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An Alternative to U.S. Discarding Iran Nuclear Deal

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Signatures to Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

President Trump is a busy man. Domestically, the U.S. faces humanitarian catastrophe from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, congressional inertia, and tensions following the White Supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesvile, Virginia. Across the globe, the U.S. is focused on North Korea’s nuclear threat, escalating U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and a Cold War era-esque feud with Russia. Following Trump’s bellicose speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and an October 15th deadline for Trump to re-certify to Congress Iran’s compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, the last thing Trump needs, much less the world, is an alienated Iran with no mechanism to monitor their nuclear program.

Recently, Dr. Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a professor at Princeton University, articulated the three avenues that the Trump administration is pursuing to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and none of them, he argues, are realistic. The White House seeks to expand the scope of IAEA monitoring into sensitive military facilities, Iran said it would reject this; renegotiating the JCPOA to adjust the enrichment capabilities of Iran, this would not inspire North Korea with a lot of confidence, Senator Dianne Feinstein argues, if they came to the negotiating table that the international community would honor their agreement; and pursuing a controversial German intelligence report that argued Iran violated the deal, but this report was dismissed by the Obama administration and the UN Security Council did not grant it credence.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric at the UNGA, on November 20, 2017, High Representative/Vice-President for the EU, Federica Mogherini, chaired a meeting of the foreign ministers of all P5+1 states – yes, Secretary Tillerson was there – and Iran, and publicly reported that all parties unanimously confirmed that Iran was in compliance with the agreement. If the U.S. were to unilaterally withdraw, the JCPOA would simply become a P4+1 agreement and Iran would still be in a legitimate position. Unlike other agreements, the JCPOA is under the security council mandate; this is more commonly noted as a chapter VII instrument. U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson disagrees with Trump on this issue and argues for the U.S. to leave the JCPOA intact. The rift has grown so large between Trump and Tillerson that Trump commissioned a White House team to find an area of Iranian noncompliance.

If Trump believes the current Iranian nuclear monitoring mechanisms are too weak, then an alternative to Trump’s current efforts would involve organizing/establishing a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) and possibly a WMD free zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East. A practical move is to leave the negotiation of such a deal to the 2018 High Level Conference on nuclear weapons. The goal of this conference is to move towards a nuclear weapons convention like the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) with an implementation body like the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; along that path is the establishment of a NWFZ/WMDFZ in the Middle East.

Establishing a Middle East NWFZ has been the primary mandate of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) through the past four decades, and every five years an NPT review conference is held to bolster the NPT with a substantive consensus agreement. The current political realities do not reflect those of the 1960s and obviously, nuclear weapons are not eliminated as is fundamental to the NPT’s bargain. The 1995 NPT review conference concluded a package deal that extended the NPT indefinitely, and a key tenant was the assured establishment of a NWFZ in the Middle East. This tenant garnered consensus support from NPT member states, and it is this enthusiasm that should be built on.

Despite the failure of the 2015 NPT review conference, a drafted agreement articulating a path to a NWFZ in the Middle East held promise, but the U.S., UK, and Canada managed to block a consensus agreement. The drafted agreement called for the establishment of a continuous process of negotiations to a NWFZ in the Middle East, but “unrealistic and unworkable conditions” were cited by the three states to block consensus. Canada stepped in to note the three felt Israel – a non-NPT state – should take part in these negotiations. However, it must be noted that the 2010 NPT review conference established a 2012 Middle East conference to discuss a NWFZ and Israel was invited to the table. However, after years of stagnation there are no tangible results and the former United Nations Facilitator for a Middle East NWFZ, Jaako Laaajava, left the position.

If President Trump is truly concerned with Iran pursuing nuclear weapons now or in the future when the JCPOA additional protocol is no longer in place, then reconsidering the 2015 NPT review conference draft agreement is a sensible option. The 2018 High Level Conference will allow non-NPT states like Israel to take part, so the establishment of a process for negotiations is reasonable. A critical issue in the negotiations is the targeting of Israel as it is the only nation in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, so broadening the scope of negotiations to include a WMDFZ could ease these tensions. The Arab-Israeli conflict is certainly a very complex matter with historic roots that can be traced back decades, but there are signs establishing “a continuous process of negotiating and concluding a legally binding treaty…” could be feasible.

Israel has called for “mutual verification methods,” if a NWFZ/WMDFZ is to be established, but they believe such an agreement must come with recognition. Iran to this day does not recognize Israel as a Jewish state, but there have been signs that Iran is willing to negotiate a NWFZ zone. According to Iran’s former representative to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran was the first nation to propose a NWFZ in the Middle East in 1974 and remains in favor of such a commitment.

Dr. Trita Parsi, the President of the National Iranian American Council, reports that in April 2012 a former Israeli senior official told a group of American civilians, military officials, and senior officials and Iranian diplomats that Israel’s issues with Iran were not about nuclear enrichment, but recognition. Dr. Parsi also reports that later that day, Iranian diplomats “indicated that they could recognize Israel only if Israel joined the [NPT] as a non-[nuclear]-weapons country.” If Trump is truly interested in meddling in these historic conflicts, then establishing a NWFZ would go a long way to ensuring stability, building rapport, and possibly even Israeli acceptance in the Middle East.

Efforts to secure agreement at the United Nations are frequently hindered by politics, so the international community must ask itself why it has called for the 2018 High Level conference; which is independent of the NPT. This is an opportunity for global negotiations on this serious issue to take place, but there are too many examples of unique openings being squandered. President Trump reversed his campaign pledge to pull out of Afghanistan once his foreign policy experts briefed him on the complexity of America’s longest war, so there is room to persuade him on bold ideas. A return to the 2015 NPT review conference drafted document with a focus on initiating a continuous process of negotiations for a NWFZ/WMDFZ involving all Middle Eastern states is a bold idea, and the completion of an agreement would be one of the greatest foreign policy achievements of this century.

Another foreign policy option is to extend Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fatwa decreeing WMD’s are incompatible with Islam into a broader agreement.  Iran is a Theocracy so a religious decree is law that transcends sectarian divide; there are Azeris, Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Baluchis, and Lors residing in Iran. The credibility/existence of this fatwa has been questioned, but extending this fatwa to develop a NWFZ/WMDFZ would show great respect to a region where religion is integral to decision making. This idea is significant because at a 2017 NPT preparatory meeting, Egypt, Iran, and a coalition of 12 Arab states presented separate ideas on this issue; the Arab League has 22 members so it is no longer a unified front.

The JCPOA was the crowning foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration and it required neglecting many other global issues to gain this prize. Iran recently stated its commitment to the JCPOA even if the U.S. withdraws, crucial U.S. allies remain committed, so the Trump administration loses critical international legitimacy amidst facing several global crises. Hopefully diplomacy has not been shuttered in favor of escalating maneuvers like political insults, economic sanctions, and military action.



Samuel Hickey

Samuel Hickey is a Visiting Researcher at the Arab Institute for Security Studies in Amman, Jordan where his portfolio consists of a wide variety of issues facing the Middle East. He was previously appointed an Adjunct Instructor of physics labs at American University. He recently received a dual degree from American University (AU) in International Studies with a regional focus in the Middle East and a general focus in U.S. foreign policy and national security, and a Bachelor of Science in Physics.