A Second JCPOA Would Accelerate Nuclear Proliferation | Opinion

Two recent nuclear-related developments in the Middle East have caused renewed concerns of nuclear proliferation, and Iran's malign ambitions will only exacerbate those concerns if not kept in check. Two of the strongest detractors of the failed nuclear deal between the Obama-Biden administration and the Islamic Republic of Iran were the Gulf nations of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Both nations have sought to expand their self-proclaimed nuclear power programs recently, as Tehran's regional belligerence has continued.

In the Saudis' case, this growth has expanded beyond the scope of a 123 agreement with the United States, with recent reports surfacing of a previously unknown facility built with Chinese help for the purpose of extracting uranium yellowcake (a first step in acquiring materials needed for a either a power plant or a bomb). The clandestine site, if confirmed, should be of particular concern, as it raises the possibility of a larger hidden program.

Last year, Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) raised concerns over the approval of licenses for American companies to sell nuclear-related technologies outside of a 123 agreement. This led the senators to request a Government Accountability Office study on negotiations the Trump administration has "carried out without proper oversight and in an opaque manner inconsistent with previous nuclear agreement negotiation." The study concluded that not enough was being done to keep Congress apprised of nuclear-related negotiations—not unlike complaints in the run-up to the 2015 deal with Iran (the JCPOA). To rectify this situation, some have proposed amending the Atomic Energy Act to require greater transparency with Congress—something both Republicans and Democrats should welcome.

On the administration's part, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that "we want a gold-standard Section 123 Agreement from [Saudi Arabia], which would not permit them to enrich." However, the Saudis are likely reluctant to come to an agreement with the United States because they see the potential for a new administration that could re-enter a flawed deal with Iran.

The UAE, which signed a 123 agreement with the United States in 2009, became the first Arab nation to launch a nuclear power plant earlier this month. The UAE agreed to what is known as the gold standard: no enrichment of uranium or reprocessing of plutonium. In the UAE's case, Abu Dhabi was able to hedge against the Iranian threat within its deal by opening the door to amending the agreement if Washington comes to a "more-favorable agreement with another regional government." Whether or not a future administration would amend the agreement is to be seen, but the UAE's intention is clear: The Emiratis won't stand by idly if a JCPOA 2.0 gives Iran the green light to one day have an industrial-sized nuclear program.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discusses
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discusses "snapback" sanctions on Iran MIKE SEGAR/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Once Iran was given a deal, the original JCPOA, that fell far short of the gold standard, not to mention did not deal with Iran's ballistic missile program or its nefarious activities in the region, nations such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia became less interested in abiding by greater restrictions than their most dangerous geopolitical foe. Beyond the nuclear file, the UAE has moved forward with the historic step of normalizing relations with Israel—a step which, beyond the obvious self-interest of creating stronger economic ties between two leading regional states, is in no small part a reaction to the Iranian threat and a recognition that America's approach to Iran can fluctuate between administrations.

Most recently, Anthony Blinken, senior foreign policy advisor to Joe Biden, made clear that it would be a Biden administration's intent to enter into a second nuclear deal with Tehran. Meanwhile the official Democratic Party platform calls for a return to the 2015 nuclear deal. Whether a return to the 2015 deal is even feasible, or rather a JCPOA 2.0 is the goal, nations who must deal with the Iranian threat on a daily basis look at such prospects with great skepticism and alarm.

Such a move would, by extension, end the "maximum pressure" campaign implemented by the Trump administration, which has left Iran's economy in shambles. Perhaps more importantly, discoveries such as the Iran nuclear archive and Tehran's rebuffing of IAEA inspectors from key sites has demonstrated that Iran's intentions have never changed. In June, an IAEA report warned that "Iran's refusal for several months to allow inspectors to access two sites is a major concern." Britain, France and Germany likewise accused Iran of breaking the nuclear deal earlier this year.

A JCPOA 2.0 very well might push Abu Dhabi and Riyadh over the edge to seek their own unrestrained nuclear ambitions.

Following the UN Security Council's failure to extend the expiring arms embargo on Iran, the United States has rightfully notified the UN of its intention to trigger the reimposition of all international sanctions on Iran. This follows a letter by the six Arab nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council urging extension of the embargo.

If world powers, and the Europeans in particular, are interested in restraining nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, then sanctions against Tehran should snap back and a second round of Iranian appeasement should be taken off the table.

Boris Zilberman is the director of public policy and strategy at the Christians United for Israel Action Fund.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.