There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought in the Gulf. The first was supportive of Trump’s policies towards Iran, and today is calling for either no return to the agreement, or at least the inclusion of clauses that address their concerns about Iranian militias infiltrating other countries in the region. The second group has expressed general satisfaction about the 2015 nuclear deal, and believe that it should be followed by separate negotiations on Iran’s ballistic missile program and foreign policy objectives.
More than a month has passed since President Joe Biden entered the White House, and speculation is steadily growing about the new American administration’s intent to renegotiate with Iran over its nuclear program. During his election campaign, Biden promised that the United States would return to the agreement, but with “better terms.” In response to this position, Tehran has raised its negotiating ceiling, pushing for a return to the agreement as it was when President Trump withdrew in 2018. Given these two contrasting visions, and the lack of dialogue between Washington and Tehran, the future of the deal remains unclear.
Biden’s Concessions, Rouhani’s Reluctance
Biden, for his part, has done several things with the aim of preparing for a dialogue with Iran. So far, he has removed the Houthis from Washington’s official list of terrorist organizations, consulted with U.S. officials about a way to reduce the impact of sanctions on Iran without lifting them altogether, and agreed to meet with the European members of the P5+1. He also withdrew three letters from the Trump administration, including his predecessor’s September 19, 2018 announcement that the United States would unilaterally re-impose U.N. sanctions on Tehran. However, these measures have not led to Iranian satisfaction; last month, Tehran announced that it would nonetheless raise its level of uranium enrichment to 20%, stopped sudden inspection visits by the IAEA, and stated clearly that it did not believe that the Biden administration’s actions marked a reversal of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy on Tehran.
With this in mind, what could happen next? On the American side, there are priorities that may take precedence over immediate negotiations with Tehran. The Biden administration is busy cleansing Trump’s legacy in other areas of foreign policy, especially within the context of rebuilding relations with the European signatories to the JCPOA. These relations were damaged significantly by U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA and Trump’s undermining of the NATO alliance. Biden understands that in order to reach a good deal, he needs to coordinate with America’s allies. Without harmony between the European and American positions, it is difficult to imagine the success of any new agreement.
The administration also has other domestic and foreign policy priorities to make before it is ready to make a decision on the JCPOA. The State Department still suffers from the effects of the Trump administration’s policies and his reluctance to replace retiring staff, which has resulted in a void in key positions and a drain in human resources. Consequently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is focusing on rearranging the State Department’s internal situation. Finally, the Biden team seeks to evaluate the region in a more comprehensive manner and form clear strategies, so that he does not fall into the trap of Iranian negotiators, who has already succeeded before in dragging the United States into the forms of negotiations that Tehran prefers.
On the Iranian side, the pressure is increasing on Tehran because of economic sanctions, and the killings of General Qassem Soleimani and Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which together have represented a devastating blow to Iran’s regional agenda and its nuclear program. Despite this, in the upcoming presidential elections, it is expected that the hardliners will present an agenda for negotiations in which they will raise the ceiling and demands.
However, Tehran’s economic situation is much more difficult today than it was prior to the JCPOA, because the sanctions have succeeded in restricting Iranian oil sales and remittances. Moreover, the Biden administration has suggested that it will be far stricter (i.e. more willing to challenge the regime for violations) than the Obama administration was. Secretary Blinken also supports including the issue of Iran’s ballistic missile program in any upcoming agreement, fundamentally changing the nature of the agreement and likely antagonizing the Iranians.
The Role of the GCC
Finally, where does the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) stand? There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought in the Gulf. The first was supportive of Trump’s policies towards Iran, and today is calling for either no return to the agreement, or at least the inclusion of clauses that address their concerns about Iranian militias infiltrating other countries in the region. The second group has expressed general satisfaction about the 2015 nuclear deal, and believe that it should be followed by separate negotiations on Iran’s ballistic missile program and foreign policy objectives.
There is no doubt that there are legitimate fears in the region about the return of Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region if sanctions are lifted. On the other extreme, however, the worst-case scenario is undoubtedly that tension between Iran and Washington reaches a military confrontation, which would certainly draw the GCC in. Therefore,the GCC states’ interests are best achieved through a new agreement that takes into account the Iranian behavior in the region and provides guarantees for the future of Iranian relations with the various GCC and Arab countries.
Dr. Majed Al-Ansari is President of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies (QIASS), Assistant professor of political science, vice-chairman of Qatar Press Center and board of trustees member with the Strategic Studies Center at the Qatari Armed Forces.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.