The latest diplomatic effort to revive the Iran nuclear agreement of 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has reportedly failed. The root cause of Iran’s inflexible position is the lessons it has learned from the experience of other countries. Libya gave up its entire nuclear program and is now a failed state after a Western military intervention. And today, the tragic news from Ukraine is an everyday reminder of the grave strategic mistake it made after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under pressure from the West, Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal to Russia in exchange for a guarantee on paper for its sovereignty. Ukraine is now being decimated by its big neighbor, threatening to drop so-called tactical nuclear weapons. Consequently, Iran remains determined never to make a similar mistake. Fortunately, there is a deal the West can offer to Iran that it won’t dismiss out of fear of becoming the target of the next regime change operation.
When nuclear negotiations started under President Barack Obama, the first idea Western diplomats suggested was for Iran to transfer its nuclear fuel cycle to foreign soil. It was proposed that France could enrich Iran’s uranium, and Russia could manage the nuclear waste. That proposal could have been a sustainable solution, but it was quickly abandoned in the face of Iranian resistance. The JCPOA became the agreeable deal. It suspended Iran’s nuclear program for fewer than ten years with a doubtful prospect for its renewability after expiration. Pointing at the deal’s shortcomings, the Trump administration withdrew from it, and the deal went into a coma. The Biden administration tried hard to recover it but has failed thus far. The 2015 agreement is now dead. The United States and Iran should return to the initial proposal, which the United States should have never abandoned; two changes could make the deal work.
The first change is the choice of the country where Iran entrusts its uranium stockpile and enrichment operation. France was proposed for that role solely because it had the capability and willingness to do the job. But that is not enough. Iran cannot enter into an out-of-balance relationship. If Iran is to ship its stockpile of uranium to another country, it would need to have some meaningful degree of leverage over that country. Iran does not have such influence over France in western Europe. Fortunately, there is a suitable candidate for that role. Iran and its friendly next-door neighbor Pakistan had previously agreed to build a cross-border gas pipeline. In 2019, Iran completed the Iranian section of the pipeline. But due to sanctions, Pakistan could not proceed with the project. Allow for the completion of that gas pipeline. That would give Iran some meaningful leverage over Pakistan. Only then does it become a reasonable proposition to ask Iran to put its stockpile of uranium and enrichment operation under the custody and control of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The second change is to expand the role of Iran’s designated uranium custodian. As previously envisioned for France, Pakistan could enrich Iran’s uranium to a low-grade level for medicinal and power-generating purposes. Pakistan could also enrich a portion of Iran’s uranium to weapons-grade level and keep it in Pakistan. Pakistan would release Iran’s stockpile of uranium back to Iran upon either of these two conditions: if any nuclear-armed state launches an illegal and unprovoked strike against Iran or if any new country in the Middle East (including Egypt and Turkey) acquires nuclear weapons. These changes would allow the United States to give Iran a meaningful security guarantee.
This proposal would present an enduring resolution to the nuclear dispute. It would assure the world that Iran could be kept from acquiring nuclear weapons indefinitely, as long as those two conditions do not materialize. At the same time, it would give Iran the peace of mind that if circumstances change and having a nuclear deterrence becomes vital for self-defense, that possibility will not be denied to Iran.
The proposed arrangement is not without precedent. Indeed, it is akin to what already exists between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were the financial sponsor of Pakistan's nuclear and missile programs, which has earned them the right to get hold of ready-made Pakistani nuclear weapons if Iran develops its own. This is Saudi Arabia’s nuclear insurance policy. Having Pakistan issue a slightly different nuclear insurance policy to Iran can achieve the denuclearized Iran goal.
This proposal was shared with a senior policy advisor to Iran’s incumbent president. He described the proposal as “worthy of examination.” Judging from this feedback, Iran is probably open to the suggestion. If the West is also open to negotiating on this basis, a deal may still be possible.
Reza Ansari is an independent Iran observer. He has published in The National Interest and Foreign Policy as well as in Persian. He can be reached at [email protected].