The recent announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear issue marked the conclusion of 12-year-long negotiations and the resolution of a three-decade-old crisis that nearly triggered a conflict at several points. The agreement was widely lauded as a “historic achievement”.
The JCPOA opened the door to a series of diplomatic activities. Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, visited Saudi Arabia and held discussions with the Gulf States before traveling to Iran to smooth the way for the implementation of the JCPOA. The US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry also visited the region for the same reason – but also to placate key US allies. Important as these visits were, the one made by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq drew more media attention. Focusing on mending fences and attracting investment, the Iranian “charm offensive” was a shrewd move aimed at ending Tehran’s regional isolation and restoring its international reputation.
Iran is a big country with rich oil and gas resources. For decades, the Arab world and the United States embraced a regional order that excluded Tehran. In a marked shift, the US now seeks to change the balance of power in the Middle East by bringing Iran back into the fold. The new chapter being written in Tehran’s relations with the region and the broader world, after decades of isolation and estrangement, is sure to transform the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.
The conclusion of the JCPOA sets a powerful example for resolving regional and international problems.
It shows that negotiations can put an end to major international conflict, even though the parties in question have long had no contact or an adversarial relationship.
The Iranian nuclear issue must be understood in the context of US-Iran relations, which is a product of the intricate situation in the Middle East. Relations between Iran and the West (including the United States) have been marred by historical grievances going back to the Islamic Revolution in 1979. This is compounded by the divergent ideologies and incompatible interests of the two sides.
The nuclear issue is also a manifestation of sectarian differences in the Middle East between Shia and Sunni Islam as well as the longstanding strains in Iranian-Israeli relations.
After President Barack Obama took office, he adopted a new approach to the region. Turning away from the use of force as a preferred option, he sought to resolve the Iranian issue through dialogue and negotiation. The nuclear agreement is a direct result of this new approach. It inspires similar efforts to settle other difficult international issues through negotiation and shows the path to resolving the various regional hot spots, from Iraq to Syria, from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the terrorist upsurge.
The Iranian agreement also enhances the authority and effectiveness of the United Nations in managing regional and global issues.
The P5+1 mechanism that delivered the JCPOA was set up by the UN Security Council in July 2006. The P5+1 has shied away from any ideological bias, which has derailed other international negotiations, and carefully balanced Iranian insistence on peaceful uses of nuclear energy and international concerns about nuclear proliferation. It is no exaggeration to say that the United Nations has shepherded the Iranian negotiations every step of the way.
Finally, the Iranian agreement creates a useful model of consultation and cooperation between the world’s major powers.
Provided there is unity of purpose and a dogged determination, difficult issues can be resolved. Through negotiation, the unity and mutual trust of the P5 countries are enhanced rather than weakened.
China has played an active and unique role in this process. It has emphasized the importance of a phased approach and reciprocity at key moments of the negotiation and helped to highlight the usefulness of a political settlement. Beijing has also been in close communication and cooperation with Washington. The Iranian nuclear issue is a successful test of the new model of Sino-American relations and will have far-reaching implications for similar cooperation on other matters.
The JCPOA is no doubt a new beginning, but its implementation will not be smooth sailing. For starters, suspicions of the agreement run deep in both Washington and Tehran. The continuing concern of some regional capitals about the possible transformation of Middle East geopolitics may also prove a stumbling block. Yet China, for one, has pledged to implement both the letter and the spirit of the JCPOA in partnership with the other relevant parties.
To truly implement the “breakthrough” agreement, the parties must honor their commitments and work hard to build trust. There is no greater prize than the emergence of a new Middle East enjoying peace and harmony. This will be in the interest of all involved; more importantly, the peoples of the Middle East deserve it.