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Whither the Iran Deal Post-US Withdrawal?

Fall / Winter 2019 The Definition

Whither the Iran Deal Post-US Withdrawal?

Nabil Fahmy

US Secretary of State John Kerry and the P5+1 framed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran as a necessary measure to inhibit that country’s ability to quickly reach nuclear weapons breakout capacity. The JCPOA had the potential to become a major diplomatic accomplishment or an historic strategic miscalculation. Major reductions in the number of centrifuges possessed by Iran and its stockpile of nuclear materials would substantially curtail its immediate nuclear capacity to weaponize. However, there are justifiable concerns about what Iran may do when its nuclear programme is no longer bound by the terms of an agreement and by its present policies.

In fact, there is no basis upon which to assume that the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region will have subsided 15 years hence. It is more likely that the asymmetries between the capacities of Arab and non-Arab states in the region will have increased. Israel, which is not a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), is presumed to have nuclear weapons and would continue to remain beyond any regional or international non-proliferation efforts. Iran would then have the right to enrich and repossess nuclear material, pursuant to the NPT itself. Only the Arab states – all NPT members – have non-controversial nuclear programmes. Such asymmetry could spark an all-consuming and destabilizing regional war that would intensify international security concerns.

Also of concern, especially for the majority of the Arab littoral states of the Persian Gulf, is that Iran will become emboldened – including in theatres like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen – by its emergence from relative international isolation and the international sanctions regime.

As Iran becomes even more assertive, and while Israel maintains its military deterrent capacity, Arab states remain uncomfortable about US policies – particularly in respect of Washington’s current and future security policies in the Gulf region. President Obama had spoken about pivoting to Asia. President Trump, far more transactional, is emphasizing that more of the security burden should be covered by regional players themselves.

The recent statement by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman that his country would acquire nuclear weapons if Iran were to have them demonstrates the stakes and tensions in the region. In truth, he was only articulating positions that neighbours, as well as the major powers, have articulated and asserted since the beginning of the Cold War. Both Israel and Iran have greatly enhanced their domestic military industrial capacity, including in nuclear technology, and have acquired sophisticated delivery systems.

Dealing with nuclear non-proliferation in the Middle East requires a principled determination to do so on a region-wide basis, the courage of conviction to address the issues without prejudice or exception, and the wisdom to accept concrete incremental steps, within a serious, transparent and public strategy.

I suggest creating a working group of Middle Eastern states, under the auspices of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, to negotiate the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (MEWMDFZ). The International Atomic Energy Agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization should also participate.

The objective of the working group would be to have a MEWMDFZ enter into force before the expiry of the 15-year provisions enshrined in the JCPOA. As a preliminary indication of seriousness, the negotiating parties should be asked to deposit letters with the UN Security Council, committing themselves to this objective and to abstain from further developing their weapons of mass destruction capabilities while negotiations are ongoing.

Each of the three international technical agencies should be invited to propose confidence-building measures in their respective areas of expertise in order to create a better environment for negotiations. These agencies could also be called upon to assist in developing verification measures, and the P5 could constructively suggest a series of other measures in respect of good neighbourly relations in order to decrease bilateral tensions in the region.

Bref, comprehensive nuclear disarmament measures in the Middle East are the answer.

» Nabil Fahmy is former foreign minister of Egypt, founding dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and Distinguished Professor of Practice in International Diplomacy at The American University in Cairo.

Jon Finer

There are few winners from the American withdrawal from the JCPOA, and a great many losers. Renewed confrontation between the US and Iran makes yet another conflict more likely in a region that already has far more than its share, and whose turbulence can quickly spread beyond its borders.

The Iranian political leaders who made the nuclear deal have suffered a major blow, benefitting the hardliners who opposed it, while the country’s citizens, who have already endured decades of international sanctions, face deepening economic hardship. By violating the deal when Iran was complying, the US produced a major rupture with close allies, unanswerable questions about whether Washington can be counted on to keep its word beyond the next election cycle, and a self-generated nuclear crisis – even as Washington struggles to address one with North Korea that threatens the US far more directly.

The most unfortunate impact of the US decision may be the damage to diplomacy itself, and to the belief that it can still address our planet’s most pressing problems.

Of course, the most unfortunate impact of the US decision may be the damage to diplomacy itself, and to the belief that it can still address our planet’s most pressing problems. Like all negotiated accords, the nuclear deal was imperfect (all sides agreed on that), but it was the most consequential recent example of nations that agreed on little else uniting to defuse a global challenge without firing a shot. Spoiling the fruits of that effort may make future leaders more likely to forego such cumbersome and time-consuming negotiations, and turn to less elegant foreign policy tools, like force.

