In his March 3, 2020 speech to close the 2020 AIPAC Policy Conference, New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez highlighted his bipartisan efforts to find a solution to the Iran nuclear quandary. Along with South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, Menendez is proposing that Iran be allowed to purchase nuclear fuel for peaceful nuclear power plants. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/25/two-senate-iran-hawks-are-pushing-new-nuclear-deal/.
Under the proposal, Iran would have to give up, forever, any uranium enrichment program, any and all centrifuges, all heavy water operations, anything that could lead to using uranium to create a nuclear weapon. In return, it would get sanctions relief and nuclear power.
Significantly, this proposal comes from two of the Senate’s most aggressive leaders, who were in large part the architects of the U.S. sanctions regime against Iran that is the precursor and foundation for the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign. That they are willing to lead the charge on this issue speaks volumes. It shows that bipartisan leadership in the U.S. is willing to discuss a way out of the cycle, to engage in good faith discussions that, unlike the flawed and dangerous Obama-negotiated JCPOA, will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and tamp down nuclear ambitions of other Gulf states.
These efforts are especially important now, with the arms embargo portion of the JCPOA set to sunset in October 2020, sooner than most people realize – and an extension of that embargo being a major plank of AIPAC’s lobbying agenda. Creating an opportunity for negotiations in the current environment serves several purposes.
First, especially in light of Iran’s rejection of a similar proposal made by Russia in 2005, and as noted by Senator Menendez, it will flush out whether Iran’s intentions are truly peaceful nuclear power for its citizens – as it repeatedly claims – or acquisition of nuclear weapon capabilities. Of course, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu has already laid out the evidence that Iran’s intentions were never peaceful and always designed to obtain a nuclear weapon (https://www.timesofisrael.com/full-text-of-netanyahu-on-iran-deal-100000-files-right-here-prove-they-lied/). But this time the evidence will not be coming from Israel, who the world wrongly dismisses on such issues, nor from a Russian initiative, but from Iran itself. If it wants peaceful nuclear power, the path to it is provided. If it rejects it again, insisting on the right to enrich, then its intentions are unambiguously clear.
Second, it gives Iran the opportunity – likely the only one it will get in the current circumstances – to get out from under the current sanctions environment, and avoid the maximum pressure campaign that will only intensify. Indeed, if Iran rejects such a proposal yet again, it would be further proof of its malign intent and be grounds for others, including the EU, to “snap back” the sanctions that were the feature of the JCPOA, but which no nation besides the United States has yet enforced.
Third, it creates an opportunity to discuss other issues that the Obama administration foolishly left off the table in negotiating the JCPOA. These issues include Iran’s other actions in Syria, in Lebanon, in Yemen, and elsewhere. With the nuclear issue off the table, having been resolved by acceptance and implementation of the Menendez/Graham proposal, there is more room to negotiate about arms embargos and other extremely important but not existential threats.
That does not mean that sanctions are forever off the table. Non-nuclear malign conduct demands aggressive and forceful action, but not on the same level as the threat of nuclear weapons.
And, if you are wondering whether it can be done, it already has. https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-successful-mideast-nuclear-deal-11583367406?mod=opinion_lead_pos11. U.A.E. has already created the template for peaceful nuclear power in the Middle East. Other Gulf states can follow suit. The lynchpin is Iran.
We almost certainly already know the answer. Iran’s nuclear and non-nuclear activities have been unmistakably clear about its plans. Israel’s 2018 revelations confirmed it. Iran’s rejection of Russia’s prior proposal is telling. But it is now fifteen years since Russia’s proposal, and the situation has changed.
It is time to call Iran’s bluff. If its intentions are truly peaceful nuclear power, a path exists. If it rejects it again, there will be no doubt – and it will be time for the world to stop playing kick-the-can as the JCPOA does, for all parties to withdraw from that flawed agreement, and to truly apply all of the maximum pressure that the world can muster.