Iran Can Do Better than Counter Pressure with Pressure

Ali Khamenei (Wikimedia Commons)

by Peter Jenkins

There is a flaw in the Iranian plan to use partial non-implementation of the 2015 nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA)—and maybe eventual withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—to put pressure on Europe and other U.S. allies to persuade President Donald Trump to lift the economic siege of Iran. It assumes that those allies have greater influence over Trump’s decision-making than has been apparent in the past.

The Iranians are right to think that Europe is strongly attached to the JCPOA. European governments see its conclusion as the culmination of 12 years of European diplomacy, a major collective achievement. They value the access it gives to inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the restrictions that it imposes on Iranian nuclear activity while those inspectors determine whether the world can have confidence in Iran’s repeated expressions of abhorrence for nuclear weapons.

In other words, Europe has good reasons for wanting to preserve the JCPOA. There is European will to deliver what Iran has been increasingly denied: the export revenues, the aircraft, and the investments that both Europe and the United States promised in 2015. However, this is no guarantee that Europe can persuade President Trump to allow Europe and Asia to resume  the business that fear of enormous U.S. fines has stifled. European leaders showed ample political will during the first months of 2018, arguably conceding more than was just in their eagerness to win over President Trump. Nonetheless, they failed to get him to abandon his assault on the JCPOA.

Furthermore, the Iranian plan is risky. Europeans know that Iran has been provoked, grievously, into threatening progressive non-implementation of the JCPOA and, possibly, withdrawal from the NPT. They know that they bear, unintentionally, some responsibility for Iran’s sense of grievance, since they have been unable to devise a satisfactory antidote to secondary U.S. sanctions. But they cannot be expected to condone non-implementation. For Europeans, pacta sunt servanda is an essential diplomatic principle. It will lead them to condemn non-implementation and, still more, NPT withdrawal, which they will see as a threat to a regime that they value as highly as the UN Charter. Beyond condemnation lies ostracism, the addition of political isolation to the economic hardships that Iran is already experiencing.

Iran needs an alternative plan to get the economic siege lifted, one that can address two objectives. It must appeal to President Trump by giving him an opportunity to tweet that he has blocked Iran’s path to nuclear weapons without entangling the United States in yet another war. At the same time, it must not be open to the interpretation that Iran has given ground, making additional concessions to obtain what it should have been getting as a party to the JCPOA.

One such idea could be the creation of a nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) covering Iran, Iraq, Saudi-Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman.

The Central Asian NWFZ is the most recent of four existing NWFZ’s and thus would be a suitable model for a Gulf zone. It is a legally binding treaty, unlike the JCPOA. Inter alia and crucially, it obliges the parties not to conduct research on, develop, manufacture, stockpile or otherwise acquire, possess, or have control over any nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device by any means anywhere—and not to allow on their territories any actions, by anyone, to assist or encourage the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition, possession, or control over any nuclear explosive device.

Iranian leaders could tell themselves that entering into such an agreement would not extend Iranian commitments beyond existing limits. Establishing a NWFZ would have useful implications for Saudi and Emirati nuclear ambitions. It could prove a step toward the collective Gulf security arrangements that Iran has been advocating since the 1990s.

If Saudi and Emirati leaders have come to realize that   “the head of the serpent”  is unlikely to be cut off without the collateral destruction of several of their oil terminals and desalination plants, then perhaps United States and Europe can persuade them to consent to the NWFZ idea serving a common interest in sub-regional de-escalation.

From a global perspective there is everything to be said for a Gulf zone. NWFZ obligations buttress NPT commitments. They contribute to defusing longstanding neighborly feuds and animosities. They create obligations that can be felt more keenly than obligations to a more distant global assembly.

Countering pressure with pressure is commonplace in the world of international diplomacy. Iran’s diplomats are well-known for being a cut above the commonplace. A more imaginative plan for lifting the U.S. siege ought not to be beyond them.

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Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. It would be nice if clever ideas had a chance for consideration at this critical point in the US-Iran conflict, like Amb. Jenkins NWFZ – without Israel. But they do not, in my view.

    Here’s the problem. Jenkins first proclaims ‘Iran’s repeated expressions of abhorrence for nuclear weapons’ but then gives credence to Iranian ‘non-implementation [of JCPOA] and … NPT withdrawal’. That acknowledges Amb. Jenkins’s belief in the real possibility, if not the current intention, of Iran following the DPRK path to nuclear weapons.

    Over the weekend, Trump again said, “We are not going to have Iran have a nuclear weapon. And when they agree to that, they are going to have a wealthy country, and they are going to be so happy, and I’m going to be their best friend. I hope that happens, but it may not.” Decoded, Trump is stating his policy, in line with fundamental Israeli policy, that there will be only one state with nuclear weapons in that region. And he believes that a requirement for ensuring that continues to be the case is to have a US-friendly Iranian government, really committed to its NPT obligations – no nukes, period. Once that happens, Iran can become ‘best friend’ and ‘wealthy country’, according to Donald Trump. That’s what ‘regime change’ means. And I do not expect to see Israel or President Trump change course until that happens – peacefully or otherwise.

  2. Well it’s not up to Trump, which I don’t see it coming him, and in fact coming from the 2 war mongers near him for telling 83M people what kind of government they ought to have. It’s outrageous and delusional.
    What I hear from Trump and his action of pulling out of JCPOA, he saying to Iran that they can have nuclear weapons but under couple of conditions. The new negotiations will include:
    1. Don’t mess with Israel
    2. Dismantle Hezbollah in Lebanon
    3. Leave Syria alone and let Dr Bashar’s regime to collapse ensued by chaos
    4. Sit still, watch and cheer Israel expanding its territory into Syria, Lebanon and may be all the way to the Nile as intended

    Iran has put itself behind the 8 ball since 1988. As they promised to Saddam and the whole world, of course mostly to the inept, stupid and opportunists governments in EU, mass slaughtering of Iranians by chemical weapons will never happen again without retaliation.

    Pursuing the nuclear weapons is the answer for Iran with no buts or ifs. Iranians are facing a major decision as how to go forward short term.

  3. Many thanks to LL for blocking the comments that are against its interests

  4. The US under Obama/Kerry tried to launch a nuclear free deal in the ME and the Israeli’s told them to go to hell.

  5. A nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) covering Iran, Iraq, Saudi-Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman would need to address the security needs of all the name countries and would address the non-nuclear issues raised by critics of JCPOA. It would be a worthy long term goal, but not a solution to Iran’s immediate challenge which is survival of the country. Getting Saudi Arabia to talk to Iran may be more challenging than getting Trump to listen to Iran or to European allies regarding easing the present U.S. sanctions whose purpose is to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero and to create conditions for regime change.

    A more realistic possibility than a Middle East NWFZ is for Iran to join the CANWFZ whose parties include countries that Iran has active relations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. However, the U.S. specifically opposed this possibility and even though the U.S. is not a party to CANWFZ, U.S. influence removed that possibility long before Trump was elected.

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