» Jon Finer was chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry, and is a former director of policy planning at the US State Department.

Behzad Saberi

In his announcement on the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, President Trump claimed that the deal does not address the threat of Iran’s ballistic missiles or its behaviour in the region, and that the sunset clauses would allow Iran to build a bomb down the road. Trump continues to call for negotiations with Iran aimed at what he calls a ‘real deal.’

Aside from the sunset clauses (a total twist of the fact), he has intentionally neglected the fact that the JCPOA was all about ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme would be exclusively peaceful and that, in return, all nuclear-related sanctions against Iran would be lifted. Indeed, in the preface to the deal, the participants anticipated that “full implementation” of the JCPOA would “positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.” If left intact, the agreement could well contribute considerably to such aims. Moreover, if ‘fully implemented’ by all participants, it could provide a positive atmosphere and serve as a solid foundation upon which much more could be built (see Strategic Futures in GB’s Fall 2015 issue).

If implemented in good faith, the nuclear deal could lower the tall wall of mistrust between Iran and the US. In the words of Iran’s Supreme Leader, back in April 2015, if the US “stops its usual obstinacy, this [deal] will be an experience [for Iran], and we will find out that we can negotiate with it over other matters as well.”

Full implementation of the deal was evidently the key ingredient for trust-building. Iran has kept its end of the bargain, as certified multiple times to date by the IAEA. On the other side, however, not only was the deal never fully implemented by the US – even under the Obama administration – but President Trump unilaterally and unlawfully withdrew from the deal and brought back all of the nuclear-related sanctions that were to have been lifted under the deal. While portraying himself as a man of his word, Trump actually proved that the US is untrustworthy and unreliable. A unique opportunity was ruined, and a bridge that was painstakingly built has been destroyed.

Aware of the immensely detrimental consequences of the possible collapse of the deal, the remaining participants, including Iran, have been struggling to keep it alive. Efforts continue to ensure that Iran can still benefit economically from the deal. This, of course, is a challenging task. The American policy of pressure and intimidation has scared off many foreign companies, forcing them to reconsider economic engagement with Iran.

Despite the grave pain that sanctions are causing to its people, Iran has so far demonstrated a very significant degree of self-restraint by continuing to implement a now totally unbalanced deal. Although Tehran is entitled, under the JCPOA and in return for the significant non-performance by Washington, to cease implementation of its commitments in whole or in part, it has to date refrained from doing so, giving diplomacy and multilateralism another chance to work.

Despite all the differences that may exist among remaining participants (Iran, France, the UK, Germany, Russia and China), one crucial factor brings all of them (and many more countries) into the same fold. Our security is at stake. The global order is, once again, being threatened by perilous unilateralism. What we all need today is serious and good faith diplomacy, as well as readiness to stand against egocentric bias and old habits of pressure and coercion. All nations, including the US, should come on-board and advance a world defined by law, mutual respect and multilateralism.

» Behzad Saberi is a counsellor in the Foreign Ministry of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and was a member of the Iranian delegation during the negotiations leading to the JCPOA. This is written in his personal capacity, and cannot in any way be attributed to the Foreign Ministry of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Kayhan Barzegar

In May 2018, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in order to reach a better negotiated deal – in his words, to include broader issues, including limiting Iran’s missile programme and containing its regional role. Alas, the JCPOA was the only realm in which Iran could move toward at least partial reconciliation with the US at the bilateral level through diplomatic engagement and negotiations.

Trump believes that imposing new coercive economic sanctions will weaken Iran from within and put the country on the verge of collapse, as it may force the Iranian leadership to make concessions by accepting US demands – especially on regional issues. His main goal is to show that the US is committed to its traditional policy of containing Iran’s role and influence in the regional balance of power, thereby satisfying his regional allies Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel, which are today at the frontline of shaping a regional coalition against Iran.

Trump’s intention is to conduct direct talks in the context of a ‘grand bargain’ with Tehran, in which he maximizes strategic and economic rents for the US in as little time as possible. After several rounds of political pressure and Twitter threats, and just before the implementation of the first round of economic sanctions on Iran in early August 2018, he suddenly announced that he was ready to negotiate with Iran’s leaders without any preconditions. He previously conducted similar talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin – both with uncertain results.

