In recent years, tensions in the Middle East have been considerably tense. Since President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and imposed crippling economic sanctions against the Iranian regime, regional tensions have increased significantly. Since May 2019, Iran has sought to thwart President Trump’s maximalist policies by accelerating its nuclear program and launching regular covert operations through its sponsored militia across the region on the strategic interests of the US and its allies.
Crushing sanctions have clearly not changed Iran’s behaviour as intended. They have not led to the collapse of the Iranian regime; on the contrary, they have led Iran to strengthen its hard-line security logic. The International Atomic Energy Agency already reported last month that Iran has begun producing uranium metal, which is critical for building nuclear weapons. Current U.S. President Joe Biden, however, is at least eager for a diplomatic thaw with Iran, but only if Tehran returns to full compliance with the 2015 agreement.
Instability in the Middle East feeds the forces of extremism and runs counter to European security interests. Heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran have particularly undermined the international coalition’s fight against the Islamic state. Since the Trump administration’s hard-line strategy on Iran, pro-Iranian militias have regularly targeted U.S. military sites, allowing ISIS to regroup secretly behind the scenes in Iraq. With European capitals eager to see greater stability in the Middle East, the European parties to the 2015 agreement (E3): France, Germany, and the United Kingdom must act swiftly to salvage the agreement before Iranian nuclear proliferation pushes other regional powers to follow suit.
Ease hardened positions
After demonstrating remarkable determination to uphold the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, the urgency of the situation requires the E3 to defuse existing tensions and build trust between Washington and Tehran. After absorbing heavy burdens on its economy during the Trump administration, the moderate-reformist Rouhani government initially hoped that the Biden team would give strategic priority to lifting sanctions and bring some relief to its strangled economy. Although the Biden administration rescinded the previous administration’s failed attempt to snap back United Nations (UN) sanctions and has eased travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats in New York, it has not exhausted measures that address the existing pressures on the Iranian economy. This has inevitably prolonged the impasse between the two sides.
So what can be done? Europeans should break the impasse between the two sides by urging the Biden administration and the remaining signatories of the JCPOA to implement economic and humanitarian relief towards Iran. Granting pandemic relief loans would enable the Rouhani government to adequately respond to the rise in COVID-19 infections, which has exceeded 7,000 since the beginning of February. Increasing the volume of trade through the Instex trade channel would provide Iran with the economic liquidity needed to deal with its ailing economy. If these measures find an echo in the coming weeks, the Rouhani government may feel more inclined to engage with Washington on the necessary technical measures to establish mutual compliance with the nuclear agreement.
Political pressures at home, however, could limit the ability of both sides to engage in meaningful diplomacy. Confidence-building and humanitarian assistance measures by the Biden administration have so far been held back by fears of hard-line opposition on Capitol Hill. This has been particularly articulated by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – despite both having been closely involved in shaping the 2015 agreement under President Barack Obama.
Both are concerned that passing further good faith measures without receiving anything in return from Iran could complicate the federal administration’s ability to gain the support of virtually all Republicans and even some Democrats in the Senate for its domestic policies. Important voices among Democratic Senators, particularly Senator Bob Mendez, the new Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, has already expressedhis desire to see the Biden administration correct the flaws of the Obama-eradeal. Not surprisingly, then, Blinken has expressed his willingness, in a speech to the UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament, to extend the 2015 nuclear agreement and include regional security issues.
While it is undeniable that Iranian-backed paramilitary forces have contributed in recent years to fuelling instability in the Middle East, binding nuclear negotiations with Iran’s expansionist geopolitical influence will significantly reduce the time remaining to salvage the JCPOA. Given the heightened stakes for the future of regional security, it is clear that both sides must first build a degree of mutual trust before moving on to non-nuclear issues.
Indeed, if Iran goes nuclear, it will set off a chain of regional proliferation and thus intensify the prospect of nuclear conflict. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has already expressed his intention to engage in nuclear proliferation, if Iran’s acquires its own nuclear weapon. This could also lead Turkey to embark on the path of nuclear proliferation, given that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made no secret of this intention in the past. Clearly, Iran’s continued nuclear activities risk undermining the relevance of the global non-proliferation regime.
To add to the urgency to the situation, the upcoming Iranian presidential elections in June could significantly hamper Washington’s window of opportunity. Crippling U.S. sanctions have significantly increased the influence of arch-conservatives – also known as “Principlists” – across the Iranian domestic political scene, who now control most branches of the state, for the first time since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency in 2013. With hardliners now controlling the legislature, Principlists have already influenced the Rouhani government by forcing it to end additional UN inspections and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities. In this context, it is expected that a new hardliner will succeed President Rouhani, who will further challenge relations with the West.
Where now for the E3?
With the breakout time – the time needed for Iran to produce enough fissile material for one atomic bomb – estimated to be between four to six months, European leaders last month called on both sides to engage in direct talks. To their detriment, this proposal was quickly rejected by Tehran, given the recent regional geopolitical dynamics and Washington’s continued stringent stance on sanctions. This deadlock came days after President Biden ordered retaliatory strikes against Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria after a rocket attack in Iraq on February 15 killed a civilian contractor and wounded five other contractors, including a member of the U.S. services. Again this month, a newrocket attack hit an Iraqi base hosting U.S.-led troops,in which Biden officials said itfits the profile of a strike by Iranian-backed militias. Clearly, the more tensions escalate, the more difficult it will be for diplomacy to break the deadlock.
European leaders therefore urgently need to make another joint attempt to ease tensions, warning both sides that they may be unable to break the cycle of escalation. In this context of increased stakes and heightened difficulties, the E3 should focus on the commonalities that unite the two sides. Washington and Tehran, for example, see their interests aligned particularly in Iraq – that is, the desire to see a stable Iraqi federal government and to prevent the resurgence of ISIS. Mutual hostility has also undermined Washington’s interest in preserving peace in the Strait of Hormuz, while Tehran’s animosity toward the US has led to isolation and fractured economic development. As such, European leaders should continue to pressure the Biden team to reach out to Iran – to ease sanctions and provide humanitarian aid –and call on Iran to respond in good faith.
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