In November 2020, only days before he was elected President of the United States, then-candidate Joseph Biden stated, “I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” Since he took office on January 20th as the 46th President of the United States, speculation has intensified on the steps each side can take to facilitate the “revival” of the nuclear deal. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, called on Washington to take the initiative: “Iran has fulfilled all its obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), not the United States and the 3 European countries (Britain, France & Germany). If they want Iran to return to its commitments, the U.S. must lift all sanctions first.” In response, President Biden said that the United States will not lift sanctions against Iran unless the country stops enriching uranium. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif suggested that the European Union Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, “synchronize or choreograph the actions” needed from both sides as a way to overcome the impasse over who goes first in returning to the nuclear deal. These contradictory statements, and the complicated ongoing standoff between Iran and the United States, raise questions on how to move forward on reviving the JCPOA and the implications on regional security.
Certainly, Iran’s nuclear program and stability in the Middle East, and around the world, are a major priority to President Biden. However, the Biden administration clearly must deal with many other priorities – the most important of which is containing COVID-19 and kick-starting an economic recovery. Other important challenges include settling racial tensions, ameliorating climate change, and strengthening the United States’ strategic position with regard to Russia and China. To further complicate Biden’s foreign policy, many officials from inside and outside the Administration argue that Washington should not rush to lift sanctions, using them instead as leverage to force Tehran to make concessions on its ballistic missile capabilities and regional policy. Moreover, regional powers such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are insistent on having a voice in any future U.S.-Iran negotiations.
On the other hand, the Iranian approach to revive the nuclear deal is drastically different from the American one. When the United States withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, it continued pressuring Iran, which continued fully observing its commitments. The nation waited for a year after U.S. withdrawal and European hedging before it started gradually rebuilding its nuclear program. Finally, the Iranians feel vindicated, and indeed empowered, by Trump’s electoral defeat. In Tehran, this means “maximum pressure” policy has failed and the Islamic Republic has survived the brutal sanctions.
The JCPOA and Regional Security
The mere survival of the Islamic Republic under the heavy economic, political and military pressure over the last four years is seen as a great achievement in Tehran, but the Iranian regime is not out of the water yet. The survival of any political system depends, to a great extent, on its ability to meet the economic expectations of its people. The Iranian economy has been in a recession for the last three years, was deeply affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, and, according to the World Bank, is projected to grow by 1.5 percent in 2021, much lower than most of its neighbors. The nation simply cannot afford to remain under sanctions for much longer.
Within this context, in December 2020, the Iranian Parliament passed a new law “Strategic Counteractive Plan for Lifting Sanctions and Safeguarding Rights of Iranian Peoples.” The legislation requires Iran to take significant steps to ratchet up its nuclear activities if certain sanctions relief measures are not met. It requires the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to cease voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement if certain sanctions on banking and oil are not lifted. The law requires the AEOI to produce more 20%-enriched uranium and store it inside the country and return the Arak heavy water reactor to its per-JCPOA condition. The implementation of some of these steps has already started and will continue in the coming weeks and months.
It is not clear how the United States and the other signatories to the nuclear deal would react to this Iranian pressure to lift the sanctions. What is certain, however, is that the nuclear program and its potential implications on regional security in the broad Middle East must be addressed. The gradual steps Tehran has taken to reduce its obligations under the JCPOA in response to the sanctions mean that the “breakout” time it needs to build a nuclear bomb, if it chooses, has been shortened. How the United States, the European powers, and Israel would react to this development is an open question.
What is clear is that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states cannot afford to be bystanders. The on-going economic, political, and potentially military confrontation between Iran and its adversaries will have significant implications on the entire Middle East. Tehran has the military capabilities to retaliate against any aggression, and Iranian leaders have repeatedly warned that any conflict with the United States and/or Israel would not be limited to Iran and would include its neighbors.
In the short term, GCC states with good relations with both Washington and Tehran should seek to de-escalate regional tensions. In early February, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani announced that his country was working on de-escalation through a political and diplomatic process to return to the nuclear agreement. Oman has also been reported to be engaged in mediation, as it was in the initial negotiations that led to the JCPOA. Reducing tension and reaching an understanding between Washington and Tehran are not only beneficial for the two parties, but are essential for regional stability and world peace. In the long run, there is an urgent need for a constructive dialogue between all regional powers. Such a strategic dialogue would seek to reach a consensus on a security architecture under which all regional powers would acknowledge each other’s security concerns and agree to work together on areas of mutual interests. The destructive impact of COVID-19 should serve as a reminder that all regional powers, supported by the international community, need to invest in developing their human capital and economic infrastructure and avoid military confrontation and political tension.
Gawdat Bahgat is a professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. He is the author of 12 books on the Middle East. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. government or the policies of the Department of Defense.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.