New Iran nuclear deal could lead to a regional detente

Though the US and Iran want to go back to the nuclear deal, they both have suspicions, and negotiations have now been postponed until mid-August, after Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office.

Washington is worried about the nuclear knowhow Iran has developed over the past two years, while Tehran is concerned about a repeat of the scenario with Donald Trump, who unilaterally withdrew from the original deal. However, the nuclear deal can be used to create the foundations for a detente in the region.

The negotiations in Vienna have not included other issues, such as Yemen, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq, as Iran has insisted on keeping the nuclear issue separate. Tehran has also refused to include the Arab Gulf states in the process, while rejecting calls to expand the talks’ scope to include its ballistic missile program. However, it is in Iran’s interest to include the regional actors to ensure the safety of its nuclear facilities, which have been targeted in the past. The first attacks on the Bushehr nuclear power plant came from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s. More recently, the Natanz uranium enrichment facility was targeted by cyberattacks in 2010, 2012 and April this year. Any attack on an Iranian nuclear facility could have a devastating effect on the Gulf ecosystem, which is shared by the countries on both shores.

Iran is not the only country in the Gulf region or the wider Middle East with nuclear facilities. Israel has been a nuclear power since the 1960s, while the UAE has one active nuclear reactor. In 2017, Houthi militants claimed to have launched a cruise missile toward the UAE’s Barakah site. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan plan to join the club of countries with nuclear power plants. Hence, the nuclear deal should include a clause that requires all countries in the region to agree not to attack nuclear facilities, similar to the agreement signed by Pakistan and India in 1988. It is in Iran’s interest to be bound by a deal that covers the entire region, including Israel, in order to protect its own facilities. A separate, parallel agreement can be agreed under the UN’s auspices to bind the various countries not to target any nuclear facility.

It is in Tehran’s interest to be bound by a deal that covers the entire region, including Israel, in order to protect its own facilities

Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

The second step would be to oblige those who signed up to such an agreement to sign a deal covering ballistic missiles, whereby they would agree to limit their weapons to a certain range. The many Iranians I have met have taken the position of the underdog, questioning why Iran is not allowed to have missiles that can reach Tel Aviv or Riyadh, while Israel and Saudi Arabia have missiles that can reach Tehran. However, the problem with missiles is mainly their proliferation among non-state actors, as it is difficult to hold the suppliers responsible. We saw this with the attack on the Saudi oil facilities at Khurais and Aqbaiq in September 2019. Though there was speculation that the missiles came from inside Iran, close to its border with Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen claimed they were behind the attack, making it difficult to hold Tehran liable. Technically, Saudi Arabia is at war with the Houthis and, therefore, the group was attacking its “enemy.” Iran would not openly fire missiles at Saudi Arabia or Israel, as such an act would be a declaration of war and, as the aggressor, Tehran would have to bear the consequences.

Any deal on ballistic missiles should include a clause on missile proliferation among non-state actors. If such a deal were ratified, it would be easy to hold Iran responsible whenever an incident similar to that at Aqbaiq and Khurais occurred and the source of the missile was identified. This would stop the cross-border threats arising from non-state actors and would greatly limit their ability to destabilize neighboring countries. This could be the first step toward reining in the non-state actors.

The agreement could be developed to regulate and limit support for non-state actors. Once we have that, we will have a detente between the regional powers that could tremendously decrease tensions in the region.

• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib

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