Solving the Nuclear Stalemate between Iran and the United States

To reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and provide an effective security apparatus across the region, all Middle Eastern countries need to move beyond a zero-sum mentality.

A Russian worker walks past the Bushehr nuclear power plant, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran October 26, 2010. Iran has begun loading fuel into the core of its first nuclear power plant on Tuesday, one of the last steps to realising its stated goal of becoming a peaceful nuclear power, state-run Press TV reported on Tuesday. Mehr News Agency/Majid Asgaripour/ Reuters.

For more than four decades the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have seen each other as archenemies. Washington accuses Tehran of sponsoring terrorism, violating human rights, intervening in its neighbors’ domestic affairs and seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Iranian leaders categorically deny all these accusations and claim that the United States has never accepted their revolution. 

Since the early 1990s the nuclear issue has dominated relations between the two nations. By signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)/nuclear deal in 2015, President Obama thought to stall Tehran’s nuclear advances and use the agreement to build trust in order to tackle the other urgent challenges in the contentious relationship between Washington and Tehran.

Convinced that the deal did not go far enough, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and adopted a “maximum pressure” strategy. Based on this policy Washington imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Iran. The goal was to force its leaders to capitulate and make more concessions and/or facilitate a regime change. Tehran responded by its own “maximum resistance” strategy and despite severe economic pain, the Islamic Republic has refused to re-negotiate a modified nuclear deal.

Before taking office, then-candidate Joe Biden pledged that if elected he would rejoin the JCPOA. The expectations were that his administration would immediately lift all economic sanctions imposed by his predecessor and, in return, Iran would return to its commitments under the 2015 nuclear pact. These expectations, however, have been proven to be too optimistic. 

Instead, a consensus has emerged that a complicated diplomatic process is needed to restore confidence and keep the nuclear deal alive. To break this stalemate, the Europeans have engaged in diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing both Washington and Tehran back to the negotiating table. These efforts to revive the JCPOA raise several key questions: What are the main hurdles preventing the revival of the nuclear deal? How effective is Iran’s asymmetric warfare doctrine in challenging U.S. military and technological superiority? And how likely is the slow progress in negotiation to impact regional security in the broader Middle East?     

Setting the Stage: Washington, Tehran and the Nuclear Deal

On Inauguration Day, President Biden inherited daunting domestic and foreign policy challenges. Most importantly, COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions more have been infected. Containing the virus and addressing its devastating economic impact have been, by far, the administration’s main priority. Other urgent domestic priorities include promoting racial and gender justice, protecting voting rights and reversing climate change.      

Given this complicated political map, understandably, domestic affairs have dominated the first few months of Biden’s tenure in the Whitehouse. The President signed a $1.9 trillion Coronavirus relief bill into law and unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan centered on fixing roads and bridges, expanding broadband internet access and boosted funding for research and development. This is the first part of a two-fold plan that includes investing in healthcare and education, one of the most expensive in U.S. history.

Given the challenges he faces, President Biden has had to decide where to spend his political capital. As is often the case, leaders are compelled by their citizenry to focus first on the domestic challenges. Yet, in foreign policy the Biden administration has to deal with powerful adversaries such as China and Russia, restore ties with European allies and negotiate a peace agreement with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan, and strive to reach a new deal with Tehran. 

To further complicate Biden’s agenda, he needs the approval of a divided Congress. Democrats enjoy a slim majority in both the House and Senate. Senior figures in the Democratic Party like Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez strongly oppose the nuclear deal with Iran. Many senior members in both the Democratic and Republican parties have urged the Biden administration to use the sanctions imposed by President Trump as leverage to force Iran to make concessions.      

On the Iranian side, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final word in Iran, has never trusted the United States. In 2013, Khamenei reluctantly green lit the negotiations that led to the signing of the JCPOA two years later. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal in 2018 has deepened Khamenei’s mistrust and suspicion of Washington’s policies and intentions.      

The Iranians believe that since 2015 they have fulfilled their obligations under the nuclear deal and accuse Washington of violating the agreement. They argue that the United States government signed the JCPOA and the change from Obama to Trump presidency did not give Washington the legal or the moral right to withdraw from the agreement. Based on this perception, Iranian leaders have called on lifting all sanctions before any negotiations take place. They also reject re-negotiating a modified agreement that would address their missile program and regional policy.

