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The Regional Implications of Iran Nuclear Talks

Iran’s position is that it will not agree to any compulsory limitations on its regional operations that are not similarly applied to other governments.

A U.S. return to implementing the seminal 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement is not likely to produce, as an additional result, reconciliation between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Iranian leaders insist that any new talks with the United States remain tailored to only those provisions detailed in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). They have thus far indicated no inclination to accept proposed “follow-on talks” that would negotiate binding limits on Iran’s implementation of its longstanding regional “playbook” – a formula for nurturing regional armed factions into instruments through which Iran can project power throughout the region. However, Iran’s leaders have been willing to engage in dialogue with regional and outside powers to try to resolve regional conflicts.

Biden and the Dilemma of Iran’s Regional Policy

In late February, the Biden administration formally offered to engage with Iran in talks to achieve a mutual American and Iranian return to full compliance with the JCPOA. In part to assuage regional states’ fears of a potential reduction of U.S. pressure on Iran, Biden administration officials have pledged to consult with the GCC states (and Israel) on the possible return to the JCPOA. However, the new administration has made it clear that it will not risk derailing nuclear talks with Iran by incorporating the regional demand that the United States require, as a condition of its lifting sanctions, that Iran cease supporting regional armed factions. Some Gulf states are concerned, as they were when the deal was first finalized in 2015, that a U.S. adherence to the JCPOA would produce a U.S. de-emphasis of the Gulf and a refocus toward Asia or other security concerns.

Iran has expressed its willingness to return to compliance with the terms of the agreement if the United States first fulfills its commitments to relief required by the deal.  At no time during the Trump administration, or thus far during the Biden administration, has any Iranian leader indicated a willingness to negotiate a revised nuclear deal or an addendum that would impose indefinite, binding limits on Iran’s regional activities. Iran’s support for regional non-state actors, in the view of Iranian leaders, is a response to conflict in several countries that Iran did not instigate, and in which numerous regional and outside parties are interfering.

Iran’s position is that it will not agree to any compulsory limitations on its regional operations that are not similarly applied to other governments. In the case of Syria, Iran’s leaders insist that Iran’s intervention in that country’s civil war is at the invitation of the Syrian government, which is a recognized U.N. member state. U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrined the JCPOA in international law, contained a binding prohibition on Iranian exportation of arms – for a duration of only five years. However, it was universally observed that Iran violated the provision, with seemingly no apparent consequences. In accordance with Resolution 2231, the arms embargo expired on October 18, 2020 and is no longer in force.

Even though the prospects of formalizing any bilateral or multilateral agreement that restricts Iran’s regional operations are slim, Iranian officials do not categorically reject diplomatic discussions that might result in a rolling back of Iran’s regional influence. Broadly, Iran has expressed its willingness to participate in regional dialogues to lower tensions.

Regional Talks are Possible

At the U.N. General Assembly meetings in September 2019, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani proposed a plan, the Hormuz Peace Endeavor, that expressed Iran’s willingness to try to achieve regional cooperation on security and other issues. As Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated in January 2021, “As we have consistently emphasized, the solution to our challenges lies in collaboration to jointly form a ‘strong region’: peaceful, stable, prosperous & free from global or regional hegemony.” With respect to specific conflicts in which Iran supports one of the warring sides, in early February 2021, the U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, visited Iran for the first time since his mission began, to discuss with Zarif “…support [for an] agreement between the warring parties on a ceasefire, urgent humanitarian measures and a resumption of the political process.”

During the Obama administration, Iran participated in the multilateral “Vienna Process” – alongside the United States, 16 other countries, the European Union, the United Nations and the Arab League – that attempted to craft a solution to the Syrian Civil War. Nor has Iran rejected bilateral talks with its Gulf adversaries intended to ease regional tensions. In mid-2019, as tensions in the Gulf escalated, Iran hosted UAE maritime security officials for talks in Iran.

If the JCPOA is fully restored, and if one or more of the region’s conflicts is resolved, it is nonetheless difficult to envision any durable reconciliation between Iran and its Gulf neighbors. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, see Iran as attempting to fundamentally restructure the regional power structure to its advantage. Iran’s perception is the opposite: that the Gulf states, newly partnered with Israel, seek to maintain a regional power structure that favors the United States, Israel, and Sunni Muslim states that oppose Iran in particular and Shi’a Muslims more broadly.

These rival visions arguably pushed the two camps even further apart with the late 2020 signing of the U.S.-brokered “Abraham Accords” that affirmed a longstanding de facto partnership between Israel and the Gulf states. Although the only two Gulf states that have formally signed the Accords, thus far, are the UAE and Bahrain, the other GCC states Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Oman have built their own ties to Israel.  Oman and Qatar have, on a few occasions, openly hosted visits by Israeli Prime Ministers or Ministers.

During the Obama administration, the United States envisioned the JCPOA as a “first step” toward changing the U.S.-Iran relationship from one of unrelenting mutual animosity to one that could gradually involve greater U.S-Iran cooperation on other issues. By contrast, Iran appeared to see the agreement as a one-off transaction that would accomplish its core goal of sanctions relief but would entail no further concessions. It remains an open question whether the United States might now be able to translate a return to the JCPOA into a broader regional process that might produce a durable relaxation of tensions in the Gulf and broader region.

Dr. Kenneth Katzman is an expert on Iran and the Gulf region at the Congressional Research Service. This article was written in his personal capacity and does not reflect the views of CRS or the Library of Congress.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Kenneth Katzman is a Senior Fellow at The Soufan Center and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum. His work focuses on geopolitical and regional dynamics in the Middle East—with a focus on Iran—as well as United States strategy. In late 2022, Dr. Katzman retired from his longtime position as a Senior Analyst with the Congressional Research Service (CRS), an arm of the U.S. Congress that provides analysis and advice to members of the U.S. Congress in their legislative and oversight responsibilities. In that post, Dr. Katzman served as a senior Middle East analyst, with special emphasis on Iran, Iran-backed groups operating in the Middle East and South Asia, the Persian Gulf states, Iraq, and Afghanistan. During his more than 30-year tenure at CRS, he provided reports and briefings to Members of Congress and their staffs on U.S. policy on these countries and issues, and provided analysis of related legislative proposals.

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