The Iran nuclear deal, which was signed in 2015 and collapsed in 2018 after the United States (US) withdrew from the agreement, is today undergoing another round of negotiations to bring it back into play, a final attempt for the West to gain some leverage on the country’s nuclear programme. However, if signed, any deal of today may only be a shadow of what it was supposed to be.
The world and geopolitics of today are much more in flux than what it was seven years ago as the nuclear deal (also known as the JCPOA
) was signed between Tehran and the P5+1 group of nations in the Austrian capital, Vienna. More than half a decade later, all the parties are back in that city, looking to salvage the deal.
However, Iran’s potential return to the mainstream global economy and its exit from a strict sanctions regime employed against it has many in the Middle East (West Asia) on edge. There is little denying that, tactically, Tehran has largely succeeded in achieving its geopolitical goals in the region, having a strong presence in Syria; backing the Houthi militias in Yemen; supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, and so on. And by association, there is no denying that stress in other Arab Gulf capitals and Israel alike remains high, and the argument in favour of a need for a regional response, not one that necessarily relies on the US security umbrella, is gaining strength.
Many Arab Gulf states had either withdrawn or scaled down diplomatic representation with Tehran in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in response to Riyadh’s execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
The Arab Gulf, cognisant of the fact that a military confrontation with Iran would be catastrophic for their (in many cases fledging) economies, is now also looking to renew diplomatic ties with Tehran to try and open new routes of engagement with the Iranian leadership on some of the most contested regional issues, that for now lie outside the ambit of the nuclear agreement. This month, Kuwait said that it has re-opened its embassy
in Iran after an absence of six years. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has also announced that it would reinstate its ambassador to Iran ‘within days’. Many Arab Gulf states had either withdrawn or scaled down diplomatic representation with Tehran in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in response to Riyadh’s execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric
However, since then, times have changed and a more regional approach to dealing with Iran has been sought. The UAE has said that the Arab Gulf states should take part in “collective diplomacy
” in dealing with Iran, even if a nuclear deal in its second avatar is signed. Saudi Arabia, the main ideological contender to Iran, has also opened diplomatic channels with it hosted by Iraq over regional conflicts despite being in an indirect war with the country in Yemen and facing attacks by Iran-backed Houthis against Saudi oil installations.
Beyond international diplomacy, Israel has tactically pushed back as well, with covert wars between Iranian and Israeli agencies spilling over across the world.
Perhaps the single biggest move towards a ‘collective diplomacy’ framework by the Arab Gulf was the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, which normalised relations between a set of Arab Gulf states led by the UAE and Israel. The Israelis have been much more aggressive in their posture of disallowing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Beyond international diplomacy, Israel has tactically pushed back as well, with covert wars between Iranian and Israeli agencies spilling over across the world. Two previous IED attacks against Israeli diplomatic targets
in India have been blamed on Iran, adding strain to Delhi–Tehran ties as well.
However, at the end of the day, even Iran would like some sort of agreement to be signed over the nuclear issue which would allow it to return to the international economic arena. This view is now also prevalent in the West, as a return of Iranian oil to the market will help ease global economic pressures that are being felt today due to the Ukrainian crisis. Furthermore, from an American perspective, the global South’s unwillingness to join a larger sanctions regime or plans to isolate Moscow highlighted the fact that Washington D.C. will have to work to make sure Russian influence in these regions does not trump the US interests beyond what is happening in Europe today.
Iran’s own interests also get addressed with a level of normalisation via the return of the JCPOA. Tehran has reportedly
eased off its long-standing demand for the US to de-list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its terrorism listing, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is also being credited
for spearheading attempts to restore diplomatic ties with their Arab Gulf neighbours. It has long been thought that while the constituency Raisi represents—that of hardliners and anti-US ideologues, specifically after the American assassination of former IRGC Chief Qasem Soleimani in Iraq in 2020—remains against an agreement with the US, a JCPOA negotiated by one of their own will be more palatable than the one negotiated by the moderates under the former presidency of Hassan Rouhani. And at this point, Tehran perhaps also realises that due to happenings in Europe, the West needs a deal with Iran, both to potentially ease the burden of oil and gas prices and to make sure the Iran issue does not flare into another conflict zone despite US President Joe Biden’s position that he was prepared to use force
to make sure Iran does not get nuclear weapons.
Tehran has reportedly eased off its long-standing demand for the US to de-list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its terrorism listing, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is also being credited for spearheading attempts to restore diplomatic ties with their Arab Gulf neighbours.
In the Arab Gulf, the return of the JCPOA may be seen as another example of retrenching American power in the region. Specifically, as Iran continues to build further economic and political bridges with both Russia and China. However, for the US and Iran, it may now primarily be about only nuclear weapons once again—the original ambit of the deal when its negotiations began in 2013. Success on this front may well be critical, for if Iran, after North Korea, successfully gains a nuclear arsenal, the hypothesis that if a state is determined to get nuclear weapons, it will, at any cost, could very well become a fact.
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