An Exit from the Top in the Iranian Nuclear Crisis?

French President Emmanuel Macron and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

by François Nicoullaud

Despite President Trump’s demands that it do so, Iran has no intention of renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Unless, of course, it will receive in exchange concessions that no one is likely to offer. In Tehran’s internal politics, the JCPOA is a highly fragile product that has been imposed on fiercely competing factions. Why would Iran’s leadership be disposed to reopen this Pandora’s box?

Yet outside Iran, a palpable frustration has been building in the absence of the hoped-for evolution in Iran’s foreign policy expected from the JCPOA’s successful implementation. Nor has the agreement produced the anticipated slowdown in Iranian ballistic-missile program. Hence, Trump’s “decertification” on the questionable grounds that Tehran is violating the “spirit” of the deal. To be fair, however, disappointment over Iran’s post-deal policies is perceptible in Europe as well.

If one believes in diplomacy, this unhealthy situation must be addressed.

Three Gestures on Non-Proliferation 

On the non-proliferation front, the Islamic Republic could make in principle three positive gestures, none of which would prejudice its national interests, its basic policy positions, or its national pride. On the contrary, if combined, they would bring Iran to the highest international standard in terms of non-proliferation.

  • The first would be to ratify the Additional Protocol to its standard safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In 1993, Iran signed the Additional Protocol, which allows heightened inspections on nuclear facilities and materials, and is provisionally implementing its provisions in the framework of the JCPOA. In the same JCPOA, Iran pledged to present this Protocol to its parliament for ratification in 2023. An operative Additional Protocol is a prerequisite today for any country wishing to be recognized as the legitimate manager of a peaceful nuclear program. If Tehran is to be believed, such a recognition is exactly what Iran is pursuing. Since Iran is not gaining anything in the interim, why shouldn’t the government submit the Protocol for ratification now? After all, the current government maintains a fairly positive relationship with the present parliament, and who knows what political landscape will emerge from the 2020 parliamentary elections and the 2021 presidential elections?
  • The second gesture would be to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) that Iran signed in 1996. By acceding to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) back in 1970, Tehran has already forsaken the possibility of acquiring a nuclear arsenal. As a result, ratifying the CTBT would not impose any new obligation. It would, however, be highly symbolic as the Islamic Republic would join for the first time in its history a major international non-proliferation instrument.
  • The third gesture would be to join the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. The Code’s members agree to disclose the composition of their stockpiles of missiles, to present annually the outline of their ballistic programs, and to announce their ballistic tests in advance. At a time of comprehensive satellite monitoring of ballistic-missile activities around the world, these commitments do not jeopardize the members’ freedom of action, and send a significant confidence-building signal.

A Venue for Regional Dialogue

But why would Iran take such initiatives when it is the United States that bears the responsibility of the present crisis and President Trump relishes the “chaos” he has created? Yet perhaps there could be a way to convince Iran to give it at least a try.

Most countries in the Middle East have not yet acceded to the Additional Protocol with the IAEA, nor have they joined the CTBT or the Hague Code of Conduct. This applies in particular to major countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The invitation to all these countries to envision a simultaneous accession to these three instruments would indeed constitute an important step forward. It would moreover offer a venue for dialogue between Iran and its neighbors.

With regard to concerns about Iran’s ballistic-missile program, in particular, it would permit Tehran to put forward its quite reasonable objections to accepting unilateral commitments in the field of defense. It would also be a first response to Iran’s constant appeal for the creation of a collective security system in its region. And opportunities might arise for addressing other subjects of contention in the region, notably Syria and Yemen. Of course, Israel would be missing. But as long as most of these countries, Iran in the forefront, do not recognize the State of Israel, they cannot expect it to join such an initiative.

Who, then, could launch such an endeavor? Obviously, the United States under President Trump is not in the appropriate state of mind. Could this then be an opportunity for Europe? French President Emmanuel Macron has just announced that he has spoken with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the possibility of paying a visit to Tehran. Such a gesture would represent a highly symbolic opening. If, at the same time, the perspective of a regional negotiation around the Additional Protocol, the CTBT, and the Hague Code of Conduct could take shape, Washington could be asked at least to encourage its friends in the Arabian Peninsula to take part and to refrain from gestures that could destabilize the process. Turkey, which is already party to these three instruments, could also help.

Of course, some voices will dismiss such an initiative as doomed to fail. But diplomacy means to never give up, to always try.

François Nicoullaud

François Nicoullaud's diplomatic career (1964 to 2005) brought him to New York, Chile, Berlin, Bombay, and finally to Budapest and Tehran as French ambassador. In the French Foreign Ministry he was in charge of cultural development as well as non-proliferation issues. He has also served in the Ministry of Interior as a diplomatic advisor and in the Ministry of Defense as First Assistant to the Minister. Since 2005, he has been active as a political analyst in international affairs, concentrating on Iran and the Middle East. He has also authored a book based on his experience entitled, “The Turban and the Rose” (Ramsey, Paris, 2006).



  1. The “palpable frustration” of the US with Iran’s foreign policy is caused by the recent defeat of US-supported anti-Syria forces by Iran’s militias acting along with the Iran-allied Syria Arab Army and Russian Air. What can the US do about this “frustration?” Can’t attack Syria or Russia, so the only recourse is to declare Iran “terror supporters” and grab the low-hanging fruit, the JCPOA, that’s what. Sore losers! Whiners!

  2. . . .And forget about “the anticipated slowdown in Iranian ballistic-missile program.” Iran’s three principal competitors (US, Israel and Saudi Arabia) have modern air forces and Iran doesn’t, so Iran has to rely on “asymmetric warfare” to defend itself, the chief components of which are cruise and ballistic missiles. Iran has said that that’s a no-go zone.

  3. @DonBacon, absolutely right. in addition Iran has closed off Lebanon’s southern border to any aggression from Israel as they learned when their asses got kicked in 30 days! So it’s a double embarrassment!

  4. M. Nicoullaud is to be encouraged to work with French PM Macron on his proposed initiative. Macron wants to strengthen France’s international stature, and this might be an opportunity.

    My suggestion is to not include ratification of the Additional Protocol. As Director General Amani said in his statement reacting to President Trump’s insulting accusation that IAEA has been “intimidated” by Iran, Iran is now provisionally implementing its AP with positive effects. And ratification of their AP is included as an eventual action by Iran.

  5. Iran not only signed the Additional Protocol but repeatedly allowed inspections that far exceeded it, not to mention suspending enrichment entirely for about 3 years with nothing to show for it. It has now accepted additional limits on its nuclear program, some permanent, that also far exceed what any other country has ever agreed to. Aside from that Iran has been pushing to create a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Mideast since the 1960s (Egypt joining in a bit later). So as far as making gestures go, Iran has more than done its bit. What did it ever get Iran? Nothing about the current standoff has anything to do with nuclear weapons so no amount of Iranian compromises and gestures on that issue will ever suffice. This was all about some people wanting regime-change, and that’s all. The nuclear issue is just a pretext and distraction.

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