At present, for several reasons, direct talks between Iran and the US are unlikely. First, Iran has already negotiated with the US, the ultimate result of which has been US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and a return to the previous policy of regime change. This has only served to deepen the country’s sense of insecurity vis-à-vis the US.

Second, as it views Washington as an unreliable negotiating partner, Tehran is now inclined to seek multilateral agreements in its international relations with other states and world powers. Iran’s original acceptance of direct talks with the US in respect of the nuclear programme sought mainly to break the stalemate in the negotiations, paving the way for a final multilateral agreement with world powers and defusing any international pretext for deeming Iran’s nuclear activity to constitute a threat to international security.

Third, from Iran’s perspective, the country’s missile programme and regional policy are matters of national interest and security. Any concession on these matters would be perceived as a lose-win situation, with Iran in the losing position. Indeed, these matters are also seen by Tehran as completely separate from the nuclear negotiations, which were conducted according to a win-win formula or logic. In this respect, Tehran and Washington currently have diametrically opposite understandings of Iran’s nuclear programme and regional policy, with Tehran insisting that these are defensive in nature and Washington presuming them to be offensive.

Iran expected the JCPOA to bring economic benefits and security relief. With the US withdrawal, these benefits have been compromised severely. This has led Iran to adopt a two-pronged policy. First, Iran announced that it will remain part of the nuclear deal without the US in order to defuse any possibility of coalition-building against the country at the international level. In this respect, Iran’s inclination to enhance relations with Russia, China, European countries and Turkey – all of which are themselves at loggerheads with the Trump administration – has been strengthened.

Second, Iran has adopted a resistance policy in order to tackle the threats posed by Washington, focussing on an ‘inward-looking’ strategy by which it can strengthen the resilience and capacity of its national economy while profiting from its geopolitical centrality. Through regional connectivity, this strategy aims mainly to strengthen Iran’s national power and regional role.

» Kayhan Barzegar is director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, and chair of the Department of International Relations at the Islamic Azad University (Science and Research Branch) in Tehran. His latest book is Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East After the Arab Spring.

Ephraim Kam

The US pullout from the JCPOA has put Iran in a difficult position – with bad options. Iran arguably joined the agreement for one principal reason: to remove the harsh economic sanctions imposed on it by the US. The Trump administration has now not only withdrawn from the agreement, but has reimposed severe sanctions on Iran, with additional sanctions expected before long.

To be sure, the JCPOA imposes significant limitations on Iran’s nuclear programme. However, after several years, most of these limitations are to be removed and, absent a renewal or extension of the deal, Iran will be allowed to develop a large uranium enrichment programme, which would in principle bring it closer to nuclear weapons.

Thus far, Iran has not withdrawn from the agreement, attempting – with the other five governments that oppose the US withdrawal – to revive the deal. Still, it seems that these attempts reflect a temporary position, for two reasons. First, Iran is demanding from the other five partners economic assurances or guarantees to counteract the economic damage caused by the renewed US sanctions. Moreover, Iran is demanding that the three European governments avoid any negotiations on issues of significant sensitivity for Iran, including its ballistic missile programme and its interventions in other Middle Eastern countries. The European governments have thus far found it difficult to respond positively to the Iranian demands.

Second, in parallel, Iran is threatening to withdraw from the agreement if the country cannot properly benefit from it. Iran has also threatened to resume its nuclear activities at the level that existed before the agreement, and perhaps even beyond that level. Such activity would evidently spell the end of the agreement.

The alternative option for Iran is to agree to open the agreement to further negotiations, which would necessarily mean the imposition of additional limitations on Iran’s nuclear programme, and perhaps its missile programme as well.

» Ephraim Kam is senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel-Aviv.

Pierre Pahlavi

Jusqu’en 2016, l’avenir se présentait sous les meilleurs auspices pour la République islamique d’Iran tant sur le plan régional qu’international. Déjà solidement implanté au Liban, en Syrie, en Afghanistan et en Irak, l’Iran avait profité du Printemps arabe pour étendre sa sphère d’influence dans la péninsule arabique, en Afrique du Nord, à la pointe de l’Afrique et au Sahel. La contribution iranienne à la lutte contre Daech aux côtés de la coalition internationale dirigée par les États-Unis avait offert à la République iranienne l’occasion de redorer son blason et de négocier en position de force sur des questions sensibles à commencer par l’épineux dossier nucléaire. Complétant ce lifting diplomatique, la figure débonnaire du président Hassan Rohani élu en 2013 avait contribué à faire apparaître le régime islamique comme une puissance modérée et à nouveau fréquentable.

