Reaching a Nuclear Agreement with Iran: the Problematics of Middle Eastern Diplomacy

Photograph Source: Anthony Crider – CC BY 2.0

When a nuclear agreement with Iran was reached by U.S. led multilateral diplomacy in 2015, despite vigorous opposition from Israel, it was widely viewed as the greatest foreign policy achievement of the Obama presidency, and for good reason. It also showcased the potentialities of great power cooperation when national interests sufficiently converge in a manner that supports the pursuit of the regional and global public good. In those days before Washington’s strategists and foreign policy wonks rediscovered the joys of geopolitical confrontation, not only the major NATO powers (UK, France, and Germany), but more intriguingly, China and Russia, joined as signatories to what became known at the time as the 5 +1 Iran Nuclear Agreement or simply, JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

That Iran was willing to curtail its nuclear program without demanding compensating moves by Israel was a surprise. Israel had been permitted, indeed helped, to acquire secretly the means to establish and develop a nuclear weapons capability a generation earlier without any adverse international reaction, becoming in 1967 or so the first state in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons. It would have seemed reasonable for Iran to strike a posture of willingness to commit itself to a nuclear-free Middle East, which would have been a more dramatic move toward denuclearizing the Middle East than was JCPOA. Why did Iran refrain in 2015 and now again, even with a hardline leadership in control of its government? Perhaps, because the Iranian leadership understood there would be no sanctions relief if it depended on Israel’s willingness to give up its status as a nuclear weapons state. In this sense, the 2015 agreement can be seen either as an indicate of the diplomatic skill of the P-5 + 1 in limiting the negotiating agenda, and especially of the U.S., or as an indication that Iran was prepared to close its eyes to the unreasonableness of demanding limitations on its nuclear capabilities while ignoring the far greater breach of the nonproliferation ethos by Israel over a period of many years. Iran seemed willing to do this because of the high priority given to undoing the burdens of the continuing sanctions. It appears that the 2021-2022 Vienna talks among the five adherents to JCPOA (plus indirect talks with the U.S.) have similarly not been faced with demands to address Israel’s nuclearism, quite possibly for similar reasons.

Why did this exhibition of constructive diplomacy happen in a region of the world, entailing overlooking Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons coupled with its belligerent posture so as to reduce tensions with regard to Iran, which had long been a major site of struggle, strife, and periodic warfare ever since 1979? I presume the main motivation was war avoidance in the Middle East and the belief that JCPOA contributed to the overall goals of nonproliferation and thus avoiding a regional arms race by major Arab states to acquire nuclear weapons.

A secondary consideration prompted by the lingering failures of the Iraq ‘democracy promotion’ regime changing intervention of 2003 was to reduce the American military and political engagement in the Middle East. The 2015 initiative to downgrade Iran as a confrontational priority was seen as facilitating Obama’s ill-advised ‘pivot to Asia.’

Proclaiming this pivot amounted to geopolitical coded message for ‘taking on China in the South China Sea.’ How different might the mood and politics have been had Obama instead opted for a ‘pivot to America!’ And even now it may not be too late for a turn away from global militarism, although Biden, frustrated by Republicans on the home front, now seems hell-bent on pivoting toward Russia, Iran, and China, apparently yearning for the good old days of the crisis-fraught geopolitics of the Cold War with the most opportune zones of confrontation currently being the Ukraine, Iran, and Taiwan.

A side benefit of the 2015 agreement, not often noted, was to give moderates in Iran a major victory in the form of achieving sanctions relief, unfrozen bank accounts, and a path to normalcy in its external relations. The agreement was vigorously opposed at the time by Israel and its supporters, as well as hawkish elements in the U.S. political class. Their main contentions were that Iran would be free from enrichment and centrifuge limits by 2030 and that the agreement did not include an enforceable Iranian pledge to end support for anti-Israeli, anti-Saudi, and anti-American political actors in regional conflict situations as well as to place restraints on its missile program. Iran has adamantly insisted on separating diplomacy concerning its nuclear program from its political involvements in regional politics and its national security posture.

When Trump came along in 2017, the unraveling of JCPOA was a foregone conclusion, guided as much or more by his vindictive resolve to erase Obama’s legacy in ways designed to degrade his predecessor, and win praise from Israel and many members of the U.S. Congress. Trump denounced the agreement as one-sided in Iran’s favor, a betrayal of Israel’s security interests, and needing replacement by a more stringent arrangement, or according to his transactional mindset, ‘a better deal.’

In May of 2018 Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement, followed that June by the reimposition of sanctions, which were later further intensified inflicting great damage on the Iranian economy and civilian population. These escalating steps toward confrontation were hailed by Israel’s leaders. In contrast, the repudiation of JCPOA was not appreciated by the five other signatories, and deeply destabilizing for the region as well as striking a devastating blow to the reformist government in Tehran led by President Hassan Rouhani, having the effect of opening the gates for the hardline victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the 2021 elections.

