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 biggest political mistake that Iran has ever made! Although Iran has made many other political errors in the past 1400 years!
    Ahmadinejad was a jackass but he was on track to finishing the uranium enrichment and on the path to having the first b-bomb test done! But Rouhani, current president, who was the national security chief at that time won the argument in stopping Ahmadinejad to achieve his goal! They are being forced to regret their decision!

  2. As long as the existence of Israel on stolen lands (created by Europeans that did not want Jews in their countries), and their massive illegal WMD arsenal including ICBMs are addressed and resolved, all this discussions & arguments are nothing but waste of time.

  3. to donbacon : the Hague Protocol is not about slowing down, just about transparency.

    to James Larrimore : in the JCPOA, Iran has not committed itself to ratify the Additional Protocole, just to present it to its Parliament for ratification. There is no guarantee on the outcome. This is why now could be the right moment.

    to Cyrus. Your right on all your points, but this not the point. The idea is to come out of the crisis with the beginning of a regional agreement on collective security.

  4. Amb. Nicoullaud, you are right about Iran’s ratification of its AP, but the understanding was that Iran would ratify it if the other parties had also met their commitments. The US has given Iran an out by enforcing secondary sanctions.
    Adherence to their APs depends on adherence by Israel for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and that is not even in discussion. So I believe it would be better to leave AP ratification aside. But it will be your initiative and you should do what you believe has the better chance of success.

  5. to James Larrimore. These are good points, but for Iran the same question will rise in 2023. When the government presents the AP to its parliament, how can it garantee that the next day the other parties to the JCPOA will meet their commitments?

    As for Saudi Arabia and Egypt they have already joined the NPT without Israel. If Saudi Arabia wants, as announced, build half a dozen of nuclear power plants, it will be difficult to do so without being part to an AP. This what the United Arab Emirates had to do…

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