Bringing Iran in from the cold


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

In the waning months of the Obama administration, the US achieved a foreign policy success that at the time struck most of us in the security community as little short of miraculous. It is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. Getting countries pursuing a secret nuclear weapons programme to come clean about their illicit activities and sign up to restraints has proven notoriously difficult, as we have seen with North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel in recent times. It has sometimes taken the fall of a regime, as with Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Gaddafi in Libya, to gain a complete picture of the status of nuclear or chemical weapons programmes.

Iran seemed in this respect to be the master of deception. It frequently and vociferously denied any intention to build a nuclear weapon, even claiming that this would be contrary to Islam itself. Unlike North Korea, it stayed inside the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and continued to allow visits by the UN inspectors from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Yet its actual behaviour contradicted these peaceful assertions. Iran secretly enriched uranium beyond its stated limit of 3%. It hid new enrichment facilities at Fordow from the public. When confronted by the IAEA with the discrepancy between Tehran’s reporting and what the inspectors were actually finding with the assistance of advanced technology, Iran produced unconvincing and sometimes absurd explanations. Over the years the disclosures of Western intelligence agencies and Iranian opposition groups clearly showed that Iran was pursuing advanced warhead designs and procuring state of the art centrifuges, on course to acquire a basic nuclear weapon within a year. Whether Iran would cross the Rubicon and go nuclear was an active debate among policymakers. Yet it became increasing accepted in Western chancelleries that Iran would certainly have all the ingredients, should it choose to do so.

Diplomacy is frequently the art of the impossible

At the same time, the Iranian nuclear programme became a unifying factor within Iran itself, supported even by the opposition forces. It was a symbol of Iran’s capability to preserve its regime and political system in the face of endless sanctions and sustained pressure. Its technical prowess was a source of national pride. Keeping in mind that the NPT allows its member states to have civilian nuclear programmes, the US hostility towards Iran struck many Iranians as a double standard, as the US showed much more indulgence towards the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and even India, which has not joined the NPT and was not obliged to do so in exchange for US civilian nuclear cooperation.

Iranian nuclear policy was based on a mixture of regional assertion (particularly against Israel), national security to ward off a direct attack and national prestige. These elements suggested that Tehran would continue to play cat and mouse with the international community, advancing by stealth and denial to frustrate action against it, until it finally reached the breakout threshold to have a functional nuclear weapon. In parallel, Iran pursued a ballistic missile programme in defiance of UN Security Council Resolutions to demonstrate that it would also have the capability to deliver its new nuclear warheads to their targets.

It is not only the US but also Russia, China, Germany, France and the UK that can take the credit for the ultimate achievement of the Iran nuclear deal. The EU, which acted as a moderator and permanent mediator, won its spurs as a major geostrategic actor. The negotiations were long and hard but the group of six – plus the EU – stayed together, giving Iran little room for manoeuvre. Diplomacy is frequently the art of the impossible and ultimately a balance was struck.

Iran was relieved of many (but not all) crippling US economic sanctions and gained the ability to access frozen assets and sell its oil again on international markets. In return it agreed to stop the processing of fissile materials, retain only a small quantity of low-enriched uranium for medical and research purposes, mothball its centrifuge plants and research reactor at Natanz and Fordow and submit to vigorous IAEA inspections. Iran also accepted a stringent mechanism of ‘snapback’ sanctions whereby the lifted measures would be immediately reinstated in the case of non-compliance and without needing the consensus of all six group members beforehand.

Barely had the Iran nuclear deal taken hold when the Trump administration entered the White House and immediately announced its intention to withdraw from the deal, which it duly did in 2018. Trump had some weighty arguments against the deal. It would last for only 15 years (although that is not a particularly short length of time for an arms control treaty – New START has the same length). The deal did not cover Iran’s ballistic missile programme, although Tehran pledged restraint, nor did it constrain Iran’s regional behaviour, such as its interference in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

We seem to be back at square one

Yet an arms control treaty is not designed to solve all the world’s problems but rather to curb weapons. On that yardstick alone is how its merits must be judged. In this aspect the deal contained many elements that the international community could build upon to strengthen non-proliferation. It would buy time to devise ways to better constrain Iran and promote greater pluralism within the country. It would establish trust to embark on further steps, such as limiting Iran’s missile tests. It would also push Iran back from a one-year breakout time and give the international community more warning time of an Iranian nuclear weapon. It would enhance verification and create an incentive for Iran to cooperate by increasing economic ties and living standards, thereby undermining the Iranian hardliners and their smuggling supply lines.

