The nuclear deal negotiated between Iran and six countries known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) succeeded in resolving a decades-long nuclear crisis. But continued success of the accord is not guaranteed. U.S. President Donald Trump has put the future of the agreement in doubt by threatening to pull the United States out of the deal unless the U.S. Congress and Washington’s European partners take steps to “fix” the agreement.
Trump’s “flaws,” however, are not based on deficiencies in the deal itself. Rather, Trump has changed the goalposts for defining success of the deal, including by holding it accountable for failing to stem Iranian activities, such as ballistic missiles launches, that it was never designed to address. Trump also faults the deal for failing to lock in certain limits in perpetuity.
Trump’s misguided and dangerous attempt to coerce Iran into accepting additional terms not only risks the current limitations on Iran’s nuclear program, but also the opportunity to build on the innovative elements of the deal. Rather than trying to renegotiate the deal – an effort that will only undermine U.S. credibility and risks violating the agreement – the United States and its negotiating partners should be looking at options to build on the deal. Building on the deal would strengthen nonproliferation efforts writ large and address concerns about the future of Iran’s program after limits expire.
The following are a few ideas for building on elements of the agreement in a responsible way to bolster nonproliferation efforts.
Fuel Supply Guarantees
The nuclear deal with Iran raises the concept of commensurability between domestic fuel production and demand. For instance, during the first fifteen years of the deal, Iran’s uranium enrichment production is tied to its fuel needs for the research reactor under construction at Arak. Fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor will be brought in periodically and Russia is providing fuel for the power reactor at Bushehr.
Building on this concept of commensurability, states in the region pursuing nuclear power should be encouraged not to develop domestic uranium enrichment. States that export reactors can contribute to this goal by writing in permanent fuel supplies guarantees for any future reactor contracts. Russia, for instance, wrote permanent fuel supply guarantees into the memorandum of understanding for new reactors in Iran. With the new International Atomic Energy Agency administrated fuel bank in Kazakhstan providing additional supply assurance, states could commit to forgo uranium enrichment and accept fuel supply contracts without fear of disruption. For Iran in particular, fuel supply contracts for future reactors could serve as a disincentive to expand uranium enrichment after the limits on its program expire.
A related strategy would be to accelerate work to phase out the use of reactor fuel greater than 5 percent uranium-235 for any purposes by any country in the Middle East. Six countries in the Middle East currently have research reactors, seven of which are fueled by uranium enriched to 20 percent or higher. Providing international technical support to convert all reactors to low-enriched fuel and committing to provide fuel supplies for the lifetime of the reactors would serve as a further disincentive for states to pursue domestic uranium enrichment.
Pursue a Regional Reprocessing Ban
On the plutonium side, the deal prohibits reprocessing spent fuel for a definite period of 15 years and notes Iran’s intention of forgoing reprocessing in perpetuity. Similarly, this is based on an assessment that Iran does not need a reprocessing capability, particularly as Russia will take back the spent fuel from the Bushehr power reactor and the other units under contract to be built at that site.
While the commitment to extend the reprocessing ban beyond 15 years is nonbinding, it creates an opportunity to pursue a reprocessing ban at the regional level. There currently is no need for any state in the region to pursue plutonium reprocessing. Currently, Israel is the only state with reprocessing capabilities. Given the age of Israel’s Dimona reactor, it is likely that the reactor is nearing the end of its lifespan. A reprocessing ban would preserve Israel’s strategic advantage, given that the state has already developed nuclear weapons. Other states in the region have also already agreed to forgo reprocessing, further demonstrating that there is no need for domestic fuel separation. For example, the United Arab Emirates agreed to give up the right to reprocessing technology in its nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, a condition that Washington should be sure to include in the nuclear cooperation agreement its contemplating with Saudi Arabia. Locking in a ban before further development of civil nuclear power programs proceed further would be advantageous to stave off the proliferation risk.
A region-wide commitment would serve as an incentive for Iran to refrain from reprocessing after the 15 year limitation expires. Additionally, it would provide a much-needed impetus for the Middle East weapons of mass destruction free zone process. While all states in the region have committed to the aspiration goal of such a zone, progress remains stalled since the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference ended without consensus.
Build Nuclear Security Cooperation
Another route to expand upon the nuclear deal with Iran is to look at fully realizing and building upon some of the recommended actions on nuclear security and safety in Annex III of the JCPOA. Unlike other provisions in the deal, the Annex III recommendations for nuclear cooperation in research, safety, and security, are not required. However, full implementation of several of these measures would provide greater assurance to the region and the international community that Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful.
Several of the measures also could create space for regional coordination and resource sharing to address a mutual concern: the threat of nuclear terrorism. Given that other states in the region are beginning to develop nuclear energy programs, strengthening nuclear security at the state level will be critical for guarding against nuclear terrorism and can play an important role in preventing proliferation.
One recommendation in Annex III proposes establishing a nuclear safety center in Iran to support training for personnel involved with Iran’s nuclear industry. Work on this center is already underway, as the EU and Iran began a feasibility study on establishing the center in 2016 as part of the larger series of high-level dialogues between the EU and Iran on nuclear cooperation.
Once established, the center should be expanded to address nuclear security, taking into account IAEA best practices, and ideally working with the broad Nuclear Security Training and Support Center network set up by the agency. Iran’s center would benefit from access to additional resources and specialized training provided through the network, such as guidance on detection technology maintenance and calibration, transport security, physical protection, provision of equipment, and training modules.
Integration with the network and building bilateral relationships with other centers in the region (such as the centers in Jordan and Turkey) would provide a platform for developing regionally focused activities that address the unique threats to the Middle East. A regional network could draw on lessons from the Asian Regional Network, which includes centers from South Korea, China, and Japan, allowing for specialization and training exchanges
There is legitimate reason to be concerned about the future of Iran’s nuclear program after certain limits expire. While there are prohibitions in the nuclear deal that exist in perpetuity, pursuing additional restrictions and transparency measures at the regional, or international level, will only reinforce the nuclear deal and nonproliferation efforts.
Kelsey Davenport is the Director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, where she provides research and analysis on the nuclear and missile programs in Iran, North Korea, India, and Pakistan and on nuclear security issues.