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Ali Ahmed

The Future of the Nuclear Agreement with Iran and Opportunities for Regional Cooperation

Summary: While intensive diplomatic efforts were made to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, yet very little effort was made to consider the future of this agreement or subsequent steps that would strengthen the principle of nuclear non-proliferation in the Middle East. Following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, there is a state of uncertainty of the future of the nuclear agreement; however, the nuclear deal has the ability to strengthen the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, and to enhance the potentials of regional cooperation. Much of the future focus will be on opportunities for regional cooperation, specifically through a proposal to enrich uranium at a multinational facility in a Middle East context. Thus, increasing the transparency of current and future enrichment procedure within Iran and the region. A balance between profitability, non-proliferation obligations of nuclear weapons and Russia’s interests in supplying fuel must be taken into consideration for the survivability of the nuclear agreement with Iran.

A paper by:  Ali Ahmed

Significant diplomatic efforts were made to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, yet very little effort was made to consider the future of this agreement or subsequent steps that would strengthen the principle of nuclear non-proliferation in the Middle East. Choosing to talk about the challenges and sustainability of the nuclear deal with Iran comes at a sensitive time when Donald Trump is elected President of the United States. Indeed, there is a state of anticipation surrounding possible steps taken by the Trump administration towards Iran's nuclear dossier and what will be Iran's response in return. Additionally, what will be the reaction of the other parties in the P5 + 1 group (Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany), especially following Iran's trade exposure to some of these countries and its signing of many large contracts such as those with French Total and Airbus.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA or nuclear deal) has placed restrictions on Iran's uranium enrichment program in return for lifting international sanctions. But in fact, the deal has only frozen Iran's uranium enrichment program for the next 10 to 15 years. Iran plans after that period to use its program to supply nuclear reactors with the necessary fuel, assuming that Iran has increased its enrichment capabilities to supply the Bushehr reactor with nuclear fuel. If 3.5% enriched uranium is used, it would only take a single week to produce highly enriched uranium sufficient to make a nuclear weapon [1]. Hence, some believe that the JCPoA in its current form is an ill-conceived and buys Iran time to accumulate economic benefits and strengthen its political and military hegemony in the region. On the other hand, many, including the author of this paper, believe that this agreement, if respected by all parties and if proper effective monitoring mechanisms are in place, represents a great opportunity; First to strengthen the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, and second to enhance the potentials of regional cooperation.

This paper will not elaborate on JCPoA benefits in terms of strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime which has been extensively covered. Much of the current focus will be on opportunities for regional cooperation, especially the proposal to enrich uranium at a multinational facility in a Middle Eastern context. If such a proposal is placed in a proper framework, a multinational uranium enrichment facility could increase the transparency of current and future enrichment procedures in Iran and the region. This provides further assurances to the international community about Iran's pledges to not pursue nuclear weapons, as well as enhancing cooperation between Iran and its neighbors.

Urenco company represents a precedent for multinational uranium enrichment, this company combined national enrichment programs for Germany, Netherlands and Britain in 1970. [2] Urenco is now the second largest supplier of enrichment services worldwide after Russia. Fears that Germany might have wanted to acquire nuclear weapons were one of the main factors behind establishing this entity. Based on this model, the establishment of a multinational facility in Iran today would allow full access to the facilities previously managed by Iran, also allow the possibility of co-management. Yet, the fundamental question is whether Iran would accept such a proposal. Considering the current regional political realities, it would be difficult to envisage this proposal, but the criticism that the JCPOA buys Iran time to accumulate economic benefits also offers opportunity to strengthen this agreement. One of the great successes of the JCPOA is it provides a margin of time for the international community to engage with Iran in the establishment of a multinational enrichment facility.

Iran certainly has economic ambitions which would enable it to become a country of international and regional influence. However, Iran may give priority to developing its local economy, especially if capital and foreign investments start to flow into the country whereby relations between international financial institutions and the Iranian economic sectors are no longer feared; Iran may then show some flexibility and interest in such a proposal if it is associated with tangible economic benefits.The proposal of enriching uranium at a multinational facility has gained momentum given that many countries in the region, including Jordan, are seeking to establish nuclear power plants. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has ambitious plans for nuclear energy and would certainly have an interest in implementing additional safeguards on Iran's nuclear program. If growing numbers of centrifuges and increased production of enriched uranium takes place at Natanz, then Saudi Arabia will probably require more confidence building measure on Iran's intentions. Regardless of whether these countries would need a more secure nuclear fuel source from a multinational enrichment facility, many parties - including members of the P5 + 1 - will need additional assurances on Iran's intentions that go beyond the nuclear deal if Iran increases its enrichment capabilities to supply nuclear fuel to Bushehr1.