Since the deal was so valuable, the EU made a valiant attempt to preserve it after the US’ withdrawal. It came up with a new instrument called Instex to facilitate commerce with Iran via barter or non-dollar-denominated trade to circumvent US sanctions. Yet the US made clear that banks and companies participating in these trading arrangements would face tough financial penalties or exclusion from US markets. The US sanctions and exemptions became a convoluted and ever-changing affair, resulting in confusion among European energy companies or banks, with many deciding to err on the side of caution by withdrawing from the Iranian market altogether.

As Iran – which according to the IAEA was meeting all its commitments – saw its anticipated economic benefits rapidly vanish, it lost faith in the nuclear deal and returned to its enrichment activities. It restarted its centrifuges and introduced new cascades with more modern machines. Today Iran is processing uranium at 20%, which is nine-tenths of the way to making a nuclear weapon. It is reportedly producing uranium metal for the core of a nuclear warhead and its main facility at Natanz with a reactor is back up to operational tempo. The new US Secretary of State Antony Blincken has warned that Iran is now only months, or perhaps even only weeks away, from being able to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran has also recently tested a new satellite launching rocket that could easily be adapted to a warhead carrying intercontinental missile.

We seem to be back at square one.

Iran has been living with severe sanctions for generations

The new Biden administration has announced its intention to return to the JCPOA if Iran comes back into full compliance. There seems to be little other option for three main reasons.

First, the Trump policy of ‘maximum pressure’ to bring Iran to its knees clearly did not work. Iran has been living with severe sanctions for generations. It has adjusted to them and learned to undermine them to prevent economic collapse. There is little more that the West can impose and the influential groups in Tehran that have grown rich off circumventing sanctions have little interest in change. As Iran already has the ingredients to make a bomb, further sanctions are like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The second reason is that an Iranian bomb would be unacceptable to Israel, the US and Gulf Arab states. It could provoke an attack and a regional conflict that could quickly escalate given Iran’s proxies in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Third, a permanent Iranian nuclear capability would undoubtedly encourage neighbours such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey to go down the same path. The subject is not the taboo that it used to be. The UAE has a sophisticated civilian nuclear programme assisted by the US, while the Saudis have received Chinese help to build a uranium ore processing facility and a rocket engine plant south-west of Riyadh.

There is a path to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal

At the same time, getting back into the deal will not be easy either for Washington or Tehran. Trust that was so painstakingly built up has quickly dissipated. US Republicans, many loyal to Trump’s legacy, will demand a more expansive deal: for instance, including the Iranian ballistic missile programmes, curbs on Iran’s regional behaviour and the participation of US allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the talks. Iran has already rejected any change to the ‘group of six’ format.

For its part, Iran will wonder if it can trust the US to stick to the deal a second time. After all, what’s to stop Trump returning to office in four years’ time and once again declaring that the deal (essentially the same as before) is the “worst in history”. As there are many US sanctions against Iran which are not part of the JCPOA framework, returning to the deal will not give Iran the immediate prize of normalising its relations with the US.

So, let us not underestimate the obstacles. Yet there is a path to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal if the Biden administration moves quickly to rebuild the group of six as a unified coalition. The roadmap could be as follows:

First, set a date to resume talks and ask the EU High Representative Josep Borrell to resume the EU’s role as a moderator and facilitator who enjoys the trust of the negotiating parties. Borrell can start by making it clear that the aim is to return to the status quo ante on both sides, without allowing new demands or conditions to muddy the waters. This should make the objective clear, unlike in a conventional negotiation when everything is open and unpredictable right up until the final agreement.

Second, the group of six has to work together and follow the same line. This may not be as smooth as it was last time, given the increased tension in the US relationships with China and Russia. It will be an early test of the new US State Department and its relations with the leading European allies to forge an effective diplomatic approach to bring China and Russia back on board. For instance, Russia has suggested lifting the sanctions on Iran before Tehran scales back its nuclear activities. This is unsurprisingly not acceptable to Washington. Yet if the US could work professionally with Russia and China, it might help to reset these fraught relationships for other types of arms control negotiations to follow and build upon New START, Open Skies and the military uses of space.

