by Heinz Gärtner
The EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) and three other UN-Security Council members (U.S., China, and Russia) negotiated an agreement with Iran in July 2015 in Vienna that limited Iran’s nuclear program, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This agreement, widely hailed by arms control experts, is based on a simple formula: in return for relief from U.S. and international sanctions, Iran agreed to accept restrictions on its nuclear program and a robust system of monitoring and verification. In the JCPOA’s preamble, it is stated that Iran’s nuclear program will be exclusively peaceful and Iran will under no circumstances “ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons”. This sentence is legally binding because it was subsequently enshrined in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231.
After the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tabled twelve conditions for potential talks with Iran. They included demands that Iran cannot and will not meet. Among them is the demand that Iran end all its uranium enrichment, a request Iran could not accept even before the JCPOA was adopted. Another condition is that Iran opens up all its military—not only nuclear—sites for inspection. No country in the world would allow this. A similar request in an Austrian ultimatum to Serbia once provided the pretense for Austria to enter the First World War. U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested negotiating a “bigger deal” that covers not only nuclear issues but also Iran’s missile program and “regional behavior”. No arms control treaty includes “behavior”. It would have been impossible to negotiate Cold War arms control agreements between the U.S. and the Soviet Union if “behavior” were part of the discussion. Although U.S. officials have since proposed talks with Iran without preconditions, the Iranians have no reason to believe that these conditions would not come back during those negotiations.
Iran has been dissatisfied with European efforts to protect the JCPOA from the effects of the U.S. withdrawal. Most recently, they’ve expressed frustration with the activation of a European financial mechanism (the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges or INSTEX), which was designed to counter the impact of U.S. sanctions. European leaders, buckling under U.S. pressure, have dragged out INSTEX’s implementation and have reduced its initial scope in hopes of avoiding a punitive response from the Trump administration.
Because the U.S. withdrawal has nullified nearly all of the benefits Iran was to receive under the JCPOA, Iranian officials have begun to question their adherence to the agreement. They announced earlier this year that they would suspend some provisions of the JCPOA and refer this matter to the Joint Commission and the Advisory Board established by the agreement. The JCPOA permits Iran to take these steps if it believes that one of the signatories is not meeting its commitments under the agreement (Article 26, 36).
It seems clear that the Trump administration’s real issue with Iran is not about the country’s nuclear program. What really seems to concern the U.S. security establishment appears to be its hegemonic regional competition with Tehran. The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, which is supposed to address the country’s nuclear strategy, stresses this hegemonic aspect:
Iran views U.S. influence in the Middle East as the foremost threat to Iran’s goal to establish itself as the dominant regional power. Iran is committed to increasing its influence over neighboring countries and countering US influence. This goal directly threatens U.S allies and partners, and Iran’s defense policy, strategy, and force structure indicate an attempt to create exploitable military advantages.
Talking Could Save the JCPOA
Iran wants European leaders to help salvage the JCPOA, but it could be doing far more to support the Europeans. Iran itself could present some offers for the talks with the U.S. Talking alone would not cost Iran much, but it would take pressure off the Europeans and justify their decision to stand by the deal.
What could be achieved in Iran-U.S. talks? Here are some suggestions.
First, both sides can easily agree on a general declaratory statement. They can pledge to renounce hegemonic aspirations in the Gulf region. While this may sound too sweeping, there is a historical analogy to that: the 1972 Shanghai Declaration between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedong stated that neither they nor any other power should “seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region” and was the basis for the most successful summit meeting during the Cold War. China’s support for insurgents across Asia declined after the meeting.
There is another parallel between the current situation and Nixon’s outreach to China. In the early seventies the U.S. was looking for ways to reduce its presence in Asia and to end the war in Vietnam. President Trump has announced several times that he wants to decrease the U.S. military presence abroad. A declaration along the lines of the Shanghai Declaration would give him a justification for a further reduction of U.S. troops in the Middle East. There is also some discontent among Iranians about the resources their government spends in other countries. Such an agreement could give Iranian authorities an argument to decrease these expenses.
Second, addressing the missile issue outside the JCPOA could alleviate the pressure the U.S. puts on Europe to punish Iran. A missile accord should involve other regional powers like Saudi Arabia, whose missiles already have a longer range than those of Iran. Other heavy weapons could be included as well. A model could be the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. That accord covers tanks, artillery, armored combat vehicles, combat aircraft and attack helicopters. The talks could be accompanied by confidence-building measures, such as an exchange of military information and notification of certain military activities. The provisions of the JCPOA could serve as an example. Such talks could well take place within the framework of the “Regional Dialogue Forum” and new security networks suggested by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The European signatory states of the JCPOA could make efforts to promote such security dialogue.
Third, Iran could pledge to join the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ) treaty provided the USA ratifies the protocol of the treaty, which provides assurances not to attack or threaten to attack parties to the zone with nuclear weapons. A similar project in the Middle East has not made any progress for decades because of U.S. resistance in the UN Security Council. Geographically, historically, and culturally, Iran is closer to the countries of the Central Asian treaty (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) than to its Arab neighbors. This move would add an additional security layer to the JCPOA, perhaps placating skeptics who are concerned that some of its provisions are set to expire.
To come closer to the implementation of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (ANWFZ) treaty could be extended north to include the Arab states. Egypt has already signed but not ratified the treaty. If the Arab states and Iran are serious about the creation of a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, they should support this idea and try to join one of these already existing treaties. The Arab states and Iran would not have to give up anything themselves to do so.
Israel would not join any NWFZ treaty immediately, even if other states in the region did so. However, if Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia were to become members of one of those zones, it would give Israel a greater feeling of security. At the same time, the rationale for Israel to possess nuclear weapons would also change over time. This stability might pave the way for Israel to join a zone at a later time.
To conclude, if President Trump is serious about his offer to meet with Iranian leaders “anytime they want to”, Iran should make use of the opportunity. Tehran itself could offer to talk. This would not cost Iran, but could go a long way toward bolstering international support for the JCPOA.
Dr. Heinz Gärtner is lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Vienna and at Danube University. He was academic director of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs. He has held various Fulbright Fellowships and the Austrian Chair at Stanford University. He was Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. Among other things, he chairs the Strategy and Security advisory board of the Austrian Armed Forces, is a political analyst at the International Institute for Peace in Vienna, and an expert for EU and Euratom programmes at the European Commission. Heinz Gärtner ist editor (together with Mitra Shahmoradi) of the book “Iran in the International System: Iran between Great Powers and Great Ideas” (Routledge, January 2020).