If Iran intends to expand its enrichment capacity to supply the Bushehr 1 reactor with fuel, it must seek an agreement that provides additional assurances that such capacities are intended for peaceful purposes. Additional safeguards relating to concealed production of highly enriched uranium include the establishment of a multinational control system for technology and information related to nuclear weapons development via R&D of centrifuge systems and manufacturing facilities. An ideal arrangement that limits the proliferation of nuclear weapons is to supply the proposed plant or facility with black box centrifuges (i.e. unidentified content), as is now the case in all Urenco plants.

The unilateral expansion of enrichment activities would encourage other regional powers to initiate national uranium enrichment programs which would lead into a new crisis generally with P5+1, and especially with the United States. The nature of this future crisis and its possible security ramifications depends on the arrangements, context and actions that Iran will take to achieve its regional ambitions; the United States also needs to decide on the role it will play in managing the regional security file. Therefore, the development of Iran-US relations will greatly affect Iran's position on allowing a multinational umbrella for its nuclear program. The actions of both countries will determine whether other countries in the region will consider the option of acquiring nuclear weapons.

Having said that, other states in the Middle East may support a multilateral umbrella for Iran's nuclear program if they decide to abandon their national ambitions to enrich uranium.  Here, it should be noted that challenges associated with the design of an effective multinational facility depend on mutual acceptance by Iran, Middle East countries as well as the P5+1. Multinational uranium enrichment is a positive practice as it ensures that enriched uranium is supplied to the nuclear reactors of various customers. Furthermore this process improves the ability to verify the production of highly enriched uranium quickly as well as making it difficult to establish a parallel secret facility.

In addition to the factors mentioned above, there are separate economic considerations where national enrichment facilities are not considered as economically feasible when compared to purchasing enrichment services from the international market; unless a state uses more than 1 million SWU per year (separative work units) [3], which equates to the capacity of producing around 8 gigawatts of electricity from nuclear reactors. Yet, such an enrichment capability could be viewed as profitable if countries of the region perceive their national uranium enrichment plants as a security guarantor. Another aspect of designing multinational enrichment facilities to become economically profitable is the presence of economic incentives to increase the volume of production and creating a financially profitable plant that would provide Urenco motivation to become a partner. This would also determine which countries would be willing to join this multinational team in addition to determining the volume and duration of financial assistance until the plant becomes financially profitable/viable. It may be difficult to reconcile the desire of making tangible profits with guarantees that the facility is used for peaceful purposes. In addition, Germany (a member of the P5+1 group) and the Netherlands, both members of Urenco, may be the most trusted partners because of their commitment to non-proliferation obligations and the absence of conflicting political interests in the region.

It should be noted that the Russian nuclear power company "Rosatom" has contracts for supplying nuclear fuel plans as part of its current plans with countries in the region, so there is a need to consider Russia’s interests and maintaining this aspect of business. In short, a balance must be struck between profitability, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and Russia's interests in supplying fuel to the satisfaction of all concerned.

In conclusion, a multinational uranium enrichment facility in the Middle East could make the nuclear agreement with Iran more sustainable, but this step would be subject to complex political factors as well as technical issues that must provide adequate guarantees of their continued use for peaceful purposes. If this arrangement is agreed upon, it will provide important confidence-building steps to achieve stability and security for the region.


[1]        Ten years after the implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran, there will be no restrictions on Iran's enrichment capabilities, but the level of enrichment should not exceed 3.67 percent for a period of 15 years

[2]        The Treaty of Almelo of 1970 is an agreement between the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, the Federal Republic of Germany and the Kingdom of the Netherlands on cooperation in the development and exploitation of the gas centrifuge process for the production of enriched uranium

[3]        SWU, Separative Work stands for the effort necessary to separate U235 and U238. It is measured in kilograms of separative work (kg SW). The term Separative Work Unit (SWU) is also used where 1 SWU equals 1 kg SW.


* Paper presented at the Annual Nuclear Forum Meeting held by the Arab Institute for Security Studies (2016). 

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