There is a common misperception that those of us who opposed the Iran nuclear deal are simply opposed to diplomacy with Iran.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In more than 25 years in Congress, we have consistently supported diplomacy backed by sanctions, with the objective of ending Iran’s dangerous nuclear plans and curbing its regional aggression. That is why we believe there is an opportunity for President Biden to think beyond the mere restoration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the deal that the Obama administration, its European partners, China and Russia reached with Iran in 2015.
We believe there is a way to achieve a compromise that will find support among the countries of the region, meet Iran’s stated goal for peaceful nuclear power and avoid an arms race in the Middle East. We believe that countries that desire a peaceful, responsible nuclear power program to provide electricity and jobs to their people should be able to do so safely. As a concrete step toward this end, we suggest — building on a proposal made by various countries in the past — the creation of a regional nuclear fuel bank.
We must begin by confronting the reality that, following the Trump administration’s withdrawal and Iran’s escalatory nuclear advancements, the deal itself is all but broken. Even though we opposed the original deal, we warned in 2018 that the world needed a diplomatic path to a solution, and that withdrawal without a diplomatic plan would lead to a more dangerous Iran.
And indeed, Iran has raised the stakes. In 2020, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran blocked inspectors, subsequently enriched uranium up to 60 percent, installed new advanced centrifuges and increased its stockpile of enriched uranium. So while the U.S. intelligence community assesses that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities,” Iran has focused on escalating tensions to build a stronger negotiating position. The same intelligence community report also noted that Iran and its allies “continue to plot terrorist attacks against U.S. persons and interests” while conducting destabilizing online influence operations and building up the region’s largest arsenal of ballistic missiles.
Even during the short time in which all parties were implementing the JCPOA, Iran continued transferring increasingly sophisticated arms to Hezbollah, bolstering the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and exploiting Houthi grievances in Yemen, where it has established growing influence.
All this poses a fundamental question: Why should we limit our diplomatic efforts to controlling Iran’s nuclear program? Instead, we should be seeking an approach that meaningfully constrains this behavior and the leverage Iran continues to derive from it.
If we are seeking more from Iran, we should be willing to give more sanctions relief in return. The United States and the international community should capitalize on potential new regional diplomatic engagement, and encourage broader negotiations to curb malign Iranian influence in the region.
If Iranian leaders truly desire a peaceful nuclear program, then they ought to welcome the creation of a nuclear fuel bank for the Persian Gulf region. The IAEA has already established a nuclear fuel bank that any member can access in case of a disruption in existing fuel arrangements. This could be expanded to guarantee that any gulf state can fuel its commercial nuclear reactors from an IAEA fuel bank on the condition of forgoing domestic uranium enrichment and reprocessing. A regional nuclear fuel bank could provide a reliable, affordable and transparent source of nuclear fuel for any state that sought a peaceful commercial nuclear program. This approach could multilateralize the nuclear issue and stop a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Finding a more comprehensive approach will be difficult, and nuclear power is only part of the solution. There is obviously a lot of mistrust. There are those in the United States and Iran who oppose any diplomacy — even if it aims to achieve an outcome that would promote U.S. national security interests and potentially provide economic relief for the average Iranian, who has nothing to do with uranium enrichment or ballistic missile technology.
Such a deal would have a better chance of garnering wider, bipartisan support in the United States, which would also send a stronger signal to Iran about its durability. We would certainly need more political buy-in from Iran and other regional actors. Transparency, accountability and strict oversight would be paramount. We would need to ensure that the United Nations, the IAEA and other partner organizations have the capacity and will to truly address these issues.
Finally, the administration must work to ensure justice for all American citizens who have suffered from Iran’s malign activity, including those who continue to be unjustly detained.
The art of diplomacy is difficult, but the path to a better deal is clear. We strongly encourage the Biden administration, the Iranians and our international negotiating partners to think beyond the past and look toward what we can achieve for the future. Refusing to do so would risk a tremendous opportunity for peace.
Bob Menendez, a Democrat, represents New Jersey in the U.S. Senate and serves as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, represents South Carolina in the U.S. Senate.