In Tehran this return to the tense pre-2015 days was regarded as confirmation that the West, and especially the U.S., could not be trusted to keep its word and was regarded as evidence that Washington remained determined to bring the Iranian government to its knees in pursuit of its political agenda. Trump had also authorized the assassination of General Qasim Soleimani in early 2020, the most popular of Iranian leaders and seen as a future president of the country. In such an atmosphere Israel felt emboldened enough to assassinate Iran’s leading nuclear scientists and to engage in unlawful sabotage attacks on its nuclear facilities without adverse effects.

As might have been expected, Iran although it gave the remaining JCPOA signatories a year to overcome the U.S. withdrawal, eventually responded by gradually increasing the enrichment of uranium fuel that were somewhat closer to weapons grade levels, reportedly reaching 60% as well as installing higher quality centrifuges. Despite these steps, Iran reiterated its intention not to develop nuclear weapons, and Western intelligence services confirmed that there was no evidence that Iran was intent on becoming a nuclear weapons state.

When Trump was defeated and Biden elected in 2020, it was naively assumed to be just a matter of time until the 2015 Agreement was restored, and again made operational. After all, Biden had pledged to do so throughout his campaign to become president. It turned out to be far from simple in practice, partly because there was plenty of pushback from Israel and the Republicans. In the meantime, the political change of leadership in Iran, with a conservative cleric, Ebrahim Raisi easily elected to replace Rouhani. It is relevant to observe that Raisi was a pre-Trump advocate of skepticism about the wisdom of trying to reach a diplomatic accommodation with the West. Despite this background, after being elected Raisi has seemed open to restoring JCPOA, yet entertaining this option in a spirit of caution, suspicion, and firmness. Despite pressure from Washington, Iran has refused so far to engage in direct talks with the U.S. at Vienna. Iranian officials have been telling the media that Iran is awaiting reliable signs from the U.S. that it is prepared to remove all sanctions without conditions and is prepared to gives guaranties that it will not again withdraw from whatever arrangement is agreed upon. Once such a willingness is signaled, if it is, Iran will agree to direct talks. Until then, it will discuss the issues directly only with governments of the remaining five signatories, that is, 5+1 minus the U.S..

Beyond the obstacles associated with satisfying Israel’s alleged security concerns and a determination not to get mired in controversial foreign policy initiatives, Biden sought in the early months of his presidency to focus on domestic issues, especially the social and economic fallout from the pandemic. This meant an avoidance of even the semblance of a break with Israel, which helps explain why the White House made a series of unusual high-profile gestures to reassure Israel that the U.S. would not act unilaterally, but would coordinate with Israel its negotiating efforts to restore JCPOA. The only way for Biden to find such a level of approval by Israel for a restored nuclear agreement with Iran is if the new arrangements appeared to strengthen the constraints of the 2015 text by removing sunset clauses terminating vital features of the agreement, and through robust monitoring and verifying procedures to assess compliance with permanent restrictions on enrichment, testing, stockpiling, and centrifuges. The U.S. has also signaled that the pace of sanctions relief would be quickened if Iran additionally pledged to roll back its regional engagements hostile to the interests of the Gulf monarchies, Israel, and the U.S.. These engagements by Iran are supposedly currently causing trouble for Western interests in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, and Gaza.

Matters of Context

Most important is the acknowledgement and relevance of the Trump withdrawal from the 2015 agreement because he (following Israel’s encouragement) thought it a bad deal. Because Iran reacted, at first cautiously, hoping for some compensatory actions from the European countries, it seems obvious that it wanted the agreement to survive the U.S. withdrawal. With the present effort to restore JCPOA the U.S. acts as if it owes not even an apology to Iran but seeks to conditions its renewal of participation on the acceptance by Iran of a new more restrictive agreement, policy goals partly dictated by domestic circumstances. Anything less will be openly attacked by Trumpists and by Israel, at least by the Netanyahu-led Likud opposition party.

It is important to appreciate the broader context of both the 2015 agreement and this attempt to renew compliance by both the U.S. and Iran with or without an alteration of its terms. To begin with, as mentioned, the 5 +1 group should recognize that Iran’s willingness to curtail its nuclear program without reference to Israel’s nuclear weapons, constituted a major concession without which negotiations would have been fruitless from their outset. It should also be appreciated that a genuine concern with nonproliferation, regional stability, and the equality of states would have made it reasonable for Iran to insist on prior Israeli denuclearization or parallel negotiations of a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone. What is more such an inclusive approach to regional denuclearization would have served the regional and global public good. At the same time, for Iran to condition negotiations on its own nuclear program by linkage to Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal would preclude any diplomatic attempt to end Iran’s suffering from sanctions. It seems virtually certain that Israel would refuse all efforts to call into question its national security posture, including its right to possess and develop nuclear weaponry, and almost as certain that the U.S. and Europe would not exert pressure on Israel to link its relationship to the weaponry with efforts to curtail the Iran nuclear program.

