Senior analysts advise U.S. to separate the Iran nuclear deal from regional security negotiations

September 28, 2021 - 21:19

TEHRAN - Two senior political analysts have called on the Joe Biden administration to separate talks on a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran from security issues in West Asia.

U.S. allies in West Asia have already taken the initiative on regional issues, the two analysts wrote in an article in the Foreign Policy. 

Insisting on a package deal could permanently derail nuclear talks, warned professor  Vali Nasr from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and Hossein Mousavian, a West Asia security and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University.

Fareed Zakaria, a Washington Post columnist, has also recently expressed surprise at Biden normalizing Trump’s foreign policy in many areas, including the 2015 nuclear deal.

Efforts to revitalize the nuclear deal, ditched under the Trump administration, started in April after Biden took over as president in the White House. Six rounds of talks were held until June. The negotiations failed to bear fruits as the U.S. linked revival of the nuclear deal to Iran’s regional policies.

Nasr and Mousavian have suggested that the U.S. “should decouple” the nuclear deal and regional issues and “pursue a resolution to the regional standoff separately.” 

“Iran wants to negotiate regional issues directly with its neighbors.”

Following is an excerpt of their article in Foreign Policy:

Over the past year, the United States and Iran have struggled to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Despite progress made in several rounds of talks in Vienna, the two governments remain deadlocked, and there is increasing worry that time is running out.
Iran is coming to the conclusion that the U.S. government is stalling and is unlikely to lift economic sanctions; hence, they would see no point in persevering to restore the JCPOA.

One stumbling block is how to address Iran’s role in the region. The United States and Iran must find a way to do so without threatening progress on the already difficult nuclear talks. Insisting on discussing regional issues—such as Iran’s role in Syria and Iraq, its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, an end to war in Yemen, and maritime security in the Persian Gulf region—as part of nuclear talks also runs the risk of dooming progress on diplomatic efforts to resolve some of those issues if nuclear talks stall.

Currently, disagreements on regional issues are slowing progress on nuclear talks, and failure to get to a nuclear deal will worsen regional security.

If the Biden administration is determined to avoid costly conflicts in the Middle East (West Asia), then it should change its approach to remove a significant stumbling block facing nuclear talks and help regional security at a time when the United States is looking to reduce its military commitments in the region. It should decouple the two issues and pursue a resolution to the regional standoff separately.

The United States has, for some time, been insisting its return to the JCPOA is contingent on Iran agreeing to negotiate its regional policies. That was not its position when nuclear negotiations started in 2011. Then, Iran was more open to a broader negotiations’ framework, and it was the United States that insisted talks focus narrowly on the nuclear issue to quickly get to a deal. The U.S. posture changed after the JCPOA was signed and the Obama administration came under fire for not demanding a rollback of Iranian policies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Critics of the nuclear deal at home and U.S. regional allies were quick to fault the agreement for giving Iran greater resources and room to expand its regional influence. There was scant evidence for this linkage, but regardless of its merit, the criticism became an obvious shortcoming of the JCPOA, which the Biden administration must rectify if it is to return to the deal. Washington seems to think anything less would be a concession to Tehran.

Iran has rejected the allegation it escalated aggressive policies after signing the JCPOA and is unwilling to discuss an issue that was not on the table during nuclear negotiations. It sees the focus on regional issues as a product of successful lobbying by its regional rivals who want to undermine the nuclear deal.
It does not help that Iran also deeply distrusts Washington’s motivations. Iranian Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently dismissed a U.S. demand tying its return to the JCPOA to future negotiations over regional issues, saying the United States is using the issue to drag its feet on rejoining the nuclear deal. Iran, he added, will not accept foreign meddling when it comes to its national security interests.

The United States’ allies have already concluded that Washington will not be able to address Iran’s regional role in the context of nuclear talks.

Iran’s rulers are quick to point to a history of initiatives and contacts with the United States regarding the region that came to naught. Iran cooperated with the United States in dislodging the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001 and then in establishing a new order at the Bonn conference, only to be almost immediately assigned as a member of the “axis of evil.”

Two years later, the George W. Bush administration rebuffed then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s offer to discuss regional issues. Tehran believes it is not regional security the United States is after but weakening Iran and regime change. Having unilaterally left the 2015 nuclear deal, the United States is hard-pressed to overcome Tehran’s deep distrust even before returning to that deal.

Still, Tehran has come to recognize that progress in nuclear talks ultimately needs to deal with regional security, just not as part of the JCPOA or in negotiations with the United States. Iran wants to negotiate regional issues directly with its neighbors. It has repeatedly called for resolutions of regional issues under the aegis of the United Nations and directly called on the UN Secretary-General to initiate a process. Then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also put forth the Hormuz Peace Initiative in 2019, inviting Persian Gulf countries to a security dialogue; and during his last months in office, he launched a security dialogue with Saudi Arabia in Iraq.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have since met for three rounds of talks discussing cease-fires in Yemen, an end to drone attacks on Saudi facilities, and a path to normalized relations.

Both sides have characterized their dialogue as productive.

Those talks laid the groundwork for last month’s regional security conference in Baghdad that brought together several heads of state and foreign ministers. At the end of the conference, Iran and Saudi Arabia announced they will meet for a fourth round of talks later this month. Saudi Arabia will need U.S. encouragement and promise of continued military support, but direct U.S. involvement is not necessary for the talks to progress.

The United States’ allies have already concluded that Washington will not be able to address Iran’s regional role in the context of nuclear talks. That is the reason why, unlike in 2015, U.S. allies have started engaging Iran even before there is a conclusion to nuclear talks. What they are looking for is U.S. support for their own diplomatic initiatives and future guarantees of their security.