Khamenei has the final word in the Islamic Republic but not the only one. Other centers of power in Tehran have significant impact on the nation’s policy. President Hassan Rouhani and the moderate side of the political establishment have largely been discredited. Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have invested all their political capital in the nuclear deal and the economic benefits that they anticipated would come from signing it. As a result of their failure, the hardliners in Iran won the majority of seats in the February 2020 parliamentary election and are widely expected to win the presidency in June 2021.

The assassination of major members in the political/security establishment in Tehran has further hardened the anti-US sentiments. In January 2020 Qasem Soleimani, Commander of Quds Force, was assassinated and 11 months later in November 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the nation’s top nuclear scientist was mysteriously killed. Within this context, in December 2020 the Iranian Parliament passed a new law “Strategic Counteractive Plan for Lifting Sanctions and Safeguarding Iranian People’s Rights.”      

The legislation requires Iran to take significant steps to ratchet up its nuclear activities if certain sanctions relief measures are not met. It requires the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) to cease voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement if specific  sanctions on banking and oil are not lifted. The law requires the AEOI to produce more 20 percent-enriched uranium and store it inside the country and return the Arak heavy water reactor to its pre-JCPOA condition. The implementation of some of these steps has already started and will continue as long as the stalemate with Washington persists. 

Importantly, despite daunting economic and health challenges, there is a sense in Tehran that the nation is back on the right track. Stated differently, the “maximum pressure” policy, as painful as it has been, has not triggered a collapse of the political system or caused an economic collapse. The nation has successfully managed to survive Trump’s tenure. 

Iran has been the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in the Middle East. Last year, Iranian authorities struggled to contain the epidemic and came under extensive scrutiny at home and abroad for their delayed response and lack of transparency. The crisis highlighted the devastating humanitarian consequences of U.S. sanctions on Iran, which impeded the flow of urgently needed medical equipment and humanitarian goods into the country.      

Currently, the Islamic Republic, like other countries, is still struggling to contain the virus; however, the efforts to import and domestically produce vaccines are underway and massive inoculation has started in some parts of the country. Furthermore, since 2018, the economy has been in recession, but starting in late 2020, oil exports have increased and there are growing signs of an economic recovery. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund project economic growth for 2021. 

In foreign policy, after several years of negotiations, Iran signed a sweeping economic and security agreement with China in late March 2021. The details of this agreement have not been made public, but it has been reported that Beijing is set to invest $400 billion over 25 years in exchange for a steady supply of oil. These Chinese investments will be made in dozens of fields, including banking, telecommunications, ports, railways, health care and information technology. Similarly, Tehran and Moscow are negotiating a long-term comprehensive strategic agreement to boost bilateral relations. The benefits of these agreements may, or may not, materialize, but they send a clear message: the Islamic Republic is not isolated and does have alternatives to the United States and Europe.      

Finally, in defense policy, the authorities in Tehran seem confident in the nation’s military capabilities to defend the homeland, deter potential aggressors and project power.       

The Asymmetric Warfare Doctrine  

Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been under different sanctions regimes and barred from access to advanced Western weapons. Like their counterparts around the world, Iranian strategists study and try to learn from recent military conflicts. At the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), there were a number of confrontations between the Iranian and American navies. These confrontations proved that Iran’s military capabilities could not match America’s superiority. Similarly, in the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait, the U.S. military used its technological capabilities and massive firepower to defeat Iraq’s army in just a few weeks. Based on the experience learned from these two conflicts, Iranian strategists have articulated and developed an asymmetric warfare doctrine. 

The U.S. Department of Defense defines such warfare as “the application of dissimilar strategies, tactics, capabilities and methods to circumvent or negate an opponent’s strengths while exploiting his weaknesses.” The essence of this doctrine is to avoid direct confrontation with the more powerful and technological advanced opponent. Rather, the strategy seeks to focus more on political battles and less on military ones. By presenting any future confrontation as a long and costly one, Tehran seeks to convince American leaders not to start a war against the Islamic Republic. The pillars of this strategy include naval forces, ballistic missiles, drones and cyber capabilities.