Related to this, is the failure of Iran in its public discourse to condition its willingness to accept international controls be tied to an acceptance by Israel and the U.S. of a commitment to refrain from destabilization efforts to undermine the authority of the Iranian government or to damage its nuclear facilities by covert operations. In other words, Iran has not conditioned its participation in the 2015 agreement or its renewal on respect for its sovereign rights as prescribed under international law. This again is a meaningful indication of the importance Iran attaches to sanctions relief and overall normalization. At the same time, Iran has made clear that there are red lines that if crossed would make the Vienna negotiations futile—placing any restrictions on Iran’s non-nuclear national security posture and its foreign policy engagements throughout the region.

During this period of uncertainty, Iran’s diplomacy has not been passive. The January drone attacks on Abu Dhabi by Houthi rebel forces in Yemen are assumed in the West to be undertaken with the approval of Tehran, and may be thought of as a setoff to Israel’s periodic attacks and threats directed at Iran, as well as a neutralizing response to the anti-Iranian moves of the Gulf monarchies. Whether the political allies of Iran in the region can be considered ‘Iran proxies,’ as contended in the Western media, is somewhat fanciful.

From the Western perspective, Iranian efforts to disregard the constraints of JCPOA seem to suggest an Iranian ambition to be at least a threshold nuclear weapons state, that is, capable of acquiring nuclear weapons in a matter of weeks. It remains ambiguous as to whether Iran is seeking leverage in the bargaining process currently underway or indeed had become disillusioned with accepting restraints in exchange for shaky promises of sanctions relief in light of Trump’s 2018 withdrawal, and the failure of the other parties to the agreement to step in to neutralize the imposition of harsh sanctions. In light of this history, it seems reasonable for Iran to demand a commitment against withdrawal or the reimposition of sanctions, although it may not be implementable within the constitutional frameworks of the 5 + 1 states. For example, if Trump is reelected in 2024, it seems likely he would repeat his moves of 2018 without meaningful internal legal obstruction, especially given the conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court. If the restored agreement took the form of an international treaty, its legal durability might be enhanced, but such an instrument would require submission to the ratification procedures of the participating countries. Such a requirement would undoubtedly doom the agreement as the Republicans in the U.S. Congress, probably with help from some Democrats, would block ratification.

Geopolitical Spillovers

If the agreement is restored within the JCPOA framework with minimal modifications, and is then implemented, including a show of tacit respect exhibited by Israel and the promised sanctions relief is forthcoming, the likelihood of a stabilizing impact on regional and global relations greatly increases. It will also strengthen the political position of Raisi in Iran, claiming that greater diplomatic firmness yielded better results.

If the Vienna talks fail, then the prospects for a heightening of regional tensions is likely, taking the form of anti-Iranian confrontational tactics, maintenance of sanctions, and a reactive Iranian pushback by way of asserting its leverage in regional hot spots. The likelihood of Iran’s alignment with Russia and China also becomes probable, already foreshadowed by long-term trade agreements, high-profile diplomatic visits, and recent joint naval training exercises. Again, the Raisi leadership will likely be strengthened by the claim that diplomacy failed, interpreted as showing the unwillingness of Raisi to fall into the kind of trap that occurred when the moderate leadership of Rouhani took the poisoned bait in 2015. The increase availability of reliable geopolitical alternatives that eased the economic hardships long experienced by the Iranian people would also work to Raisi’s advantage.

Concluding Observation

It is way past time for the West to get over its distress about the outcome of the Iranian revolution that brought the popular movement headed by Ayatollah Khomeini to power in early 1979. In 2015 the JCPOA seemed a step in that direction, soon to be spoiled by the disruptive Trump behavior. With a new president the U.S. Government should have seized the initiative in reinvigorating the JCPOA, and as well acted in ways that brought hopes of a new dawn to the prolonged misery of the Palestinian people. Unfortunately, assuming my analysis is correct, this desirable course of action is extremely unlikely. The Biden administration seems disinclined to accept any U.S. responsibility for the breakdown of the 2015 agreement, and unreasonably expects Iran to start from a premise of co-responsibility without taking account of the fact that JCPOA worked well until the U.S. withdrew. And as for the Palestinians, they can expect nothing more than a more moderate style of pro-Israeli partisanship, and few course corrections of the way Trump coddled Israeli expansionism.     

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.