Regional rivalries lie at the heart of opposition to the nuclear pact. Could a revived agreement chart a better path?
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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.