The Biden administration is trumpeting a return to “multilateralism” to deal with Iran. It hopes to put Humpty Dumpty back on the wall by rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) under which Iran pauses the development of nuclear weapons until 2030. The strategy is for the United States to lift the unilateral 2018 Trump sanctions and to rejoin the deal, provided that Iran first ceases enriching uranium to 20 percent purity, returning to the 3.67 percent limit set by the original deal. The JCPOA was signed between Iran, the United States, Western European allies, the EU, China and Russia in July 2015. Missing from that pact were Gulf area allies of the United States, despite having considerably more immediate interests in the region. After the JCPOA was signed, the Obama administration lifted a broad array of economic and other sanctions against Iran but left certain others, including ballistic missile technology and anti-terrorism measures in place. Many of those sanctions are, however, set to end before 2030 under various JCPOA “sunset” provisions.
Joe Biden’s evolving strategy to return to the JCPOA includes having Iran accept the commencement of discussions on other issues such as limitations on the development of ballistic missiles. The idea is, as the new National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan calls it, to get Iran’s nuclear program back “in a box” and then “chip away” at the other problems it causes for the neighborhood.
Good luck with all that. The Biden foreign policy team looks bent on trying to square a circle. It wants to get Iran back into the nuclear freeze deal, but also to persuade it to stop other regional destabilization, whether missile development; supporting Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel; fomenting Islamic extremism in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen; seizing tankers in the Gulf; or even attacking neighboring states with missiles and drones. On Jan. 23, Houthi rebels attacked the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with Iranian-made drones or missiles. On Jan. 25, Iran ominously test-fired a medium-range missile (possibly anti-ship) which fell within one hundred miles of a U.S. carrier strike group in the Indian Ocean, and within just twenty miles of a merchant ship. On Feb. 1, notwithstanding a long-time array of multilateral missile proliferation sanctions and controls, Iran successfully test-fired a solid-fuel missile rocket, a key component for intercontinental missile capability. Stopping all this, plus re-entering the nuclear deal, is a very tall and ambitious order for the new administration.
Trump’s announcement in 2018 of the United States’ exit from the JCPOA was condemned at the time as the worse kind of unilateralism. The former administration was roundly attacked for walking out of a deal that had been negotiated with America’s closest European allies to freeze Iran’s development of nuclear weapons for fifteen years. Most of the debate since the U.S. exit has revolved around those who want to restore the United States as a multilateral partner to the pact, versus those who opposed entering the JCPOA from the beginning, mainly over nuclear verification concerns.
Lost in the discussion have been the interests of regional allies with the most at stake. Right from the start, Iran’s neighbors expressed strong misgivings about the wisdom of the JCPOA. Anwar Gargash, the minister of foreign affairs for the United Arab Emirates, condemned the JCPOA as dangerously strengthening Iran, making ‘its ballistic missile program . . . both offensive & exportable” according to Reuters. When Trump announced withdrawal in 2018, it was hailed by friendly Arab states as a wise strategic move. Faisal Abbas, the editor in chief of Saudi Arabia’s largest English language newspaper, Arab News Daily, said, again according to Reuters, that “Paris and London may not like Trump’s decision, but how would the British or French feel if their capitals came under direct threat by the Iranians?”
The Obama administration followed its best l global order instincts by negotiating a nuclear pause with Iran. European democracies with dreams of a nuclear-free world, and without serious military commitments in the Middle East, supported the United States. Europeans also looked forward to resuming profitable business ties with Iran. Lost in the mix were Iran’s neighbors, American friends and allies who face daily pressures from Iran and its militia-supported groups. For these countries, including not just Israel, but Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, there was nothing “multilateral” about the JCPOA. For them, it smacked more of imperial arrogance. Old-line, European powers joined forces with the United States, and totalitarian states, China and Russia, to force a deal over their heads. Had an Iranian-supported militia launched a drone/missile attack on a U.S. base or against the capital of a European ally, instead of Riyadh last month, the Biden administration would not likely be aspiring to a return to the JCPOA. The fact that Riyadh was attacked, not Paris, cannot explain or justify a different policy approach.
The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, combined with its diplomatic support for the creation of a new strategic relationship between Israel and moderate Arab states under the Abraham Accord, was a positive move to help repair the regional diplomatic damage caused by the accord. The Biden administration cannot turn its back on this strategic accomplishment. Instead, it must search for a path that holds the Abraham coalition together as a pillar of any plan to find a way to deal with Iran. Another benefit of taking such an approach will be continuing the process of drawing Israel and moderate Arab states closer together.
Developing a negotiating strategy centered more on collaboration with regional friends will be far more complicated. It will not be possible to keep the nuclear question artificially compartmentalized from other issues dividing Iran from its neighbors. The United States cannot lift the oil embargo and other economic sanctions to enable returning to the JCPOA, while simultaneously curbing Iran’s ongoing weapons proliferation and other aggressions. Even today, despite an array of existing missile proliferation sanctions, Iran continues to develop anti-ship missile systems capable of striking any vessel in the Arabian Gulf area. A coalition to stop such threats is as pressing today as is permanently halting Iran’s nuclear program.
Resolving this tangled ball of yarn will require broad sanctions, proliferation controls, and soft power initiatives working closely with friends in the region, not just with Europe, Russia and China. Regional allies with more at stake must be given a respectful seat at the table. The new administration must realistically acknowledge how far the strategic picture has changed since the 2015 JCPOA was signed. The clock cannot be turned back.
Ramon Marks is a retired New York international lawyer.