ensuring the peaceful nature of new nuclear programs.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reiterated in an article soon after the end of negotiations on the JCPOA that the agreement “cements Iran’s status as a zone free of nuclear weapons” as it prevents the militarization of Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, Zarif argued, “Now it is high time that we expand that zone to encompass the entire Middle East.”
As the sole nation possessing nuclear weapons in the region, Israel continues to be the main impediment to such a zone. Iran, the GCC member states and the rest of the international community — with the exception of Israel, India, North Korea, Pakistan and South Sudan — have signed, ratified, and are abiding by the NPT.
The proposal for a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East has been reiterated on numerous occasions by regional leaders, among them the Emir of Qatar. In a 2015 speech at the United Nations General Assembly, two months after the finalization of the JCPOA, he said that “The agreement between Iran and the 5+1 Group is a positive and important step. As we look forward with hope that this nuclear agreement contributes to maintaining security and stability in our region, we further demand moving forward to disarm the entire region of nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction.”
The fourteenth operative paragraph of United Nations Security Council resolution 687, which was adopted in 1991 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, recalls “the objective of the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region of the Middle East,” which is legally binding on all countries in the region. However, an attempt to implement this provision, similar to many other proposals that have been put forward since 1974, failed in large part due to the United States and United Kingdom’s rejection of such a proposal for reasons tied to their support for Israel. Nonetheless, Iran and the GCC countries can solidify their unified position on this issue, and further pressure other world powers and responsible countries to advance this initiative and rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons.
The fact that Iran’s nuclear program has been an international concern since 2002, giving rise to a series of inspections and verification regimes, actually reinforces its capacity as a peaceful regional partner in the development of nuclear programs. Moreover, Iran’s successful enrichment capabilities, scientific expertise, and existing nuclear medical research and cancer treatment initiatives, can be a source for cooperation and partnerships with the GCC countries. Nuclear cooperation will not only assist in enhancing bilateral and multilateral relations, but also be an important factor inhibiting the proliferation of WMDs within the Persian Gulf region and beyond.
The JCPOA not only ensures the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, but also provides a blueprint for other countries that are signatories to the NPT and are keen to develop peaceful nuclear programs. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s additional protocol, for example, is among the few internationally recognized verification mechanisms which Iran has provisionally implemented as part of the JCPOA, along with the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain who have signed and implemented this verification tool. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman are also required to adopt the Additional Protocol when or if they develop a nuclear program.
Nuclear energy has many peaceful uses including electricity production, nuclear medicine, and water desalination. To satisfy rising domestic demand for non-renewable energy resources, especially for domestic electricity production and water desalination, Iran and the GCC countries must adopt more cost-effective approaches, including nuclear technology, and other renewable sources of energy. Cooperation in this field between neighboring countries can enhance security, productivity and financial gains for all participants.
Due to the high costs associated with the construction of nuclear plants, the security risks and the need for technical expertise, countries are often discouraged from pursuing homegrown nuclear programs. The GCC countries all recognize the sovereign right to a peaceful nuclear program, and jointly commissioned a study to explore the possibilities of nuclear development in 2006. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have heavily invested in domestic nuclear programs for peaceful purposes, the latter awaiting operationalization later in 2017. On the other hand, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman appear to have abandoned their nuclear aspirations largely in response to Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2012.
Even though the majority of the GCC countries do not have and do not appear to desire to have nuclear programs, all regional countries can benefit from the already established Iranian nuclear infrastructure. The head of the Bushehr Atomic Power Plant Exploitation Company, Hossein Ghaffari, stated that since the power plant was commissioned in 2011 “it generated 25 billion kilowatts/hour electricity and transferred it to national grid,” which amounts to “6.1 billion barrels of crude oil.”
The Trump Administration’s hawkish position on the JCPOA and its decision to not re-certify the agreement will make it even more difficult to achieve a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East and cooperation in nuclear energy fields between neighboring Persian Gulf countries. In addition to the other signatories of the JCPOA, as well as the majority of European, Asian, and African countries, the Ministerial Council of the GCC reiterated their support for the JCPOA on March 30, 2017 in Saudi Arabia, and “confirmed the GCC stances and decisions in this regard that Iran abides by the agreement reached with the group of countries (5+1) in July 2015, on its nuclear program and to implement the Security Council resolution 2231 on the nuclear agreement.”
Furthermore, the IAEA has certified Iran’s full compliance with the JCPOA eight times, and has repeatedly reiterated that the Islamic Republic is abiding by the agreement. Yukia Amano, the General Director of the IAEA stated during his latest trip to Tehran on October 29, that “the IAEA can state that the nuclear-related commitments made by Iran under the JCPOA are being implemented,” and in regard to recent U.S. actions, he stated that “the most important thing is to be factual.” In addition, he reminded the international community of the importance of the nuclear agreement, and stated “the IAEA believes that the JCPOA is a significant gain for verification,” an important achievement for ensuring the peaceful nature of Iran’s and any other country that adopts the framework in the future.
The reduction of threat perceptions by the removal of nuclear weapons from the region will ultimately lead to a more comprehensive arrangement with the ultimate goal of a WMD free zone in the Middle East. Such arrangements, if all encompassing, would dramatically enhance the security of the Middle East, and could lead to major reductions in military spending. All responsible nations must stand united in opposition to the Trump Administration’s policies on the JCPOA. The world is safer with the JCPOA intact, and can be even safer with the new opportunities it provides in nuclear security.
Mehran Haghirian is a recent Graduate of American University’s School of International Service in Washington, with a Master’s degree in International Affairs and a focus on the Persian Gulf region. He is currently in Tehran. Read his Thesis: “Effectuating A Cooperative Future Between Iran and the Arab States of the Persian Gulf.” @MehranHaghirian