Engineering and science, as an ultimate human intellectual endeavor, has always risen above political and diplomatic affairs. The instrumental role of scientists and engineers in helping diplomacy is attested in the recent P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was agreed upon between the P5+1 countries and Iran in 2014, foresees international collaboration cooperation in at least three areas:
- “Fordow will be converted from an enrichment site into a nuclear, physics and technology centre. International collaboration will be encouraged in agreed areas of research.”
- “An international joint venture will assist Iran in redesigning and rebuilding a modernized Heavy Water Research Reactor in Arak that will not produce weapons grade plutonium.”
- “Iran will take part in international cooperation in the field of civilian nuclear energy which can include supply of power and research reactors. Another important area of cooperation will be in the field of nuclear safety and security.”
International cooperation related to science and technology matters could be used to further leverage diplomacy, or even to create a new common ground with Iran. It could also be the key to resolution of other related issues, and as such, it should actively be pursued. It is helpful to consider that the most efficient control on technological matters is obtained through the systemic integration of one country’s technology with that of other countries, such that no one component of the system operates independently of the total system. Tight integration, inter-dependency and correlation among technologies of different countries provide much more oversight, control, and assurance than a policy of restrictions and economic or technological embargoes.
This approach, which is based on engaging and integrating Iran’s technological infrastructure, rather than the endless cat-and-mouse game of perpetual inspections, constitutes a paradigm shift in foreign policy. It not only will reduce the risk of nuclear breakouts and accidents, but it will also provide a much more assured and effective control and accurate verification of nuclear technologies in the future.
For example, the US and its five negotiating allies should make an offer concerning Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium that it cannot refuse by forming a joint venture for a nuclear fuel fabrication plant on the Iranian territory. While providing the optimal “verifiability and enforceability”, demanded, among others, by former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, the main function of this project would be to promptly and directly convert Iran’s domestically produced enriched uranium - at whatever level and capacity - to fuel rods which could then be used in Iranian reactors. The rest could be exported and sold to nuclear power plants around the world.
A final nuclear agreement with Iran, which would result in the realization of JCOPA’s goals and Iran’s reintegration with the international community will have noteworthy “multiplier effects” that would greatly benefit the whole world, but especially the Persian Gulf region.
Persian Gulf countries ought to think about the “unthinkable”, which should not be that difficult to do, especially after witnessing two major low-probability, high-consequence disasters with regional aftermaths in just the last five years: the BP Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling platform explosion in 2010, which killed 11 workers and spilled nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico; and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident in Japan in 2011 that released radiation into the atmosphere and spilled radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean affecting sea-life.
There is an urgent need for Iran and its Persian Gulf neighbors, with active participation of the international community, to focus on important issues of safety and the sustainability of energy, water, and food resources in the Persian Gulf that will affect the livelihoods of people in that area in the future. This urgent needs stems from the Gulf’s increasing reliance on seawater desalination, the expected operation of at least three newly-built nuclear power plants in the next five years, ongoing offshore oil and gas production, and their combined effects on the sea life and ecosystem, all in light of heavy routine maritime traffic of naval and commercial vessels.
As a member and technical advisor on two national panels investigating both the Horizon oil spill and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, I can only imagine what a massive oil spill or radionuclide release into the Persian Gulf would look like; it could have more catastrophic effects on the ecosystem and people’s lives than the two aforementioned disasters, combined. The umbilical cord of this region is attached to the gulf. It is its primary source of water and seafood, and the source of water for energy production and refining, both fossil and fissile. An energy disaster would have dire consequences on safe water, food, and energy production.
Iran and its Persian Gulf neighbors, with the United States’ direct involvement and support of the international community, should embark on an urgent multilateral approach and systematically address safety and sustainability of energy and water resources among all littoral countries of the Persian Gulf. These countries should come to a collective understanding and recognition to address the above-mentioned issues in a system-oriented (not a piecemeal or bilateral) manner. The Persian Gulf states should recognize that there is an urgent need to balance their domestic sovereignty with regional responsibility; and to enshrine it in a regional, all inclusive center for cooperation on safety, security and sustainability of energy, water and food resources.
Of course, in addition to safety and sustainability, one important byproduct and unintended (positive) consequence of science and engineering diplomacy could be better relations among these countries. After all, it was Iran’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif, who asserted in his op-ed article “Our Neighbors are our Priority”:
“In our interconnected world, the fate of one nation is tied to the destinies of its neighbors. The body of water that separates us from our southern neighbors is not just a waterway -- it is our shared lifeline. All of us depend on it, not just for survival, but to thrive. With our fates so closely tied together, the belief that one’s interests can be pursued without consideration of the interests of others is delusional.”
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