One way to ease the growing rift between Iran and its Arab neighbors across the Persian Gulf might be through dialogue about nuclear safety.
Iran’s Bushehr reactors – started by Germany 40 years ago and completed a decade ago by Russia – sit on earthquake fault-lines and pose potentially grave risks to Iranians and Arabs alike in the event of a nuclear accident.
In an annex to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed by Iran and six world powers two years ago, Iran agreed to establish a nuclear safety center to train personnel in its nuclear industry. The European Union and Iran agreed last year to begin a feasibility study for establishing such a center, notes Kelsey Davenport, director for Nonproliferation at the Arms Control Association, in a new paper for the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative.
Speaking at an event at the Atlantic Council on June 13, Davenport suggested that China, South Korea and Japan, which have done joint work on nuclear safety in East Asia, might also contribute expertise. The effort could be broadened to Middle Eastern countries that are building or contemplating installing nuclear reactors such as Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, she said.
Iran could also sign a circular of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on nuclear security that requires steps such as regional training activities and cyber protection for nuclear facilities. In addition, Iran could join a global initiative to combat nuclear terrorism — set up at nuclear security summits held by the Obama administration — and a working group on how to respond to such threats.
Laura Holgate, a former US representative to the IAEA, noted aspects of the JCPOA that might be applicable to other proliferation crises, such as North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons program.
The remote monitoring mechanisms included in the Iran deal could help verify a future North Korea accord, she said, while the procurement channel created by the JCPOA to approve nuclear-related exports to Iran could be used to vet missile parts in the event of an agreement with Iran on that controversial subject. The channel could also be used to approve and verify the end-user of chlorine imported by Syria to insure that the chemical is used for peaceful purposes and not as a weapon of mass destruction against civilians.
Thomas Pickering, the former US undersecretary of State for political affairs and veteran arms control negotiator, recommended that the JCPOA be seen as the international “gold standard” for future non-proliferation agreements. Restrictions on uranium enrichment and plutonium production could be applied to all countries, including the five nuclear weapons states recognized by the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), he said. Iran would then no longer be singled out as a member of the “nuclear doghouse” but would “join the club of good behavior on a permanent basis,” Pickering said. In return for an indefinite extension of the limitations on its nuclear program, Iran could receive additional US sanctions relief.
At the same time, major loopholes in the NPT – which set no limits on production of fissile materials for civilian purposes — would be eliminated.
Building on the JCPOA in these ways could address concerns by both supporters and critics of the agreement that major provisions sunset in a decade to 25 years.
Stuart Eizenstat, a former US ambassador to the European Union and chair of the Atlantic Council’s advisory board on Iran, said that it was important not to view the JCPOA “as simply a stand-alone agreement but to build on that by finding ways to encourage” Iran to join other nonproliferation and nuclear safety protocols.
“To do so would lead to more transparency and would give greater assurance to skeptics that their program is genuinely for civilian not military means,” Eisenstat said.
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.