After turning off the cameras of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Iran has announced that it has the capability to build nuclear weapons. The news came after negotiations failed to revive the nuclear agreement of 2015. Although time is running out quickly, there is still a chance for diplomacy to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.
When nuclear negotiations started under President Obama, the first proposal Western negotiators suggested was for Iran to outsource its uranium enrichment to France and let Russia manage the nuclear waste. Iran categorically rejected that proposal. So it was abandoned. But it might still be possible to make it work with two changes.
The first change is to make Pakistan the host country for Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle. There is a special reason why Iran would be more open to the proposal if that role were given to Pakistan. Iran and Pakistan have had an agreement to build a cross-border gas pipeline. In 2019, Iran completed the Iranian section of the pipeline. But mainly due to U.S. sanctions, Pakistan was unable to proceed with the project. The U.S. could allow that project to be completed. The pipeline would correct the power imbalance that Iran would be entering into by transferring its nuclear fuel cycle to Pakistani soil. As such it would give Iran confidence in the credibility of any commitments that Pakistan would undertake. And this would be critically important for getting Iran on board with this plan.
Closing down its domestic nuclear enrichment facilities, Iran would ship its centrifuges and stockpile of uranium to a facility under the control of the Pakistani army and 24/7 camera surveillance of nuclear inspectors. Iran’s own nuclear engineers and scientists would run the facility in Pakistan, producing enriched uranium to low-grade levels for medinicial and power-generating purposes. Under strict accounting measures, low-grade uranium would be shipped back to Iran for current needs, while any newly mined uranium ore and newly generated nuclear waste would be constantly shipped to Pakistan to prevent any accumulation of nuclear stockpile on Iranian soil.
If Iran’s uranium were to be outside Iran’s reach on Pakistani soil, it would not much matter that the uranium is kept at what level of enrichment. Here comes the second change to the old proposal. Let Iran openly enrich part of its uranium to weapons-grade level. The weapons-grade uranium would remain in Pakistan as collateral for a guarantee that Pakistan would issue to Iran, on the world’s behalf. Pakistan would release the stockpile of uranium back to Iran upon either of these two conditions: if any nuclear-armed state launches an unprovoked war of aggression against Iran, or if any new country in the Middle East (including Egypt and Turkey; excluding Israel) acquires nuclear weapons.
This solution would completely reverse the helpless situation the West is currently grappling with. Right now, whether and when Iran transforms its nuclear capability to actual nuclear weapons is a matter of political decision in Tehran, over which the West anxiously has no control. But the West would be in control of those two conditions. It would have control over its own decision not to invade Iran and it would have influence over its non-nuclear allies in the Middle East to keep them away from nuclear weapons. As those two conditions need never materialize, the world would have the peace of mind that Iran could be indefinitely kept away from nuclear weapons.
The proposal would also be in line with Iran’s security strategy. Iran’s interest in nuclear deterrence is to safeguard against the kind of calamity that happened to Libya or is now happening to Ukraine. Libya gave up its nuclear program and is now a failed state after a Western regime change operation, and Ukraine surrendered its nuclear arsenal to Russia and is now being decimated by Russian artillery. The dispute has remained unresolved to this date because the West has not offered any deal that would accommodate Iran’s security concern. The dispute would be resolved peacefully once we reconcile Iran’s interest in having nuclear deterrence with our interest in Iran not having nuclear weapons. My proposal offers the middle ground: let Iran have nuclear deterrence without nuclear weapons. It sounds paradoxical, but it is possible.
Iran would give up the capability to build nuclear weapons at will in exchange for a nuclear insurance policy that would provide deterrence against invasion by nuclear-armed states. Iran’s biggest fear is a U.S.-led regime change operation, like the one that happened to neighboring Iraq. This proposal would eliminate that fear. Iran would know that the United States would have an interest in not activating the Pakistani guarantee, which would compel it not to aggress against Iran. The same would apply to Israel. Whereas today Israel thinks that to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon it should preemptively strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, under this arrangement Israel’s calculus would reverse, compelling it not to initiate any confrontation. At the same time, this arrangement would not make Iran bellicose. Iran would not have actual nuclear weapons, but only a guarantee that would be activated by events outside Iran’s control. The uranium would not be returned back to Iran if a war broke out between Iran and a non-nuclear country. And it would not be returned if Iran were to initiate and provoke confrontation with a nuclear-armed state. The nuclear guarantee would have purely defensive power and only against nuclear-armed states.
Military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities cannot prevent the nuclear armament of Iran. Because whatever capacity they might destroy could be recovered in a matter of a year or two. The only way to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon is to persuade Iran that it does not need one. Only a credible nuclear insurance policy can be that persuasive. Offer that to Iran before it is too late.