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Agreement and uncertainty: The Iran nuclear deal in a new global order

In their approach to Iran, Western policymakers should think beyond non-proliferation to account for the country’s attempts at strategic balancing.

Analysis | Middle East

This article has been republished with permission from the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Just as negotiators were poised for a breakthrough in talks over the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine threatened to kill the deal once and for all. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded that the United States provide Russia with “written guarantees” that Western-led sanctions would not impinge upon Russian trade and investment with Iran. The demand came as a surprise to Russia’s chief negotiator in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov. Until that point, Ulyanov had only sought to clarify whether those sanctions would prevent Russian companies active in the nuclear sector from participating in the civil nuclear cooperation outlined in the JCPOA. Given that diplomats on all sides were now not only exhausted but also confused, they decided to postpone the talks indefinitely.

But Iran was not going to let the deal die at such a late stage, especially if the cause of failure was a Russian tantrum. On 15 March, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian travelled to Moscow to meet with Lavrov. The early signs from the trip were positive. Amirabdollahian emphasised that “Russia will not be any sort of obstacle for reaching an agreement.” For his part, Lavrov noted that Russia had received written guarantees that addressed its concerns about the impact of US sanctions on Russia in the civil nuclear cooperation and economic engagement with Iran that would follow the restoration of the JCPOA.

Lavrov also suggested that the Iran nuclear talks would resume soon. Reports indicate that there are now no substantive differences between the US and Iran that could stand in the way of a deal. Indeed, following the announcement of a pause in the nuclear negotiations, EU High Representative Josep Borrell stated that “a final text is essentially ready and on the table.” As indicated by his suggestion that the talks could be quickly concluded once the parties returned to Vienna, the prognosis for the JCPOA is much improved. Still, the fact that Russia could derail the talks so quickly points to the challenges of sustaining the deal if it is restored.

The world has changed dramatically since the nuclear deal was first agreed in July 2015. While the Russian invasion of Ukraine has set off an earthquake in the global order, the tectonic plates have been shifting for years. Between 2016 and 2018, efforts to implement the JCPOA were complicated by concerns that the deal failed to reflect a new geopolitical reality. The Rouhani government was portrayed as naive by its domestic political rivals, who felt the pursuit of Western investment was an anachronism in a world that would soon be dominated by China and Russia.

In the lead up to the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018, the Trump administration roundly ignored European officials’ pleas for it to remain a party to the JCPOA. When the US eventually withdrew and reimposed secondary sanctions linked to the agreement, the remaining parties to the JCPOA were reminded of how their economic sovereignty was circumscribed within a global financial system dominated by the US dollar. The covid-19 pandemic then revealed the humanitarian costs of Iran’s economic isolation, as the country struggled to secure medical goods and aid.

Against this backdrop, nuclear diplomacy between world powers and Iran has often seemed disconnected from other aspects of geopolitics. Within many foreign ministries, policy planning took a back seat to non-proliferation when it came to defining the aims of diplomacy with Iran.

Big questions about Iran’s role in the global order have gone unanswered for too long

Speaking from Moscow, Amirabdollahian was at pains to explain that the situation in Ukraine has no bearing on the conclusion of the nuclear talks. One of the hallmarks of the Iran nuclear negotiations has been an extraordinary capacity for compartmentalisation by all sides. The negotiations have been limited in scope – focused on Iran’s nuclear activities – and insulated as much as possible from major events such as elections, assassinations, acts of sabotage, and invasions. This compartmentalisation is a fundamental reason why the talks have reached an advanced stage despite many deliberate attempts to derail them. But compartmentalisation has its limits. Big questions about Iran’s role in the global order have gone unanswered for too long.

The most common criticisms of the JCPOA pertain to the aspects of the deal that enable such compartmentalisation. Ultimately, the nuclear deal is based on a narrow quid pro quo: Iran abides by strict limits on its civil nuclear programme and the international community provides sanctions relief. Iranian officials insist that the restoration of the nuclear deal is consistent with a foreign policy that balances between the West and its geopolitical rivals. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, whom many expected to embrace Russia and China after his election, highlighted the importance of balancing in a recent speech, arguing that “some people accuse us of looking one-dimensionally at the East and say that, while in the past [Iran] looked towards the West, today the government is looking to the East. This is not true. And the government seeks to develop relations with all countries to create a balance in the country’s foreign policy.”

But it is this strategic ambivalence in the JCPOA that rankles many Western policymakers. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez recently criticised the limited scope of the deal, noting that, “if Iran were willing to make greater concessions on halting uranium enrichment, destroying nuclear infrastructure, and seriously constraining its ballistic missile program, the United States and the international community should consider lifting a broader scope of sanctions, potentially including some primary sanctions.” If Menendez was sincerely suggesting that Washington could lift primary sanctions on Iran in certain conditions, this could indicate a willingness among some Western leaders to forge a diplomatic agreement that brings the country into the West’s orbit.

One interpretation of Lavrov’s antics over the nuclear deal is that policymakers in Moscow are also unsettled by the idea that Iran will continue to balance its international relationships even as Russia becomes increasingly isolated. Russia may have backtracked on its demands because it risked too much by derailing the nuclear negotiations. Triggering a new security crisis in the Middle East would have complicated its relations with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia – countries whose alignment with the West is motivated partly by a need to respond to security threats emanating from Iran. While Russia wishes to draw Iran into its sphere of influence, it knows that it benefits from the strategic ambiguity of other Middle Eastern powers. As my colleague Cinzia Bianco has compellingly argued, for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, “ambiguity over Ukraine is more about their relations with the United States than their interests in Russia.” Even China has deliberately maintained an ambiguous position on the war in Ukraine.

If the JCPOA is restored, American and European policymakers will need to think beyond non-proliferation to craft an Iran policy that accounts for the country’s strategic outlook. The successful conclusion of the nuclear negotiations would be a strong signal that Iran’s long-term interests lie in a balanced foreign policy, especially given the seismic shifts in the global order. Given that other Middle Eastern powers are also opting for balancing and ambiguity at a time of uncertainty, there are new opportunities to address long-standing security concerns on all sides. The recent resurgence of diplomacy in the Gulf is a case in point.

Western policymakers are well-placed to seize those opportunities thanks to the sudden renewal of the transatlantic alliance, which is evident in their impressive coordination to impose sanctions on Russia. But this unity is partly motivated by an us-versus-them mentality that will create unease among leaders in the Middle East who are reluctant to choose a side.

Amirabdollahian travelled to Moscow to create space for Iran to maintain its own strategic ambiguity. As Western policymakers take stock at this moment of crisis, they should account for Iranian balancing. To do so, they must think beyond the nuclear file and prepare themselves to answer the big questions that they have long ignored for the sake of the nuclear deal.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian attend a joint news conference in Moscow, Russia March 15, 2022. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/Pool
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