On December 30, the eighth round of indirect nuclear deal talks between the United States and Iran ended, with the two sides set to continue their negotiations on January 3. The most recent diplomatic engagement reflects a revival of negotiations that had been paused between June and November 2021. Although the talks have resumed, it is unlikely that Washington or Tehran see potential for a deal that adequately addresses the concerns of both parties at this stage. Tehran seeks to convince the U.S. to lift its array of sanctions against Iran. If the U.S. were to waive the sanctions, Iranian popular support for the regime would certainly increase. However, unless Washington feels Tehran will not simply pocket the lifting of sanctions rather than genuinely cooperating and moving to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the U.S. will not acquiesce to Iranian demands.
President Donald Trump’s “Maximum Pressure” campaign did not bring any significant change in Tehran’s behavior. Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018 to force Iran to negotiate a “better deal,” the stated objective of the maximum pressure policies implemented by his administration. Instead, Trump’s sanctions only pushed Tehran to advance its nuclear program further. Nevertheless, President Joe Biden cannot simply lift the sanctions as the situation currently stands. Such a move would be perceived by his critics as a weakness in the face of the increased Iranian nuclear capabilities. In other words, it is not presidential preferences but Tehran’s future behavior that will likely determine the extent to which the Biden administration will be able to proceed with sanctions relief.
For President Biden, returning to the JCPOA is the most effective and palatable way to prevent Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. However, Washington does not want Iran to appear to be driving the negotiations. The talks are still in their infancy; at this point, each side will try to gain the most they can from the talks. Indeed, some Biden administration officials reiterated the point that the US will seek “other options” if diplomacy fails. This can be seen as an attempt to pressure Tehran and convey a message that Iran’s best option is a negotiated agreement. As Daniel Serwer, director of the Conflict Management Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said, “the Americans are trying to signal that they are prepared to walk away from the negotiations to what is known as their “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” (BATNA). That’s what gives you leverage in a negotiation.” He added in an email interview, “It is not clear however whether this means more and tighter sanctions or military action, which Tehran thinks out of the question. So far as the Gulf is concerned, neither is a good prospect, since some of the Gulf countries (especially Qatar, Oman, and UAE) do a lot of business with Iran and all lie well within missile/drone range.” Serwer notes that “Tehran’s BATNA is to continue development of nuclear technology and make itself at least a threshold nuclear-armed state. That isn’t good for the Gulf either.”
The GCC’s De-escalation Policies and the JCPOA
The Gulf States’ response to the resumption of the Vienna Talks differs from their reaction to the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015. When Oman facilitated secret US-Iran talks prior to the JCPOA’s reveal, other GCC countries such as Saudi Arabia were unaware of the talks and of Muscat’s hosting. Thus, they were understandably stunned when they learned of the US-Iran dialogue. The Saudis, who opposed the JCPOA, believed the deal would have benefited Iran economically and would not have prevented Tehran from having a nuclear weapon or program.
Today, however, it could be argued that the GCC states expected that such indirect talks between Washington and Tehran would indeed take place, given Biden’s stance on the agreement. “They were not surprised by the negotiations, as was the case in the Obama Administration…that is a real difference,” said Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University. “This is also transpiring at a time when both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are moving away from their openly confrontational stance toward Iran, which somewhat lowers the temperature in the region.”
Indeed, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have assumed a de-escalatory regional position recently. One example of this change in policy can be seen in the Saudis’ willingness to initiate talks with the Iranians in Baghdad in April. The UAE’s recent rapprochement with Turkey also should be seen in the same light. Such a redefinition of their regional outlook must be contextualized within the overriding Gulf Arab fear that the US seems willing to draw down its presence in the region. While Trump provided what appeared to be unconditional support to some regional states, such as Saudi Arabia, his response to the September 2019 attack on Saudi oil facilities may have stunned some of his regional partners, particularly Riyadh itself. At the time, Trump said he had not made pledges to the Saudis that the U.S. would protect Saudi Arabia. “No, I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out,” he said. “That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them.” The Gulf states’ concern about their security is likely to have been reinforced by Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan.
Indeed, this de-escalatory position has included shifting the stance that some GCC states, such as KSA and the UAE, had previously adopted toward the nuclear deal. Notably, the GCC joined the U.S., UK, France, Germany, Egypt, and Jordan in November to voice support for a return to the JCPOA. This reiterated a previous joint statement between Washington and the bloc following a US-GCC Iran Working Group meeting on November 17.
The Outcomes of the JCPOA Talks and Gulf-Iranian Relations
The fact that important GCC member states like KSA and the UAE have voiced their support for a return to the JCPOA seems to emanate from at least two factors. First, this call to return to the status quo ante reflects their desire to not appear as an obstacle to diplomatic efforts meant to revive the deal. In other words, they do not want to be blamed for preventing such a deal from occurring and thus are publicly endorsing it. Second, the GCC states do not want to see a regional conflict pitting the U.S. and Israel against Iran should the nuclear deal talks collapse. This preference arises from their awareness that both Washington and Tehran will want to avoid a direct war at all costs and thus, war would not be an option. This is because a full-scale war’s consequences will simply be disastrous to the US and Iran, both of which cannot afford it. In such a case, it is also clear that the Gulf states are likely to be the primary victims in the event of a US-Iran conflict.
Despite pursuing de-escalatory policies, the Gulf states’ suspicion of Tehran will not disappear. As Gause put it, “the structural element of worry is always going to be there.” He explains, “By structural, I mean the fact that the weaker partners in an alliance/alignment are always going to worry about their stronger partner’s reliability and actions. When the stronger partner is negotiating with the common enemy, the weaker partners are going to worry about being sold out. When the stronger partner is taking a hard line toward the common enemy, the weaker partners are going to worry that they will pay the price of any conflict.” Gause continues, “This was true of the European NATO allies and the U.S. during the Cold War (including détente). It is also true of the Gulf states and the US regarding Iran. It will be true of East Asian allies if the US enters a full-fledged Cold War with the PRC. It is not a problem that can be solved, because it is structural. It can only be managed.”
In sum, it is too early to conclude whether the revived JCPOA talks will succeed or not. The Gulf states are likely to follow such negotiations as closely as possible. While countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem to have adopted a de-escalatory stance out of concern for their own security, this attempt at warming regional ties does little to alleviate skepticism and other differences with Iran.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.