The Ivory Tower and the JCPOA: Experts Sound Off with Guarded Optimism

Just as the early scientists in the 1930s and 40s spoke about the threat that nuclear weapons posed, today’s scholars and experts have spoken out on the new Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Opinions have been polled and theories have been produced from many experts and scholars in the US and around the world. Although there is some degree of variance the theme remains fairly constant – the JCPOA, although not perfect, is the best option the world currently has at obtaining some degree of regional stability in the Middle East.

Arab Scholars and Experts Discuss the JCPOA

The JCPOA is an historic agreement that provides a very new and unique opportunity to engage Iran and potentially eliminate regional tensions, improve international security, and address nuclear proliferation for the entire Middle East. Given the significance of the ramifications that the JCPOA could bring to the future of the region, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University engaged regional scholars and analysts on the ‘future of Iran’s role in the Middle East and Arab security.’ 15 leading regional experts across the Arab world (Egypt, Saudia Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Kuwait and Q’atar) were asked to share their views on the implications of the JCPOA on Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East and throughout the Arab world and how the nuclear agreement will impact the structure of regional security.

When asked to identify factors that explained why the JCPOA was reached, the most common theory amongst Arab scholars and experts was the impact of the sanctions on Iran and the Iranian people’s desire to have them lifted. Others also targeted Iran as the catalyst for change by ‘allowing for successful negotiations.’ They identified the shift in Iranian foreign policy with the election of President Hasan Rouhani, the generational gap between Iranian officials and the public, and the military stalemate Iran faced in regional conflicts as explanations for Iran’s newfound willingness to participate in nuclear negotiations. Whether stated or implied, many found the deal to be either a ‘clear win’ for Iran or otherwise beneficial to it.

Many experts who discussed the implications of nuclear agreement on regional nuclear proliferation believed that the JCPOA would ‘diminish the risk of proliferation’ and ‘praised the settlement’ for that reason and they were optimistic that the nuclear deal might advance the idea for ‘a WMD-free zone’ in the Middle East and bring Israel’s nuclear program in line with Iran’s. Others, however, were not as optimistic and expressed concern that Iran would not stick to the terms of the agreement and would drive towards nuclear weaponization and regional proliferation. The overall sentiment amongst regional experts was that any Iranian nuclear program poses a ‘significant threat to the Arab world’ as it is simply an outlet for Iran’s projection of regional power.

US Scientists and International Relations Experts Weigh In

The JCPOA does not just have implications for Iran and the Middle East. The US was a key player in the negotiations of the nuclear agreement and will continue to play a leading role as the terms of the JCPOA are implemented. 29 Nobel laureates, nuclear arms makers and former White House science advisors (some of the nation’s top scientists) provided contributory statements to President Obama on the JCPOA. In a letter to the White House, these 29 US scientists praised the agreement and used such words as “innovative” and “stringent” to describe the contents of the JCPOA. They congratulated President Obama for negotiating an agreement that ‘will advance the cause of peace and security in the Middle East and serve as a guidepost for future nonproliferation agreements.’

An opinion poll conducted by The College of William and Mary found that there was a significant gap between the opinions of US international relations (IR) experts and the American public. A large majority of IR scholars, 80 percent in fact, believed that the JCPOA will have a largely positive impact on regional stability and security in the Middle East, whereas only 43 percent of the US public believed the same to be true. Additionally, IR scholars at Indiana University argued that although a deal with Iran that lifts its economic sanctions in exchange for ‘checking’ its nuclear capabilities is far from perfect, it is by far the best option for the US. They viewed it as a step toward restoring a positive and cooperative relationship between the US, EU, and Iran by alleviating tensions between them. The biggest concern for those opposed to the deal is that Iran will violate the terms of the agreement and pursue a nuclear weapons program illicitly, but IR scholars in America feel that the control the IAEA will have on Iran’s nuclear development minimizes the likelihood of Iran ever actually producing a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear danger has now existed for decades. Before the first nuclear weapon was ever developed or used, experts expressed their opinions about the graveness of the threat that nuclear proliferation posed on global security. Today the world watched as the nuclear threat unfolded in the Middle East with Iran as the focal point of regional and international concern. As the P5+1 negotiated the agreements of a nuclear deal with Iran, scholars and experts around the world provided their assessments and theories on the impact the JCPOA would have on regional and global security. Nuclear experts, engineers, and scholars from the Arab world to the US responded with resounding optimism that the JCPOA was the best option the US and EU had at achieving some level of stability in the Middle East. Nuclear proliferation is a very complex, global issue. It will continue to prove a difficult task to reach a balance between allowing Iran to pursue a peaceful nuclear energy program and regional security in the Middle East, but it is clear that the Ivory Tower, both in the West and the Arab world, is convinced that the terms of the JCPOA is a step in the right direction.