Working out a viable negotiating strategy to get back to the 2015 baseline will need careful attention

Related to this is the question of a negotiating strategy. The EU has hinted at a step-by-step, move-for-move reciprocal action strategy. This may be the only realistic way forward given the need to rebuild minimum trust on both sides; neither the US nor Iran will want to lose face by making one-sided concessions. However, the US has already rejected the step-by-step approach, raising the question as to whether there can be a ‘Big Bang’ solution whereby the deal is declared ‘back on’ all at once.

Surely, however, there will need to be a period of verification first. The US, and others, will want to be sure that the Iranians have mothballed all their processing equipment, while the Iranians will want to make sure that the US is willing and able to lift sanctions quickly and that the reactivated deal is not stymied by a hostile US Congress. So, working out a viable negotiating strategy to get back to the 2015 baseline will need careful attention.

Third, there are things that Iran could do to improve the political atmosphere vis-à-vis the West and persuade some of the Iran sceptics to accept return to the JCPOA. For instance, the Iranian Parliament could stop its debates on expelling the IAEA inspectors and commit to cooperating with the Vienna agency and supporting all aspects of a reactivated deal.

Iran could also pledge to stop harassing commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf. Several tankers and cargo vessels have been hijacked in the last few years, most recently a ship from South Korea. Crew members have been detained and Iran has demanded the unfreezing of its assets in Korean banks. Tehran could thus commit to peaceful passage in the Gulf and also agree to a set of measures to avoid incidents with foreign military vessels. Many NATO navies have criticised Iran for aggressive behaviour and a British crew of a Royal Navy cutter were taken prisoner for several weeks before being released in what was clearly an Iranian propaganda operation. Given the propensity of these maritime incidents to escalate, Iran could demonstrate a willingness to accept the risk reduction and incident prevention measures that are customary between warships in congested waters.

Similarly, Iran could declare a moratorium on its missile development and testing and indicate a readiness to comply with the UN Security Council Resolutions. Finally, the Iranians could show a constructive approach to Afghanistan. This past week the Taliban’s political director, Mullah Baradar, has been in Tehran for talks with his counterpart, Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The Iranians have had a complex and sometimes tense relationship with the Taliban despite their common hostility to the US.

The onus will be on Tehran to demonstrate a serious political will

Iran could show willingness to use leverage over the Taliban to negotiate seriously at the Afghan peace talks in Doha. Up until now the Taliban has given the impression that they are simply playing for time until the last US and NATO forces leave Afghanistan in May, as provided in the US-Taliban agreement. The Doha talks have been more about procedures and agendas than about moving forward on the substance. A push from the Iranian side, which traditionally has sought to protect the Hazara minority in Afghanistan, would help to garner support for the nuclear deal.

Much of this suggests that the Iranians must make all the concessions. Certainly, as the potential proliferator and rule-breaker, the onus will be on Tehran to demonstrate a serious political will. Yet Iran has much to gain from a return to the JCPOA – and a calmer relationship with the US. It can once again export its oil. It can gain access to Western technologies and spare parts for its infrastructure and civilian aviation industry. Its assets can be unfrozen and Western investment and joint ventures can return.

The hardliners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard may not be overjoyed but this economic normalisation would be to the benefit of the vast majority of the Iranian population. Moreover, if the JCPOA can be reactivated quickly by the Biden administration, it will have at least four years to run until the next US presidential election. If Iran again complies and the deal runs smoothly, it will be harder for the uncompromising adversaries of Iran in the US Congress or countries like Israel to denounce it in the future. At least they will have to come up with a more credible alternative than simply ‘maximum pressure’.

Yet time is of the essence. The longer the talks drag on, the more Iran will move away from compliance and closer to a nuclear weapon; the more it has to give up and the greater the prospect that, like North Korea, it will come to enjoy its nuclear status and the leverage that it procures. We also know that once a state becomes a recognised nuclear weapons state it is virtually impossible – short of war – to induce it to reverse course.

As a result, the newly appointed US special envoy for the Iranian negotiations, Robert Malley, has a heavy weight on his shoulders. Yet he was the chief architect of the deal, together with former secretary of state John Kerry. If anyone can pull off the miracle a second time, it is surely him.

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