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The Iran nuclear deal and beyond: Can the US and Turkey find common ground?

Few would disagree that U.S.-Turkish relations are fraught with mounting tensions. Each side has legitimate concerns about the actions and policies of the other on a host of issues, not least of which is the ultimate fate of Syria, the military and diplomatic role of Russia in the greater Middle East, and the fundamental challenge of nuclear proliferation in the region.

Nevertheless, lately there have been some attempts on both sides geared toward reducing the frictions. These and other questions were at the heart of a March 2020 Track 2 dialogue that took place in Brussels attended by policy experts as well as former and current officials from Turkey, the U.S. and other NATO countries.

One of the most important issues debated was the danger of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, a prospect that has grown since the Trump administration abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018. Despite the negative consequences of this momentous, if profoundly unwise decision, Washington and Ankara have a shared interest in finding a common path forward that would not only allow a revival of the JCPOA, but also a possible expansion of its original mandate to embrace several issues, including the critical issues of ballistic missiles.

A U.S.-Turkish initiative?

For the moment the prospects for such a U.S.-Turkish initiative on ballistic missiles seems more remote than ever. Indeed, the Trump administration’s current effort to push the U.N. Security Council to reimpose an arms embargo on Iran could provide European and Turkish leaders every incentive to find ways to cooperate and limit the damage of a U.S. policy that is bound to make the Middle East more unstable.

European leaders — who only recently reiterated their condemnation of Trump’s repudiation of the JCPOA — might join Turkey in a separate effort to create their own framework for addressing ballistic missiles and the wider threat of nuclear proliferation.

This will not be easy. Despite their frustrations with Iran, European countries are far from agreed on how to respond to the proposal made by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in July 2019 to open up negotiations on ballistic missiles. But if getting a European consensus remains difficult, the interests of both Ankara and Washington will not be served if the Trump administration’s failure to embrace the strategic option of multilateral diplomacy ultimately leaves the U.S. even more isolated in the Middle East and in the wider global arena as well. Rather than invite this outcome, both sides should embark on an initiative to revive and expand the JCPOA based on the following nine steps:  

1. Before initiating a process to revive and expand the JCPOA, the U.S. and Turkey must rejuvenate a U.S.-Turkey Strategic Dialogue on a wide variety of challenges facing the two allies. A common institutional arena for action will have to be identified prior to giving impetus to this broader dialogue, one that should embrace different layers of governmental and non-governmental structures. But the dialogue should not be solely confined to the level of the leaders in both countries. Moreover, support for such a long-term dialogue should be embraced at the grassroots level.

2. Reviving and possibly expanding the JCPOA should be among the priorities of that permanent structure, in addition to other regional challenges such as proliferation, the future of the political landscape in Syria, and potential implications of the ongoing crisis in Libya. That said, these issues should be compartmentalized. Putting each challenge/issue in the same basket to solve at once risks adverse backlashes..

3. Because the JCPOA is a challenge laden with many regional complexities that require sustained efforts and patience over time, the U.S. and Turkey should appoint a group of high-level diplomats whose mission will be to agree on a set of principles to inform and guide efforts to overcome the impasse revolving around the JCPOA. Quiet diplomacy led by representatives who have the trust of their governments will be essential to forging a Turkish/U.S. common effort.

4. This Turkish-U.S. effort should address the crucial issue of ballistic missiles. While the talks would address the full range of missiles Iran has developed or currently developing, Turkey and the U.S. should indicate support in principle for a broader framework to address challenges pertinent to ballistic missiles in the region. A statement to that effect could provide an important confidence building measure for all the key parties.

5. A Declaration of Intent should be issued confirming that all parties concerned are ready to accept the invitation made by Zarif in July 2019 to enter into talks on ballistic missiles.

6. This declaration would also set out the steps the U.S. and Iran would need to take. The Iranians would have to pledge a readiness to consider serious and lasting limitations on their ballistic program. Leading up to and during the negotiations, Iran would also agree to return to the level of enrichment that it agreed under the JCPOA. For its part, the U.S. would have to agree to suspend all nuclear related sanctions as well as its current effort to secure U.N. support for re-imposing an arms embargo on Iran.

7. To give greater weight to these pledges, the U.S. and Turkey should reaffirm their opposition to and condemnation of any effort by state and non-state actors to undertake hostilities or provocative actions that signal or could be construed as signalling any intent to threaten private and state linked commercial shipping in international waterways.

8. Ankara and Washington should leverage their existing relations with key states in the region and beyond. Discrete outreach to Israel, the Gulf States, Iran, and Russia will help to undergird the U.S.-Turkish initiative, providing that both countries make it clear that they are seeking constructive ideas rather than giving any regional friends a veto over any ideas raised to revive and expand the JCPOA.

9. Consultations with key NATO allies at regular intervals are essential to have more traction in negotiations on a renewed JCPOA and ballistic missiles issue in the region. In that regard, the U.S. will have to exert necessary efforts, as appropriate, within the U.N. Security Counciul to secure the support of its five permanent members.  

The high if not intolerable costs of inaction

If  this bid to expand the JCPOA fails, the U.S. and its regional allies will pay a heavy price. Iranian leaders might very well renounce the JCPOA and might even choose to declare that Iran that is no longer a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Iranian hardliners will welcome this turn of events and then press for Tehran not only to further expand its stock of enriched uranium, but to take steps towards weapons-grade levels of enrichment, which could spark a regional nuclear arms race.

A concerted effort by Turkey and the U.S. to avoid this outcome would put the U.S. at the forefront of efforts to establish security and diplomacy in the Middle East.

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