For millennia (particularly since the beginning of the twentieth century) Iranian leaders have perceived strong naval forces as crucial to securing foreign trade and cementing the nation’s position in the strategic waterways of the Persian Gulf.      

Since the early 1980s, Iran has maintained two naval forces: the regular navy—the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN)—and the Islamic Republic Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN). For decades small high-speed boats have been the key weapon system used by the IRGCN. It uses a tactic widely known as swarming to overwhelm an adversary through sheer numbers, surprising and isolating enemy forces and preventing reinforcement or resupply.      

U.S. officials repeatedly express confidence that the IRGCN would be defeated if hostilities broke out. Meanwhile, Iranian military leaders claim that their naval forces would inflict enough casualties and damage to raise the price of a victory to an unacceptably high cost for U.S. naval forces.

The roots of Iran’s missile program go back to the 1980-88 war with Iraq. The significant weakening of Tehran’s air force, in combination with Iraq’s intense use of missiles against Iranian military targets and civilian population, were the major drivers of the nation’s missile program. Initially, most of the missiles were imported from the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea, but over the years Iran has developed an indigenous missile industry.      

In the last few decades, Iran has imported, manufactured, and tested a variety of short and medium range as well as liquid and solid propellant ballistic missiles. Several European countries and the United States have expressed opposition to Iran’s growing missile capabilities and called on including the program in future sanctions relief and nuclear reduction negotiations. 

In the last few decades, several Middle Eastern states and non-state actors have acquired drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In the Middle East (and elsewhere) drones are widely employed in intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance and lethal operations in contemporary conflicts. This growing use of drones is due to the fact that they provide a significant enhancement in aerial awareness at a relatively low price and low risk.      

During the war with Iraq, Iran started investing in developing indigenous capabilities to manufacture drones. Reverse engineering has also played a major role in expanding these capabilities. Iranian engineers have used the technology they learned from foreign drones to further enhance their domestic production. As a result, Tehran has one of the most comprehensive and advanced drone programs in the Middle East.      

The cyber domain is one arena in which Tehran can challenge perceived adversaries without taxing its relatively limited resources. Indeed, cyber warfare is one of several toolkits in the nation’s asymmetrical warfare arsenal. In March 2012, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a directive establishing a centralized agency responsible for managing Iran’s cyber policies – the Supreme Council of Cyberspace. Other government entities involved in cyber warfare include the Islamic Republic Guard Corps Electronic Warfare and Cyber Defense Organization Basij Cyber Council, National Passive Defense Organization and Cyber Defense Command.      

It is hard to provide an accurate assessment of Iran’s cyber capabilities. The country has been accused of being behind several cyberattacks and has also been attacked by its adversaries, particularly the United States and Israel. These claims of cyberattacks and counterattacks cannot be confirmed. Neither side has ever claimed credit for the alleged attacks and, understandably, no evidence has ever been made public. Still, these allegations suggest that Iran and its adversaries will continue to build cyber capabilities and employ them against each other in the coming years. 

The Way Forward

In mid-April 2021 Iranian officials said an attack on the Natanz nuclear site damaged centrifuges and caused a fire and blackout at the facility. Israel neither confirmed nor denied that it had played a role. Tehran responded by increasing its uranium enrichment levels, in what is widely seen as a retaliation for the suspected Israeli attack. The announcement brought Iran closer to being able to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels. These tit-for-tat steps underscore the urgent need for constructive diplomacy to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue and the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East.

The on-going efforts to revive the JCPOA and the broad economic, diplomatic and military confrontations between Washington and Tehran raise important questions: What are the strategic impacts of the on-going negotiation on the nuclear program between Iran and global powers? And, how should Arab countries respond? A close look at the recent developments suggests four conclusions.

First, global powers (mainly the United States, Europe, Russia and China) have always been active players in the broad Middle East and are almost certain to remain so in the coming years. Simply stated, the region is too important to be left alone. 

