The future of Iran’s nuclear deal is the single most consequential factor related to the balance of power in Middle East. The nation’s nuclear program has been at the center of contention between Israel and Iran, and by that connection to the US.
After quite a bit of deliberation, P5+1 (US, Russia, China, France, UK, Germany and EU) finally reached a landmark agreement with Iran in 2015, which came to be known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As a result, nuclear related economic sanctions were lifted, and $100 billion worth of Iranian assets were unfrozen by the US and EU. The combined approach of European allies, including Russia and China, worked in convincing Iran it was better off by accepting the terms of the treaty, containing its nuclear program and uranium enrichment, and bringing nuclear facilities under IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) monitoring.
However, President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement in 2018 calling it an embarrassment. The critics of the deal which included the Republican Party, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, have pointed to the omission of Iran’s ballistic missile program, the sunset clauses, and wider behavior in the region. The ‘wider behavior’ is a reference to Iran’s influence in nations like Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen – and supporting other non-state actors like Hezbollah, Houthis, and Hamas. The support for Hezbollah and Hamas has complicated the Middle East Peace Process, while Houthis are increasingly a big headache for Saudi Arabia – carrying a hefty humanitarian cost.
The Future of Nuclear Talks
As Iran and other major powers engage with Iran in a fresh round of indirect talks starting November 29 in Vienna, the challenge is can the deal be restored or amended? Iran has stated that all sanctions should be lifted before it would return to full compliance – and that US should provide guarantee that any future US president will not leave the treaty. Iran is presently enriching uranium at 60 percent as compared to 3.67 percent prescribed by the agreement.
On the other hand, US and Gulf allies are demanding Iran return to full compliance to pave the way for resumption of diplomacy. Meanwhile Israel has threatened to use force at any moment due to Iran’s not abiding by the treaty, and US officials have stated to use other means if diplomacy fails. Israel is also worried that US may agree to less than what is sufficient, especially after how the Afghan withdrawal transpired.
The US Iran policy has circled around two approaches: the negotiated settlement was adopted by President Obama by signing the JCPOA in 2015, which sidelined the aggressive route against Iran supported by Israel and Saudi Arabia. Trump took on the more aggressive alternative and nullified the treaty while reimposing sanctions. He also moved away from the two-state solution as it relates to the Middle East Peace Process, with recognition of Israel from the GCC and Arab States under Abraham Accords – and as linked to the Outside-In approach.
Options to Deal with Iran’s Nuclear Program
In essence, to address Iran’s nuclear program, the policy has swung between these approaches:
- To engage with Iran and negotiate with it. Recognizing that the use of force to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program has serious consequences which makes it not practical. The attempt here is to reinforce on Iran its intent to develop nuclear weapons as more costly than the benefits of the incentives being offered – and thus bring about a change in the ‘wider behavior’.
- If other approaches do not work, application of military solution. This is especially propagated by Israel; it believes promises made by Iran under any deal cannot be trusted. Additionally, the accord and its sunset clauses only limit Iran’s nuclear program for some time – while the economic incentives will boost its support for proxy players – and offer resources to modernize its nuclear program and military.
- Using covert methods continue to set back Iran’s nuclear program. This was evidenced by cyber-attacks and elimination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist recently, which were attributed to Israel.
- Pressuring and isolating Iran using economic sanctions. Such as by preventing the export of its oil resources or making trade deals with the nation. Iran also accuses the West of using sanctions and economic pressure to bring about a revolt and regime change.
Great Power Rivalry, Iran Nuclear Deal, and Struggle for Influence in Middle East
There was initial optimism that Biden administration will be able to restore the treaty when in office. However, the new hardline Ebrahem Raisi’s government in Iran needed time to settle in. Additionally, the trust deficit that ensued because of unilateral American pullout in 2018 – has slowed the indirect negotiations.
The distance created between US and European allies as a result of Trump’s America First doctrine, which has also changed the American domestic politics, have further complicated matters for President Biden. Moreover, escalating global rivalry with China and Russia, with which Iran has close ties to, make reinstating the intricately crafted treaty difficult.
China and Iran entered in to a $400 billion 25 year economic and security deal in March 2021 that would lead to enhanced military and trade relations. The pact is seen as a lifeline for Iran. The agreement ensures Chinese investment in Iranian telecommunication, transportation, and military fields. The military cooperation includes exercises, intelligence sharing, and joint research and development of weapons. China will also procure its energy needs from Iran on discounted price for over next 25 years.
Iran’s membership in the China and Russia dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in September has further increased its economic and security ties with the non-Western UN Security Council members.
In the mounting great power rivalry, a military solution towards Iran would be unacceptable for both China and Russia. The potential reenactment of the JCPOA, along with China-Iran pact, will make China a stronger player in the Middle East. It could potentially utilize its clout to bring about Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
In the aftermath of Afghan withdrawal, China and Russia will likely try to boost their influence in the affairs of the Middle East. The GCC states themselves are trying to hedge their bets and this was recently exhibited by the Saud-Russia strategic meeting held on November 24. The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has visited Moscow in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. The GCC-China free trade talks are also making progress and there are hopes that they deal will be reached soon. At the same time, the Gulf nations are attempting to build influence with China to restrict Iranian behavior.
Both China and Russia area increasing their involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by first attempting to bring about unity amongst the Palestinian leadership and give attention to the humanitarian crisis. China has even presented a framework to address the Palestinian issue premised on these principles and direct talks between Israel and Palestinian authorities. At the same time, Israel is China’s third largest trading partner and Chinese investments in Israel, especially in the technology sector, are a growing concern for the US.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Vladimir Putin on November 23 in Sochi in efforts to organize an international conference under the Quartet, which includes US, Russia, UN, and EU. Quoting Palestinian officials, media sources indicate revitalizing the Quartet was an effort focused on preventing the US from having an exclusive role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the budding China, Russia strategic partnership, both nations have started regular consultations on Iran nuclear deal, Afghanistan, and humanitarian situation in Syria.
In short, the Iran nuclear deal is more and more about how it fits with in the construct of great power rivalry. While the negotiated settlement reached in 2015 was abandoned, the global environment is different and not conducive for a military strike now – and without lifting of sanctions, Iran is unlikely to budge. And this is why the Israeli and GCC fears are real, that US and the Democratic Party may try to align with Iran and may settle for ‘less for less’. But then Iranian fears are also on the mark, if the Republican Party returns to power in the next election – matters will return to square one.