Un retour en grâce de l’Iran est couronné par l’accord nucléaire du 14 juillet 2015 conclu avec les membres du P5+1. Déjà, Paris, Londres, Berlin et Ottawa œuvraient à renouer les liens diplomatiques avec Téhéran tandis que, sans attendre que l’encre de l’accord nucléaire ait séché, Airbus et Total se ruaient vers l’Iran pour y signer de juteux contrats. En plus d’ouvrir la porte à une réintégration du régime iranien au sein du concert des nations, le Plan d’action global commun (PAGC) portait les germes d’une modification importante de la donne géopolitique au profit de la puissance iranienne. Déjà, les observateurs qualifiaient l’Iran de superpuissance régionale et évoquaient une «Pax iranica» pour décrire la nouvelle configuration de pouvoir au Moyen-Orient.

La période qui s’est ouverte avec le début de l’année 2017 a été témoin d’un formidable retournement de situation au détriment des intérêts stratégiques de l’Iran, de sa posture au niveau régional et de sa réintégration internationale.

Le coup d’arrêt à la formidable ascension de l’Iran sur les scènes régionales et internationales est venu de Washington. Véritable douche froide, l’élection de Donald Trump rebat les cartes et hypothèque la normalisation du statut international de l’Iran. Dès son investiture, le nouveau locataire de la Maison-Blanche opère un virage à 180 degrés en rompant le dialogue avec l’Iran et en amorçant un rapprochement avec ses adversaires israéliens et saoudiens. Leur offrant son soutien indéfectible, Trump «dé-certifie» le PAGC avant de mettre à exécution sa promesse de «déchirer l’accord» de 2015. Le ton de Washington à l’égard de Téhéran se durcit au fur et à mesure que l’on passe d’une administration «populiste» (début 2017) à une administration «conservatrice» (fin 2017), pour finir aujourd’hui avec une équipe de plus en plus néo-conservatrice composée d’individus comme Mike Pompeo et John Bolton, ne cachant pas leur détestation du régime iranien, voire leur volonté de s’en débarrasser.

L’adoption de ce qu’il est désormais permis d’appeler la «doctrine Trump» s’est accompagnée d’un réalignement et d’une polarisation marquée de la configuration géopolitique. D’un côté, l’Iran, ses alliés russes, syriens, irakiens, le Hezbollah et ses autres proxies chiites ou pro-iraniens. De l’autre, les puissances du GCC et Israël qui, forts du soutien des États-Unis, oscillent entre une politique d’endiguement de l’Iran et une stratégie de roll-back. Entre les deux camps, très peu de place pour les indécis comme le Qatar et la Turquie.

L’Iran se voit menacé d’être neutralisé et cantonné à sa sphère d’influence de l’avant 2011. À tout cela s’ajoute une résurgence de la dissidence interne très largement et très ouvertement soutenue par Washington et ses alliés régionaux. Lors de la période fin 2017-début 2018, des manifestations – les plus importantes depuis 2009 – éclatent à Méched, le fief du président Hassan Rohani, puis dans d’autres métropoles du pays.

Si le président Trump a personnellement enclenché ce processus, le véritable obstacle au retour en force de l’Iran sur les scène régionale et internationale est à chercher du côté des alliés régionaux de Washington: Israël, l’Arabie Saoudite et les puissances du GCC. Déjà, sous l’administration Obama, l’Arabie Saoudite n’avait eu cesse de dénoncer les «manigances iraniennes» alors que, de son côté, le premier ministre israélien Nétanyahou s’était acharné à condamner le «marché du siècle» que constituait à ses yeux par le PAGC. Obéissant à une logique de jeu à somme nulle, ces puissances ont toujours estimé que tout gain de la partie iranienne s’accompagne nécessairement d’une perte intégrale de leurs propres intérêts. Concrètement, la crainte des puissances régionales est non seulement de voir remettre en cause leurs relations privilégiées avec les États-Unis, mais aussi de voir mises en place les conditions d’un renforcement de l’hégémonie iranienne sur l’échiquier moyen-oriental et le retour de ce que l’on appelait à l’époque du Shah le «gendarme du Golfe».

