Arab Retooling of the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Middle East peace and security must include regional involvement in any future U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement.

Protesters burn pictures of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and U.S. President Donald Trump during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, in Tehran, Iran, November 28, 2020. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters 

There is an expectation in the Middle East, especially in the Persian Gulf, that amongst the potential disputes between Arab states and the new U.S. administration following the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, the first will likely center around Iran and its nuclear program. 

The Obama administration—in which Biden served as vice-president—adopted a policy of direct dialogue with Iran and provided calculated incentives in exchange for restraints on its nuclear program, hoping to encourage Tehran to change course and adopt a less aggressive posture toward the international community and American allies. These policies were based on the premise that the risks of such a gamble were fewer than its apparent alternative—that is, leaving Iran to enhance its nuclear capacities unilaterally.

These concerns about a coming US-Arab row swelled with the repeated declarations by Biden and his supporters in recent weeks that a revitalized Iran Nuclear Agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) with the five nuclear powers plus Germany (P5 +1) would be a welcome step. 

The issue has also come to prominence in light of expectations that President Donald Trump might contemplate escalating military confrontation with Iran before he leaves power to make the return to the JCPOA difficult. The assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and Tehran’s subsequent accusations against Israel was another case in point.

A number of western analysts have interpreted the recent Israeli-Arab decisions to normalize diplomatic relations as an attempt to build an axis confronting Iran, although the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed has spoken publicly to the contrary.

Parallel to the revived American attitude, a desire also exists among a number of Iranian politicians for a return to an understanding around the JCPOA with the United States and the international community. 

Reinstating the agreement will, nonetheless, not be an assured outcome. 

Iranian legislative proposals have already been submitted to create obstacles to any new agreement, leading high-ranking Iranian officials to caution against the folly of reverting to a flawed and harmful position of isolation. 

Another complication is that the United States has unilaterally withdrawn from the agreement by executive order, and it is thus expected that Iran will demand that any new agreement be ratified by the U.S. Congress to guarantee a degree of permanence and durability. This will be no easy task if the Democrats do not hold a majority in Congress.

And yet another complicating factor to overcome is that Iran reacted to the American withdrawal and continued sanctions by accelerating rates of enriching uranium that can be used for military purposes, driving its stockpile over the limits permitted by the agreement. 

Despite its interest in reinstating the JCPOA, the Biden administration may find it difficult to rejoin the Agreement before Iran backs down and surrenders its reserves exceeding agreed-upon limits. But such a demand may be difficult to achieve, given that the United States was the one to withdraw in the first place. Iran also faces a decisive election year in the near future, which will doubtlessly witness renewed attacks on the moderate wing of the Iranian regime that supports the nuclear agreement. Among the most important targets of these attacks is Iranian Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif, who saw his popularity nosedive shortly after the deal’s implementation. 

Whether the United States and Iran succeed or not in resurrecting the agreement, I believe that all regional and international stakeholders should at least expect a partial return to a less strident and fraught U.S. policy toward Iran. Such a détente worries many in the Arab world from a number of angles. There may be legitimate concerns, however; more dangerous is to let the anxiety undermine our ability to deal with these challenges and others.

More importantly, it is better to reflect on how harnessing and redirecting the Iran nuclear agreement might reduce the potential dangers some states face in their relations with the United States and, if possible, even with Iran. It is also important to  consider an amended and upgraded agreement’s broader potential function in bolstering efforts to provide security and stability in the Middle East more generally. A starting point for such reflection could be resolving the deficiencies of the nuclear agreement from the Arab perspective, namely: 

