To secure an Iran nuclear deal, include the Mideast’s powers
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to re-enter the international nuclear agreement with Iran upon taking office in January. The deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would then serve as the baseline from which to build out a broader compact with Tehran aimed, he has said, at rolling back the country’s ballistic missile capabilities and support for Middle East militias and terrorist organizations.
For Biden’s broader plan to work, however, the U.S. needs to fundamentally alter the structure of the diplomacy it has pursued with Tehran for the past two decades. Successive U.S. administrations over this time, Democratic and Republican alike, largely have sought to engage Iran through a partnership with the four other members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany — a construct known as the P5+1.
It’s true the U.S. at times has held bilateral, and often secret, talks with Iran, as the Obama administration did on the nuclear issue in 2012 and 2013. But the results of these negotiations always were cycled back through the P5+1, which had ultimate veto power over Washington’s diplomacy.
Noticeably absent from all of these talks, however, have been the Middle Eastern states most directly in the line of Tehran’s fire. These include Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the other Arab countries situated along the Persian Gulf. Virtually all of them have been in either direct military conflict with Iran in recent years, or have engaged Tehran through its proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the Houthi militia in Yemen.
The absence of these front-line states having a say in diplomacy with Iran has resulted in a recent legacy of their sabotaging the P5+1’s work, overtly or covertly. Indeed, some of these countries claim their exclusion smacks of the West’s colonial mindset toward the Arab states.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly and aggressively opposed the JCPOA since its formulation in 2015. This included a withering attack before a joint session of Congress that year, in which he outlined what he said were the deal’s fatal shortcomings.
Last month, Iranian officials accused Israel of assassinating Tehran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in a suburb outside Tehran. Netanyahu neither confirmed nor denied the charge, but has accused the scientist of leading Tehran’s secret, an ongoing, nuclear weapons research. Tehran says it has never pursued an atomic bomb.
The Arab states’ opposition to the JCPOA has been less voluble than Israel’s. But their actions speak louder than words.
Saudi Arabia has started to make good on its pledge to match the nuclear capabilities Iran is allowed to keep as part of its P5+1 agreement, stoking fears of a regional nuclear arms race. This has included Riyadh’s steps to develop the entire nuclear-fuel cycle, which includes technologies that inherently have both civilian and military uses.
Western governments were alarmed this year by reports that the Saudis, with China’s support, have started to build a desert facility to process uranium yellowcake, a key feedstock for the nuclear fuel cycle.
The U.S.’s diplomacy with Iran is notable in that it diverges so dramatically from the international community’s approach towards North Korea, another nuclear proliferator and rogue state. With Pyongyang, the U.S. has pursued talks through another P5+1 grouping, but it’s made up of the countries most directly affected by North Korea’s destabilizing activities — South Korea, Japan, Russia and China. U.S. officials long have said a nuclear accord cannot be achieved in Northeast Asia without these countries’ support.
The role that frontline Middle East countries might play in the Iran diplomacy could take different forms. It doesn’t necessarily involve them sitting down directly with Iranian diplomats. Tehran has stated its desire to hold security talks with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states, but refuses to recognize Israel diplomatically.
The Biden administration’s and the P5+1’s ability to harness these countries into their Iran diplomacy should be significantly aided by the historic thawing of relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab states in recent months.
Israel signed formal peace agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan this year, as part of the Trump administration-brokered Abraham Accords. Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Saudi Arabia last month to meet Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, according to Arab and Israeli media. The glue between all these diplomatic advances is these countries’ shared concerns about Iran’s regional behavior.
Israel and these Arab states have been talking quietly of forming a regional bloc to counter Iran, along the lines of NATO. This would formalize the covert intelligence and military cooperation that has been ongoing between these countries in recent years.
The Biden administration should utilize this new coalition to directly engage on the Iran diplomacy and help shape its outcome. This could occur through the bloc advising the P5+1 on the process, or taking a direct seat at the negotiating table.
Critics might argue that including Iran’s historic enemies will stymie diplomacy. But without their inclusion, any hope of securing and implementing a long-term accord with Iran almost certainly will fail.
Jay Solomon is an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a senior director at APCO Worldwide. He is the author of “The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East.” Follow him on Twitter @jaysolomon.