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A New Middle East Under a Revived Iran Nuclear Agreement
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani speaks to the press in front of the Palais Coburg, venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action meeting that aims at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, in Vienna on Dec. 27, 2021. (Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images)

A New Middle East Under a Revived Iran Nuclear Agreement

How will the region take shape if a deal between the Islamic Republic and the world powers is approved in Vienna 

The focus of much of the diplomatic world is currently on Vienna, as negotiations over the reentry of the United States and Iran into the Iran nuclear agreement with the world powers continue, albeit at a snail’s pace.

Since early December 2021, Vienna has been host to high-level negotiations between the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Britain, France, Russia, China and the European Union, as well as indirect negotiations with the United States, in an effort to avert a devastating new war in the Middle East.

The negotiations to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the nuclear accord, began in April, but were halted after six rounds in June due to the presidential elections in Iran, which installed hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi, and the subsequent change of government.

The questions in the current round of indirect negotiations with the US have revolved around sanctions relief, uranium enrichment, international inspection access and a host of minutiae, with the devil most certainly in the details. But, with the hope – however small – of an agreement being reached between Washington and Tehran, some experts believe it is important to look ahead to what the Middle East may look like in a revived JCPOA climate.

“As to what kind of a deal may be taking shape, we don’t have a great deal of insight. If the deal essentially provides full sanctions relief up front, I think the consequence of that is Iran’s regional militias are potentially reinvigorated. There will be more money for the Houthis, Hizbullah, Iraq, Assad in Syria. None of this is good for the region, to say the least,” David Schenker, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, told The Media Line.

Under the 2015 JCPOA, the administration of then-US President Barack Obama agreed to remove economic sanctions on Iran in return for the latter’s guarantee that it would keep uranium enrichment below 3.67% purity.

A year after the administration of then-US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA and reimposed sweeping sanctions on Iran, plunging the country into a deep economic crisis, the Iranian regime began to suspend some of its commitments – especially after other signatories to the agreement failed to counter the effects of the reimposed sanctions.

The US, while stating that it is giving diplomacy another chance, is mindful that Iran reportedly has already reached 60% uranium enrichment.

If the deal essentially provides full sanctions relief up front, I think the consequence of that is Iran’s regional militias are potentially reinvigorated. There will be more money for the Houthis, Hizbullah, Iraq, Assad in Syria. None of this is good for the region, to say the least.

The item that will shape the region, according to some analysts, will be what kind of follow-on agreements can be ironed out in Vienna.

“The key to get an effective, enduring deal is to make sure Iran won’t have carte blanche to support, underwrite, train and equip all of these destabilizing proxy groups. The Saudis can’t abide by Hizbullah-lite on their southern border. Iraq will never be a sovereign nation with a 100,000-stong militia sitting in Baghdad. Hizbullah’s pursuit of a PGM (precision guided missile) program will result in another war in Lebanon eventually,” said Schenker.

“We already have friends in the Gulf hedging and attempting to form a cold peace with Iran. At the same time, the Saudis cannot go on with continuous missile attacks against Saudi civilian areas indefinitely, even if there is an end to the Houthi war. If the JCPOA sunset clause is not extended then these states will start reconsidering their own nuclear positions, whether that’s Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey – you name it – they’ll perceive a threat. This needs to be a strong consideration for the US in these talks. How can we demand the UAE, Jordan, etc. – that none of these states can enrich, but Iran somehow has a right. It should be a priority issue for us,” said Schenker.

The agreement’s original members – the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China – agreed to a series of lapsing limitations, referred to as sunsets, on Iran, most of which occur after five, eight, ten and fifteen years. The sunsets gradually permit Iran to ramp up its nuclear program and let other missile and military restrictions expire.

In 2024, or eight and half years from the deal’s commencement, the JCPOA’s restrictions relating to Iran’s advanced centrifuge research and development will start to lapse. This will permit Tehran to gradually begin testing, manufacturing, and conducting research on select sturdier machines that can spin uranium at greater speeds. Under the JCPOA, Iran can continue researching and advancing these improved centrifuges, and likely has kept buying equipment to position the program for mass deployment at a time of its choosing.

“If we have a return to the agreement, we need to know what the next step is. (US President Joe) Biden had promised a longer, stronger deal. That is for domestic political purposes, but it is also for US allies and partners. If the US can’t get it, then this deal is going to be in serious jeopardy again right from the start,” Jason Brodsky, policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), told The Media Line.

“The Saudis, Emiratis and Israelis are quite nervous right now. They’ve seen this movie before, from 2015-18, when the US was still a party to the deal. Iran had more assets and financial ability to meddle and cause chaos in the region. This time, there will be an attempt to reassure regional players that Iran is committed to a regional security dialogue, to try to pacify and disarm critics of the deal. Without leverage on the Iranians, though, it’s meaningless,” Brodsky said.

Since last week, a Saudi delegation also has been present in Vienna. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said over the weekend: “Our dialogue with Saudi Arabia is positive and constructive and we are ready to resume relations at any time.” Abdollahian noted that Iran’s representatives in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) will return to Jeddah, calling it a positive step.

This time, there will be an attempt to reassure regional players that Iran is committed to a regional security dialogue, to try to pacify and disarm critics of the deal. Without leverage on the Iranians, though, it’s meaningless.

Iran has held five rounds of talks with Saudi Arabia in an attempt to heal ties, with Iraq playing a role in those discussions. Riyadh enabled Iran’s ambassador to the Houthis in Yemen to be evacuated last month.

“The Saudis will continue their channel of communication with Iran. That started in 2019, as a result of concern about American backing following the lack of response by the Trump administration to Iranian attacks on Saudi oil facilities. The Saudis are pessimistic that this will result in change in Iranian behavior on the ground. The Saudis will consider confidence-building measures, like credentialing Iran at the OIC, but will ask them to put pressure on the Houthis to stop launching attacks from Yemen,” said Brodsky.

“I think the situation with Hizbullah will be most interesting. They would theoretically be the recipient of Iranian largesse after a revitalized nuclear deal. But, given Hizbullah’s relatively unpopular state right now in Lebanon, they will have to carefully calibrate their actions. There are some countervailing forces at work there that might make for an interesting dynamic,” Brodsky said.

Iran also is conducting talks with Turkey and, according to media reports, is paying close attention to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s comments on a “tripartite corridor.”

The new talks include a transit agreement with Iran, Turkey and the UAE, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported.

 

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