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Analysis based on Survey-Stability in the Middle East Requires More Than a Deal With Iran

(By Sanam Vakil-February 22, 2021-Foreign Affairs Magazine)

SANAM VAKIL is Deputy Director of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden inherits a familiar portfolio of issues relating to Iran: the country has an advancing nuclear program, a ballistic missile arsenal, and a regional policy of supporting proxy groups. The first of these concerns will be the most pressing for the new administration to address: ever since May 2018, when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and began increasing sanctions pressure on Tehran, the Iranian government has accelerated its nuclear development, reducing its breakout time—the window within which it could leap to producing a weapon—from one year to a number of months.

Biden has made clear that he intends for the United States to return to the nuclear deal and comply with its strictures so long as Iran does the same. And Iran has indicated that it, too, is ready to return to its commitments, so long as the United States lifts sanctions. But the process will not be nearly as simple as this exchange implies. For the nuclear deal to be sustainable, it will need to be insulated against future political reversals. And ensuring such durability requires the signatories to address the deal’s vulnerabilities, which include the length of its timelines and the provisions for snapback sanctions, as well as problems outside the agreement’s current scope, such as Iran’s missile program and destabilizing regional activities. Without a regional game plan, the Biden administration’s Iran and wider Middle East agenda will remain vulnerable to opposition from partisan adversaries in Washington and U.S. partners in the Middle East.

Critics of the 2015 nuclear deal, both within the United States and in Israel and the Gulf, fear that the Biden administration will surrender its leverage over Iran if it too quickly reenters the agreement and drops sanctions. These voices have called instead for the White House to enter a new negotiation, in which it should agree to sanctions relief only in exchange for compromise on the outstanding issues. But Tehran has categorically ruled out such an approach, stating that it will enter broader talks only after the United States returns to the original nuclear deal.

Iran’s neighbours view such a prospect with trepidation. They seek a U.S. policy that tames escalating regional tensions and impedes Tehran from fomenting crises in the neighbourhood. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign did not achieve these ends—indeed, Tehran’s response of “maximum resistance” included detaining tankers and brazenly targeting Saudi oil facilities. But these states rightfully fear that a return to the 2015 nuclear deal without additional strictures risks further enabling Iran’s regional activities. The same countries have larger anxieties about U.S. commitment to the region, having been frustrated by calls for burden sharing and an end to “forever wars” alongside policy inconsistencies that suggest pendulum swings in American priorities.

How can the United States best address regional tensions involving Iran? Chatham House colleagues and I sought to answer this question through interviews held under the Chatham House rule with 210 current and former policymakers and experts in 15 countries. These included countries that were parties to the Iran nuclear deal, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as countries involved in active crises in the Middle East, such as Israel, Iran, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. 

Parallel Tracks

From July to November 2020, we surveyed our interviewees about how best to manage and resolve conflicts in the Middle East. We asked them about the difficulties and geopolitical tensions present in the region and about how they thought the U.S. presidential election might affect the security environment. We probed their perceptions of the roots of regional tensions and sought recommendations for addressing them, paying particular attention to Iran’s role in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen. 

The experts and policy practitioners we interviewed did not see how regional issues could be comprehensively addressed in a single direct dialogue with Iran. Nor did a majority of respondents expect that Tehran would meaningfully concede support for regional proxies or limit its ballistic missile program. And most felt that isolating Iran was counterproductive compared with regionalizing the solutions to shared problems. To address Iran’s troublesome regional behavior, experts recommended tackling each regional conflict separately, in parallel, through multilateral discussions among relevant actors. Participants could collectively approach such concerns as militias, missiles, and proliferation, also on parallel tracks.

We asked our respondents what first step might help stabilize the region. Among our interviewees, 45 percent favoured a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in this regard. They argued that returning to the deal would help restore transatlantic cooperation, halt Iran’s nuclear program, and build trust between Tehran and Washington. Moreover, reviving the deal would reduce tensions in states, such as Iraq, that have been caught between Washington’s maximum pressure and Tehran’s maximum resistance. 

Nonetheless, most experts stressed that the United States should re-enter the nuclear deal armed with a clear plan of action to address its deficiencies. In particular, respondents stressed the need for a blueprint for regional conflict resolution following re-entry. They recalled that immediately after acceding to the nuclear deal in 2015, Iran expanded its footprint in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. The Biden administration should therefore come back into the agreement with a clearly delineated plan for the parallel, multilateral, regional processes that will swiftly follow. By making this process as continuous as possible, the administration can placate the concerns of congressional opponents as well as regional ones, so long as the Biden administration consults and coordinates with regional partners on its plans.

By creating those parallel conflict resolution tracks, our respondents indicated, the Biden administration can show that it is charting its own course rather than repeating history. It might insist that all parties commit to participating in the follow-on process as part of the negotiation and implementation of the nuclear deal. Iran can be enticed to participate with the promise of additional sanctions relief or investment. Securing Tehran’s commitment will be critical to placating the concerns of regional actors.

More than 50 percent of our interviewees recommended that the first of the parallel tracks should be one bringing together all parties involved in the war in Yemen, including Iran. Another track should support a dialogue among Gulf states, in order to foster trust and cooperation and strengthen mechanisms for resolving disputes. Particularly important to curtailing Iranian influence will be a track reviving Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and one addressing conflict in Syria. Other tracks could work on region-wide confidence-building measures in such areas as health diplomacy, religious tourism, people exchanges, trade, and the environment. 

A Force for Stability

As much as our interviewees sought to bring regional problems into a regional process, they also stressed that the United States had a crucial role to play in stabilizing the area.  Respondents, especially those from the region, worried that wavering U.S. commitment to the Middle East would generate uncertainty that undermined the region’s security. Among our interviewees, 33 percent said that uncertainty arising from U.S. policy inconsistencies made the region less secure. Of these, 57 percent were Iraqi, 50 percent Emirati, and 45 percent Saudi. Unsurprisingly, only 30 percent of our Iranian respondents and 23 percent of Israelis viewed the United States as a stabilizing force in the region. But 50 percent of the Americans we interviewed felt that the United States had a critical role to play in facilitating the work of the parallel tracks.

Our findings suggest that the Biden administration has an opportunity to turn the page on Trump’s four years of transactional policies in the Middle East. The Biden era can be one of multilateral engagement and conflict stabilization, in which the United States supports Middle Eastern countries in taking incremental steps to address regional conflicts, especially those involving Iran. Such a process can ultimately lay the groundwork for détente and wider regional dialogue.