Last week, an EU delegation left Tehran without agreeing to a timeline to resume negotiations for the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, also known as the JCPOA. However, they did not leave empty-handed, having scheduled a meeting in Brussels on Thursday for more detailed consultations on the way forward.
EU officials have been pressing Iran to return to the negotiating table, four months after talks were stalled due to its presidential election and the subsequent inauguration of a new administration. With Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s President, having been in office for two months, these talks – involving the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany – need to find new momentum.
Another obstacle in the way of the start-stop talks has been the Biden administration’s belated recognition of a key position among Arab states: that it isn’t just Iran’s nuclear ambitions that pose a threat to global peace and security but also its ballistic missiles programme and its expansionist activities across the Arab world, particularly in countries struggling with weak governance and sectarian divisions. In Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, Tehran-backed proxies have undermined the governments of the day and their national sovereignty for years. Iran, meanwhile, continues to threaten maritime security in the Arabian Gulf.
As many have asserted, one of the JCPOA’s limitations – which scaled back international sanctions against Iran in exchange for commitments to curb its nuclear activity – is that it helped unlock funds necessary for Tehran to bankroll its proxies and their destabilising activities across the region. And it is for this reason that the Donald Trump administration withdrew the US from the agreement in 2018.
That the Biden administration has sought to maintain American pressure on the regime and refuse to lift sanctions until they agree to a new and improved deal is a significant and welcome departure from its original objective of re-entering the 2015 arrangement at any cost.
Time is of the essence, however.
It is suspected that Mr Raisi, a hardliner, is stalling for time. With Iran having accelerated its nuclear programme, it could be a matter of months before it accumulates enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear bomb. The regime has blocked the global nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, from monitoring its nuclear programme throughout much of the year.
The most sensible approach towards containing Iran's nuclear ambitions is to continue engaging with the regime, but without giving too many cards away. Last month’s deal between the IAEA and Tehran, to continue video surveillance of the nuclear sites after an interim agreement expired in June, was an important step in this direction. Under this agreement, Iran would preserve video surveillance footage but would not turn it over to the IAEA until it agreed with the US to restore the nuclear deal.
The EU’s recent efforts to draw Tehran back to the negotiating table are no doubt crucial towards this end. But it is equally important for Iran to engage positively with Arab states. Saudi Arabia and Iran have held talks in Iraq since the beginning of this year, and this process could help move things in the right direction.
A grand bargain doesn't have to come in the form of a comprehensive deal that includes curbs on all of Tehran's activities – at least, not in one swoop. Nonetheless, that the JCPOA's signatories are taking into consideration the interests of all the regional players by expanding the scope of their dialogue with Iran is fundamental to achieving security in the region.