L’accord nucléaire de 2015, la reprise du dialogue diplomatique par Téhéran avec les chancelleries occidentales et la position de force acquise par l’Iran au Levant et dans la péninsule arabe, notamment en Syrie et au Yémen, constituaient donc autant de lignes rouges auxquelles les Israéliens et les Saoudiens se devaient donc de réagir. Relativement contenue jusqu’à l’élection de Trump, l’intransigeance saoudienne à l’égard de l’Iran s’exprime désormais au grand jour. Au cours de l’année 2018, avec les tirs de missiles du Yémen vers l’Arabie saoudite attribués à la minorité chiite des Houtis, alliés de Téhéran, la tension est montée d’un cran. Riyad est même allé jusqu’à parler de «déclaration de guerre iranienne contre l’Arabie saoudite».

La détérioration des relations entre l’Iran et Israël est encore plus préoccupante: à plusieurs égards, les deux pays semblent sur une trajectoire de collision frontale. Aux griefs habituels (programme nucléaire et développement des missiles balistiques) s’ajoutent désormais la crainte israélienne suscitée par la présence des forces iraniennes et pro-iraniennes dans la Ghouta et sur le plateau du Golan – c’est-à-dire aux frontières de l’État hébreu. Est-ce à dire que la région est à la veille d’un conflit généralisé?

Plusieurs facteurs suggèrent qu’une conflagration régionale, quoi que possible en cas d’erreurs de calcul, n’est pas inéluctable à court terme. D’abord, tous les protagonistes sont parfaitement conscients des dangers d’une spirale conflictuelle et des conséquences catastrophiques que pourrait avoir un affrontement direct. C’est pourquoi ils se sont jusqu’à maintenant gardés de s’affronter directement en s’appuyant pour cela sur des proxies. Par exemple, quand les forces spéciales américaines tuent des mercenaires russes, ce ne sont pas officiellement les États-Unis et la Russie qui s’affrontent. Surtout, la manière dont ont été conduites les frappes du 14 avril 2018 et les précautions prises pour éviter les cibles russes et iraniennes sont symptomatiques de cette prudence occidentale. Malgré la rhétorique va-t-en-guerre de Trump, les Américains et leurs alliés européens sont réticents à s’embarquer dans un conflit qui pourrait déboucher sur la troisième guerre mondiale. Ensuite, il est permis de penser que ni Israël ni l’Iran ne veulent déclencher un conflit qui s’envenimerait et les engouffrerait dans un chaos régional.

Enfin, il faut garder à l’esprit que le rapport de force militaire entre l’Iran et ses rivaux régionaux est fondamentalement dissymétrique. Plus précisément, ce rapport de force est particulièrement désavantageux pour l’Iran sur le plan de ses capacités militaires conventionnelles. L’Iran possède plusieurs centaines de milliers d’hommes, mais n’a pas le matériel militaire de haute technologie pour accompagner leur déploiement. À l’inverse des Iraniens, les Saoudiens et les Israéliens ont accès à une technologie militaire dernier cri, mais, pour diverses raisons, n’ont ni les moyens ni la légitimité requis pour déployer une force expéditionnaire à l’échelle régionale. Conscient de cette situation et des avantages qui peuvent en être tirés, l’Iran va donc tout faire pour essayer d’esquiver la confrontation directe avec ses rivaux en continuant à miser sur son approche hybride et asymétrique.

Le scénario le plus probable est en effet celui d’une nouvelle mise en quarantaine de l’Iran se traduisant d’abord par un effort d’endiguement beaucoup plus marqué de la part des puissances régionales et, par conséquent, par un gel du dialogue diplomatique – et accessoirement économique – avec leurs alliés occidentaux. C’est un retour de l’isolement dont avait souffert le régime avant la grande phase d’expansion de son influence régionale des années 2006 à 2017. Une remise au banc du concert des nations susceptibles de nourrir le fameux «complexe d’obsidionalité» qui caractérise la vision stratégique des Iraniens, à savoir l’impression d’être enclavés dans un environnement régional et international hostile.

La question se pose alors de savoir vers quel horizon géopolitique l’Iran peut s’orienter désormais: l’Occident lui tournant à nouveau le dos et les puissances régionales arabes et israéliennes lui faisant obstacle au Moyen-Orient, l’option eurasiatique semble être la plus propice à la poursuite de ses ambitions. Cette «troisième voie» consiste pour l’Iran à développer l’axe de coopération eurasiatique avec la Russie, la Chine, l’Inde ou la Turquie.

» Pierre Pahlavi est professeur agrégé au Département des études de la défense du Collège des Forces canadiennes. Son récent livre s’intitule Le Marécage des Ayatollahs: histoire de la révolution iranienne.


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