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Iran Nuclear Issue: Dual-Track Wisdom

Feb 08, 2021
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

Jan. 20 saw Joseph Biden’s smooth inauguration as president of the United States for at least the next four years. His domestic agenda, led by the pandemic, is urgent. But the Iran nuclear issue could be at the top of his diplomatic agenda. Despite his resolute stance, the U.S. return to the JCPOA — the Iran nuclear deal — will not be an easy process, judging by the size of the gap between the parties.

A pragmatic way to overcome the deadlock is a dual-track approach.

The Iran nuclear situation is entering a new stage. Even as Biden moved to rejoin, Iran is moving forward in the nuclear realm in both quality and quantity. Though it is clear that all parties generally welcome a reentry by the U.S., there are sharp differences about how it should come back. The U.S. proposes new negotiations not only on Iran’s nuclear program but also on its missile program and regional policy.

Iran, by contrast, holds that the U.S. should come back unconditionally. That is to say, if the U.S. removes all sanctions, Iran will reverse all the steps it has taken over the last three years in response to Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal.

The U.S. and Iran each have advantages and disadvantages in their bargaining positions, meaning neither will budge. The U.S. remains the sole superpower in the world, and could easily form new anti-Iran fronts and coalitions to pressure the Iranians, though placing conditions on its return to the deal is not legitimate. The fault of the breakdown actually lies on the U.S. side, as it is the U.S. itself that withdrew from the deal three years ago.

Iran is obviously in an unfavorable situation, as it is vulnerable against the U.S. in all aspects. But Iran is reasonable in maintaining its position regarding U.S. reentrance. Because the U.S. withdrew from the deal on its own, it’s reasonable for Iran to ask it to live up to its original commitments and for it to remove sanctions before Iran reverses its responsive steps.

Also, Iran has also adopted a reasonable course of action in response to the U.S. withdrawal. Iran did not withdraw, though it did suspend the implementation of its obligations under the deal. In all this, Iran obtained understanding and sympathy for its positions from China, Russia and the European Union.

Judging now, the Iran nuclear issue will likely enter another deadlock if neither the U.S., led by Biden, nor Iran is willing to back up from its current positions. One feasible way out could be a dual-track approach, though there might be other ways as well.

On the first track, the U.S. would lift the sanctions tied to the nuclear issue, and Iran reverse the steps it has taken. Put another way, the two sides come back to their status before Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017. As long as the U.S. stayed away from sanctions, Iran stayed committed to the nuclear deal.

While Iran could now ask for compensation from the U.S. for costs arising from sanctions during Trump’s term, it is not likely to get anything, as the other side is solely the U.S.

On the second track, the U.S. together with other parties and the international community could create new mechanisms to address a package of other issues, which should include Iran’s missile program and its regional policy, but these issues alone. In other words, a new mechanism or regional security framework should be created, which should talk not only about Iran issues but also about confidence-building measures in the region.

The last couple of years have seen numerous countries relevant to Middle East security raising proposals about constructing a new security framework in the region.

Russia proposed in September 2019 and again in October 2020 a summit with both regional and extra-regional actors talking about Gulf security. Wang Yi, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister, proposed in October the establishment of a regional multilateral dialogue platform, taking into consideration the reasonable security concerns of all parties and facilitating dialogue on equal footing to enhance mutual understanding.

In addition to these, countries in the region proposed similar initiatives. Shortly after the Gulf Cooperation Council pledged to normalize its relations with Qatar in early January, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, the former Qatari prime minister, suggested that it is now a good time for Arab countries in the Persian Gulf and Iran to start talks to settle the disputes peacefully. It is no coincidence that Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani 10 days later urged Arab countries in the region to seek dialogue with Iran. He said Qatar is willing to act as a mediator after mending its own rifts with rival neighbors.

Worthy of special attention is that Mohammed Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, published in late January a new article talking about Iran’s HOPE proposal (the Hormuz Peace Endeavor) on the website of Foreign Affairs, the well-known U.S. journal that often carries important tentative papers, three days after Biden took office.

In the article, Zarif interestingly reiterated the spirit of the initiative raised by President Hassan Rouhani in September 2019 that regional countries should work out a mechanism addressing security issues of the region. But Zarif did not explicitly oppose a role for the U.S. in regional security issues as he had before. Through that article, Iran might be expressing implicitly that it is willing to talk about its missile program and regional policy. Zarif also naturally argued that Iran’s legitimate security concerns should be addressed.

In short, more regional and extra-regional countries have realized that a regional security framework is both urgent and necessary. Then why not jointly work it out? And why not put Iran missiles and regional policy issues as requested by the U.S. into a framework, which will also address other security issues? That’s a reasonable and pragmatic way to address the Iran situation.

It is true that such a mechanism might not be easily constructed, and will not necessarily solve all problems overnight, given the complexity of regional security and Iran’s sensitivity about its missile program and regional policy. Nevertheless, it could increase mutual exchanges on the security concerns of each side, whether regional or extra-regional.

The dual-track approach would avoid the problem of complicating the Iran nuclear issue. As previous practices indicate, complexity can always spoil reasonable efforts to resolve matters. When the George W. Bush administration linked the nuclear issue with Iran’s political system, its efforts toward peace were thereafter of no avail. When Barack Obama delinked the two things and clearly expressed that his administration had no interest of toppling Iran’s government, the nuclear deal was finally reached.

The Biden administration could learn from Obama not to complicate the nuclear issue by mixing it with other issues. It should put aside other matters so as not to disrupt the efforts to address the nuclear issue, which means Iran could see its way to reversing the steps as mentioned, but only on condition that the U.S. removes sanctions. Otherwise, Iran will lose confidence addressing the nuclear issue. It will think the U.S. will endlessly find problems with it.

Through the dual-track approach, not only the U.S. return but also other U.S. concerns can be addressed.

Then, what is needed is a bit of flexibility on the U.S. side.

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