Nour Eid | Friday, September 20, 2019
Tensions have escalated in the Gulf since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to walk away from the JCPOA, the multilateral nuclear deal that restricted Iran’s nuclear program. Ironically – given Trump’s argument that the deal was too weak to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons – the increased regional hostilities and reestablishment of sanctions on Iran in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal may have redirected Iran’s leaders towards thinking about the “value” of having a nuclear weapon program. This is a dangerous path that could trigger a nuclear race between Iran and its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia.
Despite the grim geopolitical context, one can make a case that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can afford a war that would send a shockwave through the global system and bring disastrous consequences regionally and internationally. Iran’s economy has been under considerable strain for quite some time and Iranians are in no mood for a venture that could lead to economic collapse. For its part, Saudi Arabia remains highly reliant on oil revenues, and any military escalation is likely to threaten its vulnerable oil export infrastructure and limit the freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hurmuz, through which 20% of the global oil supply passes every day.
To avoid reaching the point of an outright confrontation, Iran and Saudi Arabia must overcome the existing barriers and open a direct channel of communication. Clearly, there are numerous contentious issues on both sides. However, discussing the nuclear ambitions of both countries should be a priority, given their influence on the security posture of each country.
Talk of a comprehensive bilateral nuclear safeguard agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia may seem outlandish given the depth of the hostility between the two states; but one can, as a thought experiment, explore what such an agreement might look like and how it could be reached.
Historical precedence: What did we learn from the Brazil-Argentina example?
To envision what an Iran-Saudi deal might look like, it may be helpful to look at a potential historical precedent.
After ending their respective nuclear weapon programs in 1990, Brazil and Argentina created the ABACC, a bilateral inspection system whose objective is to apply the Common System of Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials, which makes sure that no material used in their various nuclear activities is employed for nuclear weapons.
Not only did this agreement significantly boost both countries’ economies, but it contributed to the democratization of both states and to the creation of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in Latin America with the Treaty of Tlatelolco.
The agreement would not have been so effective if minimal transparency, and by extension trust, had not been established. Now the ABACC team comprises 22 employees (11 Argentinians and 11 Brazilians) who coordinate to inspect one another’s facilities with the governments’ full support. To maintain international recognition, the parties to the agreement also coordinate the verification process with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This coordination guarantees a more complete safeguard system, while avoiding the disadvantages of the IAEA bureaucracy.
What form would an Iran-Saudi nuclear agreement take?
While the ABACC could serve as a guideline for a potential nuclear safeguard agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the situations are not entirely similar. Middle Eastern geopolitical dynamics are much more complex and deeply rooted for various reasons, including the Sunni-Shia schism that goes back to the seventh century and is still playing out between Saudi Arabia and Iran. For this reason, a three-stage agreement is likely the best approach, since confidence takes time to be established.
The first stage would deal with immediate issues, those that have a high probability of success and could be solved within a relatively short period of time. Accordingly, the resolution of those issues would ultimately contribute to increased trust between the two countries. The most fundamental requirements would be (1) Iran’s return to the JCPOA, (2) Saudi Arabia’s approval of the IAEA’s demand to implement proportionate safeguards on its evolving nuclear program and signing onto the Agency’s addional protocol, (3) ending the costly war in Yemen and (4) normalization of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have been broken since 2016.
The intermediate phase would deal with establishing an agreed-upon security framework that has the blessing of world powers including the United States, Russia and China. Such a framework could include the depoliticization of oil; putting limitations on military capabilities; as well as the freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hurmuz.
Finally, the advanced phase would comprehensively address nuclear security issues, notably by indefinitely banning uranium enrichment and nuclear spent fuel reprocessing, culminating in the signing of a compressive bilateral safeguard agreement that might take the form of a generalized JCPOA.
Nour Eid, Researcher, Intern at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at AUB
In line with its commitment to furthering knowledge production, the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs publishes a series of weekly opinion editorials relevant to public policies.
These articles seek to examine current affairs and build upon the analysis by way of introducing a set of pragmatic recommendations to the year 2019. They also seek to encourage policy and decision makers as well as those concerned, to find solutions to prevalent issues and advance research in a myriad of fields.
Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.