Involving regional states in Iran talks is a recipe for failure
In an interview with the Saudi-owned television channel, Al Arabiya, last Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that Saudi Arabia should be included in any future negotiations with Iran. He added that excluding regional states from nuclear talks that culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, with Iran in 2015 was a big mistake.
The French president spoke on the heels of similar demands voiced by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, which have argued for some time that any future deal should go beyond the nuclear issue and cover Iran’s regional activities and missile program as well.
If, however, the United States and the European parties (the United Kingdom, France, and Germany), go down this road, they can be assured that Iran will have none of it. Indeed, such a path will almost certainly prevent the JCPOA’s revival and Iran’s return to full compliance with its provisions.
Instead, the most likely result will be the suspension of full cooperation by Iran with the International Atomic Energy Agency. President Hassan Rouhani’s government finds itself under pressure from Iran’s hardline parliament, which late last year mandated an escalation in Iran’s nuclear program if Washington fails to return to the JCPOA by February 21. Already, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said that Iran does not really need the JCPOA or the removal of U.S. sanctions and should instead rely on its “resistance economy” by increasing domestic production
To expect Iran to accept the participation of regional countries in any talks regarding the JCPOA is unrealistic. First, Iran has already said that it considers the JCPOA a finished affair that must not be reopened or subject to new negotiations. But even if Iran were to consider a renegotiation of aspects of the JCPOA, it would not accept the participation of its regional rivals in it.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Saeid Khatibzadeh, criticized Macron for his statement and has advised him to show restraint. Even before Macron’s statement, various Iranian officials had made clear that mixing the nuclear issue with other issues, such as Iranian missiles and regional conflicts, was a non-starter.
One major reason for Iran’s unwillingness to accept the participation of regional states in any renegotiation of the JCPOA, assuming that Iran were to engage in such talks, is national pride. It would be very hard for Tehran to accept that Saudi Arabia or the UAE would have a veto over its bilateral relations with other countries.
Tehran is also concerned that, if given a chance, its regional rivals would try to use the United States and the European powers to extract excessive concessions from Iran. For instance, the UAE might make any agreement on the nuclear issue contingent on Iran giving up its claim to the three Persian Gulf islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. Or Saudi Arabia could demand that Iran sever its links with the Houthis is Yemen before it agrees to end its own intervention there, a demand that Tehran would find very difficult to accept.
Tehran also worries that regional states might make unacceptable demands on the nuclear issue. For instance, they might insist that Tehran give up the right to enrich uranium, a right whose recognition by Washington was ultimately critical to making possible the negotiation of the JCPOA itself. Tehran will not give that up now.
Moreover, regional players, by making excessive demands, could place themselves in a position to effectively veto any possible final agreement between Iran and the other JCPOA parties that would substantially ease or eliminate the sanctions that have been imposed against it.
Iran’s regional rivals have long sought Iran’s isolation, and the sanctions have served as an effective way to achieve that goal by making it as unattractive as possible to foreign investment and commerce. That isolation has worked in favor of Gulf Arabs, such as Dubai, whose tourism industry has benefitted greatly from the lack of competition. If Iran’s Persian Gulf islands, such as Kish and Qeshm, were to be fully developed and made easily accessible to tourists, Dubai’s tourism sector would likely suffer.
The gradual rebuilding of Iran’s international relations would also undermine the influence of its regional rivals as major players on the international stage. Given its abundant energy resources and its well-educated workforce, among other attributes, Iran’s reintegration into the global economy would likely increase U.S. and European leverage over Saudi Arabia and the UAE, making the West less responsive to their demands and less inclined to overlook their transgressions, including human rights abuses at home and interventions abroad. (Of course, the West should also expect Iran to moderate its own behavior in these same areas.) In any event, Iran’s regional rivals may well decide, if they haven’t already done so, that their interests are best served precisely by preventing any agreement that could result in Iran’s international rehabilitation.
In short, while a case can be made for tinkering with some aspects of the JCPOA, such as extending the timeline of its sunset provisions, it would be a mistake to mix it with all the other long-standing and difficult issues of regional rivalries and grievances. Additionally, it is unlikely that Russia and China, which are also party to the JCPOA, would agree to enlarging the negotiation table, in part because they know that Iran would not go along with it.
Promoting Iran-Gulf dialogue
In dealing with demands for negotiations on regional issues, the United States should instead encourage the Gulf states to engage in direct talks with Iran, as recently proposed by the foreign minister of Qatar. There have also been reports that Kuwait and Oman are trying to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh. Such efforts will fail if Saudi Arabia is given reason to believe that it could get a better deal from Tehran by holding the JCPOA hostage.
A more lasting security arrangement in the Persian Gulf would require some international engagement and supervision. Iran’s demands that extra-regional states are excluded from regional negotiations are unrealistic (although the Shah of Iran had taken the same position, at least rhetorically, before the Islamic Revolution). However, before such arrangements can be worked out, encouraging direct dialogue across the Persian Gulf would help reduce tensions between Iran and the Arab states and also could help stabilize Iraq by calming regional competition for influence there.
In short, the best strategy for salvaging and possibly improving on the JCPOA is a quick return by Washington to the accord at the same time that Iran reverses, as it has promised to do, the actions it has taken to accelerate its nuclear program since President Trump formally ended U.S. participation in 2018. Once this is accomplished and some semblance of trust has returned to U.S.-Iran relations, other sources of tension, including Iran’s regional activities, can be addressed.
Incremental and realistic steps are the best way to reduce regional tensions and avoid potentially disastrous conflicts.