The world economy still runs on fossil fuels and the region holds the world’s largest oil and natural gas reserves. The recent accidental blockade of the Suez Canal in March of this year underscored the significance of this waterway and by extension the Middle East region to global trade. Furthermore, the global war on terrorism and efforts to slow climate change will not succeed without a strong partnership with Middle Eastern powers.      

Unlike the rest of the world, the Middle East lacks a treaty and a mechanism to address nuclear weapons proliferation. Global power competition provides both opportunities and challenges to Middle Eastern countries and each state, based on its unique historical, geo-economic and geo-political circumstances, should seek to take advantage of the opportunities and overcome the challenges posed by relationships with the United States, the European Union, Russia, China and to a lesser extent India.

Iran has multi-dimensional and complicated relations with all these powers. Given geographical proximity and traditional historical ties, Europe has been heavily involved in Iran (and other Middle Eastern countries). European Union and individual member states have been Iran’s major trade partners. Unlike the Trump Administration, the EU, Britain, France and Germany (along with China and Russia) did not withdraw from the nuclear deal and sought to keep it alive. They also get credit for the on-going negotiations in Vienna to bring both Washington and Tehran to full compliance with the terms of the JCPOA. However, Iranian leaders have been frustrated with Europe’s inability or unwillingness to take an independent role from the United States and maintain trade and investment relations. Similarly, Russia has been seen as Iran’s important strategic ally. However, as the recent leaked comments by Zarif suggest, some Iranian leaders are suspicious of Moscow’s policy and acceptance of a rapprochement between Tehran and the West. Finally, and despite having good relations with both China and Pakistan, Iran has managed to maintain warm ties with India. Indeed, New Delhi is a main partner and developer of Chabahar, a major port in Iran’s southeastern coast along the Gulf of Oman  

Second, the frequency and intensity of inter-state wars (wars between two professional armies) are declining. In the last few decades the majority of military conflicts have been between opposing militias and/or a state against a militia supported by another state. The conflicts in Libya, Yemen and the skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas are examples of this global change. All these conflicts have seen increasing utilization of “non-conventional” weapons such as missiles, drones, cyber and naval warfare.      

This growing trend of surrogate warfare has certainly animated the confrontation between Iran and the United States in recent years. Currently, there are no binding international treaties regulating and banning the use of these weapon systems. So far, international efforts at the United Nations and other forums to regulate the use of missiles, drones and cyber warfare have not succeeded. Given the threat to the region and the world, Middle Eastern countries need to work side-by-side with other global leaders to regulate the use of these weapons both regionally and internationally.

Third, one approach to address Iran’s nuclear program is to establish a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East (NWFZ). The decades-long efforts to establish this zone have yet to succeed. In 1974 Egypt and Iran called for the denuclearization of the entire Middle East. The proposal was adopted by the UN General Assembly Resolution 3263 in 1974. The UN called on Middle Eastern states not to develop, produce, test, or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or permit the stationing on their territories of nuclear devices.      

Frustrated with the lack of progress, in 1990 Egypt introduced a new initiative to broaden the concept of NWFZ to a zone free of all kinds of weapons of mass destruction (WMDFZ). Israel is widely believed to be the only nuclear power in the Middle East and has never joined the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty. As long as Israel continues to possess nuclear weapons, it is hard and indeed unrealistic to convince other regional powers to accept this strategic imbalance.

Fourth, for centuries Arabs, Iranians, Israelis, Turks, Muslims, Christians and Jews have all lived side-by-side in the broader Middle East and they will continue to do so. Like all neighbors, their historic and present relations have been a mix of both cooperation and conflict.      

The growing transnational threats from terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and climate change create incentives for regional cooperation. COVID-19 with its devastating impact on both human life and economic development is another major incentive. The peoples of the region and their representative governments need to accept each other’s legitimate security concerns and engage in a strategic dialogue to reconstruct a new regional security architecture. Neighbors will always disagree with each other, but there is a need to denounce a zero-sum mentality in which one side’s gains are the other side’s losses. The goal then is to establish norms, rules and institutions in the Middle East to manage disagreements and promote political stability and economic prosperity.

The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. government or the policies of the Department of Defense.

Gawdat Bahgat is professor of national security affairs at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. He is the author of 12 books including Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East and Energy Security, Israel and the Persian Gulf.

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