Opinion | One Way Forward on Iran: A Nuclear-Weapons-Free Persian Gulf

An agreement to revive the nuclear deal with Iran appears possible as the United States and its partners are set to convene next week in Vienna for the sixth round of talks with Iranian diplomats since April. That’s welcome news, as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal’s full name, imposed important restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of sanctions.

But some key provisions of the deal have an expiration date. That’s why a critical aspect of the process should be to open the way to further agreements that might soothe real concerns about Iran’s long-term ambitions and curtail an incipient nuclear arms race in the region. Ideally, the result would be a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. The Biden administration apparently understands this, which is why it has vowed to pursue a “longer and stronger” agreement in the future.

The obstacles are as numerous as they are daunting. But the winds seem favorable, at least for some type of revived agreement. Iran’s supreme leader, the real power in the country, is said to want a restoration of the deal before a new president takes over for Hassan Rouhani in August.

Mr. Rouhani went out on a limb in 2015 to strike the nuclear agreement with the Obama administration and other world powers, including China, France, Russia, Germany and Britain, only to watch Donald Trump abandon it in 2018 and to restore sanctions that, among other consequences, have left ordinary Iranians struggling to obtain medicines, including Covid vaccines.

Mr. Rouhani is widely expected to be succeeded by a hard-liner, the judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, after Iran’s presidential election next Friday. If a deal is struck now, Mr. Raisi would enjoy the benefits of the deal without having to accept responsibility for it — or if it collapses again.

Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to limit the amount of fissile material that it stockpiles and to keep its purity level below what is needed for nuclear weapons. But limits on Iran’s nuclear fuel production were to expire in 2030, after which Iran would be free to enrich at an industrial scale — albeit under the eyes of international inspectors.

It is unlikely that Iran would agree to longer-term limits so long as it was the only regional power thus constrained. The goal should be to have countries around the Persian Gulf agree to the same strict nonproliferation standards, effectively establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region and preventing an inevitably destabilizing nuclear arms race.

The idea of a regional pact has been around since the 1970s, when the shah of Iran championed it perhaps as a way to show his nation’s leadership. Periodic meetings and back-channel discussions have been held on the subject ever since, including at the United Nations in 2019. Nuclear-weapons-free zones have already been established in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia and Southeast Asia.

Skeptics may dismiss the idea as a nonstarter, not least because of Israel’s unacknowledged and nonnegotiable possession of nuclear weapons. But progress could still be made between Iran and its Arab neighbors. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Arab country locked in a bitter rivalry with Iran’s Shiite rulers, has declared its intent to build a series of nuclear power plants. The United Arab Emirates became the first Arab country to complete a civilian nuclear plant last year, after agreeing to international safeguards.

If civilian nuclear power was the only reason Iran and its neighbors needed nuclear fuel, it would be far cheaper and safer to purchase it from a commercial consortium or to get it from a regional fuel bank, as Senators Bob Menendez and Lindsey Graham recently noted in an opinion essay in The Washington Post.

Americans, for example, get fuel for their nuclear power plants from Urenco, a German-Dutch-British consortium.

But Iran insists that it needs to produce its own fuel, citing the long history of international sanctions and foreign intervention. Iran was a founding investor in Eurodif, a uranium consortium based in France, but after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the fuel was never delivered.

In retrospect, it may have been better to guarantee Iran fuel than give it a pretext for enriching uranium on its own, which can be diverted to create nuclear weapons. The program has become a symbol of national pride and resistance to — and insurance against — foreign aggression and a critical bargaining chip in efforts to get sanctions lifted. It is not something Iran would give up lightly, if at all.

On the other hand, it is not likely that the world would ever trust Iran not to produce nuclear weapons. The program as it stands now will always carry a high economic cost in the form of international stigma and the need to stay ahead of regional rivals on nuclear technology.

One face-saving way out for Iran would be to turn its uranium enrichment facilities into a multilateral consortium with an international staff, modeled after Urenco, which could supply nuclear fuel to power plants across the region — an idea floated by Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat who is now a nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University and co-author of “A Middle East Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction: A New Approach to Nonproliferation.” Scientists at M.I.T. put forth a similar plan in 2008, which key members of Congress said at the time should be explored.

This could help satisfy Iran’s desire for recognition and respect while transforming its program into something far less threatening. A regionwide ban on the production of highly enriched uranium is another worthy prospect to investigate.

The obvious trouble with the idea is that the Shiite-Sunni rivalry has escalated into a major power struggle. Iran supports proxy forces from Damascus to Sana to Beirut, and its influence in Afghanistan is likely to grow as the United States and NATO forces depart. For some in the Trump administration, this was seen as a greater threat than the nuclear program. Of the dozen demands the administration made on Iran when it pulled out of the nuclear deal, only four had to do with nuclear weapons. All but one of the rest focused on Iran’s military support for militias across the Middle East.

That’s why the Trump administration piled crippling sanctions on Iran and fostered an anti-Iranian alliance among Israel, Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. Yet the “maximum pressure” campaign didn’t stop Iran from training proxies in the region — a relatively cheap investment. Nor did it stop Iran from advancing its nuclear program. Stoking sectarian tension isn’t a solution to the region’s many problems.

Even in the midst of the recriminations and distrust, there are signs that things could change. Iranian officials have said that if the United States returns to the nuclear deal, they are willing to discuss other issues, including their role in the region. Earlier this year, Saudi and Iranian officials held a series of meetings aimed at lowering the temperature, the first such diplomatic contacts in years. The idea of peaceful nuclear cooperation in the Persian Gulf might sound unrealistic today, given the level of distrust. But it is worth remembering that Iran and Saudi Arabia once cultivated closer ties and even signed a security pact in 2001.

Any policy toward Iran or the Middle East invariably holds great risk. But as long as there is a chance to deny Iran a nuclear weapon and create a nuclear-weapons-free zone in one of the most volatile regions of the world, the United States and its partners must be willing to take those risks.

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