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Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani (R) and members of his delegation are seen leaving the Coburg Palais, venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meeting aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna on December 3, 2021. (Photo: JJoe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images)

The International Consensus on How to Prevent a Nuclear Iran That Is Never Discussed in the US

This bipartisan framing of the issue, deferentially accepted by establishment media, entirely excludes a third option from the discourse: a common-sense proposal which has nearly unanimous international support.

Jacob Batinga

Tensions between the United States, Israel, and Iran are dangerously high—the highest they have been since the American assassination of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani. Israel is currently musing—openly—about attacking Iran, while the Biden Administration announced they will consider "other options" than diplomacy if the Vienna nuclear talks fail. By "other options," the Biden Administration reportedly means increasing the already severe economic sanctions on Iran or preparing for military confrontation. The diplomatic talks are faltering, and commentators are predicting that war with Iran is "around the corner." 

So, what is this international consensus? Simple: a nuclear weapons-free-zone in the Middle East, where all nuclear materials would be under the direct control of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

These dangerous moves toward war are necessary, we are told, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. This has been a major, bipartisan foreign policy focus of every American President in the last several decades (A nuclear Iran was "unacceptable," then-President-elect Obama declared in 2008, repeatedly pledging to do "everything that's required to prevent it"). Yet the spectrum of discussion, both from our political leaders and establishment media, is vanishingly narrow. On the one end of the spectrum is war with Iran and harsh economic strangulation policies (sanctions which have devastating effects on civilians), and on the other end of the spectrum is bilateral negotiations with Iran, with those same harsh economic sanctions used as leverage. This bipartisan framing of the issue, deferentially accepted by establishment media, entirely excludes a third option from the discourse: a common-sense proposal which has nearly unanimous international support.

So, what is this international consensus? Simple: a nuclear weapons-free-zone in the Middle East, where all nuclear materials would be under the direct control of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Five nuclear weapons-free-zones in the world have already been successfully implemented, and this proposal would make the Middle East the sixth. All nuclear material in the region, from Israel's nuclear weapons to Iran's or any other country's civilian nuclear energy program, would be under the control of the IAEA. This proposal is endorsed by respected international arms control organizations and experts around the world—see here for a detailed explanation by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. And, as demonstrated by the votes on this proposal at the General Assembly of the United Nations, is widely supported around the world, by a massive margin. Since the signing of the JCPOA (the Iran Nuclear Deal) in 2015 through the American unilateral withdrawal until now, this proposal has been voted on many times, with revealing results.

During the first post-JCPOA General Assembly session in December of 2015, the League of Arab States—a group of countries largely hostile to Iran and allied with the United States and Israel—drafted a proposal for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Tellingly, 157 countries voted in favor of the proposition and only five countries—the United States, Israel, Canada, Micronesia, and Palau—voted against (Micronesia and Palau are largely dependent on American foreign aid). Iran voted in favor of the motion. 

A nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East was proposed again the following year, and the year after, with identical votes. In 2018, two proposals regarding a nuclear weapons-free-zone in the Middle East were voted on: the first resolution passed by a vote of 158-6 (the Marshall Islands joined the "no" votes) and the second resolution passed with a vote of 171-2, leaving the United States and Israel in complete global isolation. This pattern of the United States and Israel persists until the present, while Iran has voted in favor of the international consensus every year, without exception.

Aside from its near-unanimous global support, this proposal has further value. A nuclear weapons-free-zone in the Middle East would be the strongest way to guarantee that Iran does not go nuclear—far stronger than either a re-entry into the Iran Nuclear Deal or a tightening of our strangulation policy would. Critics of the JCPOA from both political parties claim there is a lack of accountability measures to ensure Iranian compliance with the deal. Putting aside the validity of those claims, under the terms of a nuclear weapons-free-zone in the Middle East, as proposed by the general assembly, there would be a far more robust mechanism for accountability—control over all of Iran's nuclear material by the IAEA. This level of supervision would virtually eliminate all concerns over development of weapons-grade fissile materials and thereby negate the so-called Iranian threat. 

And if that is not enough, there is a very strong case to be made that both international law and domestic American law require the United States to accept the international consensus. As scholars of international law have pointed out, the first part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty discusses state obligations regarding non-proliferation of nuclear materials, and Article VI compels all signatories to move, in good faith, towards disarmament. This interpretation of Article VI was confirmed by a unanimous International Court of Justice advisory opinion, joined by the American judge. Acceptance of a nuclear weapons-free-zone in the Middle East would be a step towards non-proliferation in the case of Iran, and disarmament in the case of Israel's nuclear arsenal, both of which are legally binding treaty obligations.

The NPT is a Senate-ratified treaty, making it the "supreme Law of the Land" in the United States according to Article VI of the Constitution. Furthermore, there is an American domestic law that the United States is likely violating but would come closer to compliance if the international consensus was accepted. The Symington Amendment, passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the President Ford in 1976, unambiguously bans all military and economic aid to countries which have developed nuclear enrichment technologies outside of international control. Israel has never allowed any international inspection or monitoring of its nuclear technology and arsenal—the IAEA has never been allowed into Israel's nuclear facilities—and therefore every dollar of aid sent to Israel is blatantly in violation of American law. Accepting the international consensus would change this.

Despite the requirements of international law and domestic law, and despite near-unanimous global support on the issue, establishment media in the United States excludes this proposal, thereby dangerously limiting popular discourse. American legal obligations regarding nuclear weapons are almost never discussed; the Symington Amendment, for example, has not been mentioned in the pages of the New York Times since 2001 (and even then, the paper was referencing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, not Israel's).

Furthermore, from July of 2015 until the present, the New York Times has not mentioned the yearly General Assembly proposition on a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, or the near-unanimous vote on the proposition, a single time. In that same six-year period, despite relentless coverage of Iran's nuclear development, the phrase "nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East" appeared in the Paper of Record just once: in an article where the editorial board mentions Israel only twice and describes their nuclear arsenal as "nonnegotiable," without any further justification. Tellingly, the article is titled "One Way Forward on Iran: A Nuclear-Weapons-Free Persian Gulf," a phrase not used by international arms control organizations and experts, seemingly coined by the New York Times' editorial board in order to exclude Israel. The New York Times, and establishment media outlets generally, passively parrot our political leaders false, binary framing of this issue—war and brutal sanctions on the one hand and bilateral negotiations and sanctions on the other—ignoring the opinion of the entire global community.

War is potentially imminent. And if we want to prevent Iran from going nuclear, there is a clear, common-sense solution which happens to have near-global support, except for the United States and Israel. We should not continue to prioritize Israel's possession of nuclear weapons over international law, American law, global popular opinion, regional stability, and nuclear nonproliferation in Iran. Now that we are on the brink of a potentially catastrophic war, the international consensus is more important than ever. And its absence from establishment discourse is dangerous.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Jacob Batinga

Jacob Batinga is a JD Candidate at UC Berkeley School of Law, concentrating on issues at the intersection of human rights, national security, and international relations. Jacob has previously lived in and worked with human rights organizations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and has conducted research on American foreign policy.

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