This raises an interesting question: why not have all those other countries follow the same standards, which are considered “best practice” in the non-proliferation game? We could use the Iran formula to raise the bar for everyone, especially for other countries in the Middle East who might be at risk of going nuclear themselves some day.
It’s a good idea, one that’s part of a new issue brief from the Arms Control Association. The brief was discussed at a recent off-the-record Capitol Hill dinner sponsored by the ACA and The Lugar Center, featuring two seasoned diplomats and attended by a bipartisan collection of House and Senate staffers. One of the speakers, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-proliferation Thomas Countryman, suggested (in a remark cleared for publication) that U.S. policy be focused on region-wide adoption of, and adherence to, IAEA additional protocols, including encouraging Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria to conclude an additional protocol with the IAEA.
The ACA brief makes the same case. The so-called “additional protocol” to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) basically allows for more intrusive inspections than required by standard NPT rules. Under the JCPOA, Iran has to implement and ratify the additional protocol. (And once ratified, it’s permanent.) But for everyone else, adopting the protocol is voluntary, and Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia, who are all NPT countries, haven’t yet done so.
The ACA says the U.S. could act unilaterally to try to persuade these and other countries to adopt the additional protocol by making it a requirement of continued civilian nuclear cooperation with us. Alternatively, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which includes the U.S. and others, could bar nuclear technology sales to countries that don’t implement the additional protocol.
Also under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to produce only low-enriched uranium--limiting its enrichment level to 3.67 percent--for 15 years. Other countries are under no such enrichment limits. If the U.S succeeded in getting everyone else to agree to a low-enriched limit, Iran has said it would be willing to extend its commitment indefinitely.
(Of course, one of the major criticisms of the JCPOA is that it allows Iran to retain any enrichment capacity at all. But the U.S. has made clear there is “no inherent right to enrich,” and the administration should continue to press for a “no new enrichment” policy in all its technology agreements with other countries.)
Similarly, Iran has agreed not to separate plutonium (which poses a major proliferation risk) from its spent reactor fuel for 15 years, and claims it has no intention to do so afterwards. This is an opportunity to get a region-wide ban on plutonium reprocessing and make it the norm for all countries to ship out their spent fuel.
In an annex to the JCPOA, Iran also agreed not to conduct any nuclear experiments, even if civilian in nature, that could have application for designing nuclear weapons. Other states in the region haven’t made similar promises yet. If they did so, either through a voluntary declaration or a formal Memorandum of Understanding with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “confidence in the NPT would be strengthened,” the ACA brief says.
The ACA proposes several other ways to use the JCPOA to leverage a stronger non-proliferation regime throughout the Middle East. Among them: bolstering the IAEA, encouraging lifetime nuclear fuel supply and fuel take-back guarantees, tougher penalties for withdrawal from the NPT, and region-wide adherence to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Taken individually, nearly all these proposals should win backing from Republicans and Democrats alike, since non-proliferation has generally been a bi-partisan issue. In the more controversial context of the Iran deal, even opponents of the JCPOA should find that using the JCPOA to improve the whole non-proliferation system makes more sense than trying to torpedo the agreement. “Whether Members supported or opposed this deal,” said U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna (R, NY), who voted against the JCPOA, referring to a separate proposal to enhance Congressional monitoring of the agreement, “we can all agree that the best course of action moving forward is absolute transparency and vigorous oversight.” President Obama and the leaders of Congress should seize this opportunity to work together to advance their common interest in a robust effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
Many opponents of the JCPOA criticized the fact that Iran is bound by it for only 15 years. But if the strict standards in the agreement and other proposed changes become “the new normal” for all countries in the region, then Iran will have no excuse to abandon them once the deal expires. Not only will we have raised the non-proliferation bar for the other countries, we will have locked Iran, the region’s most troublesome actor, into the same high standards.
Jay Branegan serves as a Senior Fellow at The Lugar Center.