  • The agreement lacks guarantees from Iran to end its hegemonic and expansionist ambitions in the Middle East, from the Levant to the Gulf. John Kerry informed me, while he and I collaborated as foreign ministers for the U.S. and Egypt respectively, that future negotiations were planned for regional initiatives. I, however, argued that these issues should have been  integral dimensions of the agreement and not simply a projected stage in the distant future, especially since the agreement bolsters Iran’s position politically and provides it vast material resources which it could invest to expand its aggressive regional ambitions.
  • The agreement includes provisions that allow Iran to flout a number of its commitments after a period of fifteen years. These “sunset provisions” allow Iran to restart its high-grade nuclear enrichment after that, a particularly dangerous possibility after Iran would have attained wide international legitimacy and economic opportunities.
  • The agreement treats the problem of belligerent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East as only a threat to the superpowers worldwide and Israel regionally, without sufficient attention to Arab security. It must not be forgotten that Iran, Israel, and the United States collaborated during the Khomeini era to deliver weapons to the Contra rebels in Latin America.
  • The agreement also overlooks that nuclear weapons are strategic, and that addressing them must happen on a truly regional level, without exceptions. In fact Israel is the only state in the Middle East that remains outside the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Asymmetrical nonproliferation commitments are bound to generate  new risks that would generate  a costly and destructive arms race on all.  

Additional observations from the Arab perspective must be considered. First, Tehran’s political dogma is built upon the fundamental conviction that Iran is a target first and foremost of the United States and Israel. Consequently, it defends and fortifies its territorial borders by expanding its influence  regionally. 

It is also noteworthy that the United States is the principal target of Iranian attention both in the negative and positive prisms. It frequently offers regional security initiatives that do not include the United States. However, when circumstances allow Iran will engage in direct talks with the United States given its power and influence across the world. Even during the JCPOA negotiations it opted to negotiate with the U.S. in Oman while the four other states waited patiently in Geneva.

To further establish its primary leverage, Iran has repeatedly proposed dialogues particularly over maritime waterways limited to Gulf states without the involvement of other Arab nations, even though the provisions of these agreements entail consequences to many Arab stakeholders. 

I have frequently suggested that peace and security in the Middle East is unachievable absent Arab understandings with Turkey, Iran, and Israel,  concomitantly reaffirming the need for preliminary trust-building measures. The absence of common ground appropriate for these understandings is a result of the hegemonic and illegitimate policies of these three powers. I champion an approach supportive of strong international relationships, but always caution against overreliance even on the best of friends. It’s an approach that calls for proactive initiatives rather than reactions to the behavior of others. 

Given the fragility and tension in Middle Eastern relations, it is better for Arab states outside the Gulf to kickstart an initiative and propose ideas after consultation with their counterparts in the Gulf. Such proposals may revolve around the following:

  • Progressive steps demanded from Iran, as well as Israel and Turkey, to defuse tensions in their relations with Arab countries, specifically with respect to security matters; to enhance the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states; and to include guarantees to rein in attempts of regional hegemony. 
  • Regional security arrangements in the Middle East generally, including but not limited to the Persian Gulf. Here it is useful to advance a declaration of principles which apply to political, economic, and security dimensions, bearing in mind previous efforts exerted in this respect in the framework of the Arms Control and Regional Security Committee that emanated from the Madrid Peace Conference of the early nineties.
  • Taking advantage of the positive aspects of the nuclear agreement, such as the prohibition of nuclear proliferation, with its goal of achieving a Middle East free from nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in all their forms without exception, including Iran, Israel, and Arab countries. 
  • Addressing the shortcomings in the nuclear agreement. In addition to its extension to all countries of the region, it must be lasting and permanent so that Arab interests and those  of others receive their rightful and legitimate place in the vision for a regional security agenda for the Middle East 

Lastly, I propose that all these regional and secondary efforts take place under the auspices and umbrella of the United Nations Security Council so as to establish and entrench the principles and provisions of law in international and regional security. The Council could also form a special body to supervise these negotiations or appoint a special envoy, to shepherd the needed intensive and protracted diplomacy, both direct and indirect, with ample emphasis on incremental, defined steps. If such efforts succeed despite the significant challenges, they may actually lay the first seeds for a new system of collective regional security, including mechanism to overcome crises, resolve disputes, facilitate channels of cooperation, and contribute to building a better, more secure future for all.

Nabil Fahmy, a former foreign minister of Egypt, is the founding dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. He served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 1999–2008, and as envoy to Japan between 1997 and 1999. On Twitter: @DeanNabilFahmy.

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