Mahmood Monshipouri, PhD

The chance for nuclear diplomacy shouldn’t be wasted

December 26, 2021 - 21:55

With negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actions—JCPOA) being disrupted and delayed for so long, the parties concerned cannot avoid very serious talks any longer. Given the ongoing the US-Russia tensions over Ukraine on the one hand and the US-China tensions over Taiwan on the other, the importance of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear deal cannot be underestimated. Furthermore, regional cooperation between Iran and its oil-rich neighbors is likely to increase as the prospects for the gradual U.S. withdrawal from the Persian Gulf region seem all but certain.

It is worth noting that the UAE has facilitated selling Iranian oil to China, significantly reducing the risks of regional escalation with Iran.  Many sources have recently indicated that a thaw in economic relations between Tehran and Abu Dhabi has already occurred even as U.S. sanctions on Iran continue to remain in place.  In light of these new realities, the real question persists:  Will the Biden administration stay on the current path of stalemate and trigger further tensions with Iran or will it instead act swiftly enough to avoid the very worst consequences of gamesmanship? A failed nuclear diplomacy could have profound and destabilizing consequences for the region and the rest of the world.  Needless to say, such an eventuality must be avoided at all costs.  

What is at stake is the global economy and peace. The likely consequences of failed diplomacy—both in the immediate future and over the longer term—include military conflicts, disruption of oil shipments, and an unprecedented rise in regional tensions.  Aside from the dangers of military confrontation, which could have grave ramifications, disruption of the world's most important oil chokepoint, the Strait of Hormuz—through which over 20 million barrels of oil flow per day, or the equivalent of nearly one-fifth of global petroleum consumption—could plunge the global economy into a depression of historic proportion.  Increasing regional tensions between Iran and its neighbors and the possibility of Iranian military actions in retaliation to mounting economic and political pressures would have far worse consequences.

All of these potential outcomes are alarming at a time of rising nationalism, populism, climate change, and the ongoing pandemic. A breakdown of nuclear diplomacy with Iran serves no-one’s interests in the region or beyond.  Ongoing harsh economic sanctions have driven Iran into the arms of China and Russia, even making it difficult to normalize ties with these countries given that both Beijing and Moscow appear unwilling to entirely bypass the U.S. sanctions on Iran.  Meanwhile, the Iranian “Look to the East” policy aimed at strengthening Iran's strategic cooperation with Russia and China is emblematic of a deepening mistrust toward the United States.

Should nuclear talks collapse, it is entirely possible, if not likely, that Washington will be increasingly dragged into regional conflicts by supporting its allies—namely Israel and the Persian Gulf Arab states—against Iran.  It is not clear that members of the Abraham accords—Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain—would provide a defensive shield against Iran.    More sanctions or even a naval blockade of Iran are unlikely to secure concessions from Tehran.  As a country that has lived with—and indeed become accustomed to—sanctions, the Islamic Republic will find ways to survive.

It is virtually impossible to visualize political stability in the region without cooperative behavior by Iran.  In a conceivable scenario in which the United States is disengaged from the region, failure in nuclear diplomacy is ominous at best. The Biden administration must find a way to resuscitate the JCPOA and engage Iran. Clearly, each side should move back to the JCPOA on the basis of the agreement that already exists rather than trying to pressure the other for concessions.  It is important to remember that a return to the JCPOA should not be contingent upon resolving everything beforehand.  It is critical to go back to the JCPOA in the weeks and months ahead, even as the two sides have vastly divergent views of what constitutes “full compliance” or what these negotiations should ultimately achieve.  Iran’s demand, articulated by Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh, that “Washington should give Tehran assurances that it will never abandon the nuclear deal if the talks to revive the deal succeed” may not be practical as long as the deal remains an “executive agreement.”  Still, the deal’s strength lies in its multilateral framework and broader support across the world.  It is possible to work out some provisions in a new agreement to go far enough to protect Iran from any potential, future abrupt and gratuitous U.S. withdrawal from the deal as long as Tehran continues to fulfill its nuclear-related pledges.  For the time being, the resumption of nuclear talks will be fruitful, provided that Washington and Tehran come to terms on the JCPOA, an understanding that can potentially reconstitute a channel to negotiate about other regional issues. This is not to imply that the tensions surrounding regional issues will slowly vanish, but rather to suggest that Iran’s regional activities will be subject to negotiation at some point.  

Trump’s reckless withdrawal from the JCPOA practically ended his ability to have regular diplomatic conversations with Iran.  His re-imposition of even harsher sanctions on Iran than those employed by his predecessor (President Obama) has fueled much uncertainty and mistrust in an already fragile relationship that was desperate for the restoration of diplomatic ties.  Certain Iranians groups, who have consistently opposed any rapprochement with the United States, felt vindicated in their mistrust of Washington, and some would argue that they euphorically lambasted the moderates for their trust and extension of goodwill. The Biden administration can significantly reduce the tensions between Iran and the United States by making the JCPOA a lasting and sustainable agreement.  The benefits of such an accord accrue only if Washington gets the picture right, by taking note of Iran’s security needs, most particularly its legitimate defensive and deterrence claims.  Absent such an approach, it is a foregone conclusion that the colossal wall of mistrust between Iran and the United States is unlikely to be dismantled any time soon.

Mahmood Monshipouri, PhD, is Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University; he is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.  He is the author, most recently, of a forthcoming book, In the Shadow of Mistrust: The Geopolitics and Diplomacy of US-Iran Relations (London: Hurst Publishers, 2022).  This essay is based on this book.


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