Iran is bound to be among the most significant litmus tests for President Joe Biden’s foreign policy. While his intentions appear clear — which is to revive the nuclear deal in some form or the other — how the United States achieves its objectives in dealing with Tehran in the long term will depend on several factors.
One of those would be whether and how the US accommodates and secures the interests of Iran’s immediate neighbourhood — the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This will not just determine the deal’s success but also the region’s future.
But here’s what matters more from a regional security and stability standpoint. When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed with Iran and the P 5+1 countries in Vienna on July 14, 2015, the GCC was conspicuous by its absence. It was as if the GCC’s security interests didn’t matter to former president Barack Obama.
The deal still went ahead, drawing a mixed response from the GCC. Amid disappointment over the omission, there was still a glimmer of hope that Iran would observe international laws and the deal will eventually bring peace to the region. As the world watched with bated breath, things didn’t turn out that way.
Even before former president Donald Trump finally dumped it, the nuclear deal had its own set of challenges. It failed to end Iran’s intransigence in the region and meddling in its neighbours’ internal affairs. Iran routinely threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which almost a fifth of the world’s oil passes. It often seizes tankers and detains crew in the waters.
Iran has also regularly posed a threat to maritime security in the region. It often responds to US sanctions or other such punitive measures by threatening to interrupt vital supplies. Hence, it was not surprising that the JCPOA deal encouraged Iran to push ahead with its incendiary regional agenda. Iran’s support for the militias in Yemen and Iraq scaled up as a result.
Tehran left no stone unturned in destabilising Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen merely to expand its area of influence and keep the region in turmoil. Hence, it is only pertinent that countries at the receiving end of Iran’s bad behaviour in the region get to be part of a deal that is meant to make Tehran part of a system that works regionally and internationally.
The world is focused on the Iranian nuclear deal for a reason. Unlike the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programmes, which are meant for peaceful purposes, Iran’s fiddling with nuclear power raises fears of a weapons programme that could bring disaster to the region. The military dimension, especially Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, makes the region and the world jittery.
The GCC Assistant Secretary-General, Dr Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, recently said that the JCPOA was opposed by regional actors and failed as a counter-proliferation instrument. Perhaps, more importantly, it did not achieve the objective of regional de-escalation.
According to Aluwaisheg, the GCC’s concerns go far beyond the confines of the current JCPOA text. “They are related to the overall scope of the 2015 agreement and its exclusion of key actors that are immediately affected by it,” he said.
For a new nuclear deal with Iran to eventually succeed, it will have to accommodate the region’s grievances, and this matter should be addressed during the negotiations before it is too late. Iran’s track record concerning nuclear negotiations suggests it benefits from prolonged talks, disruption, and the change of faces across the table.
Considering these circumstances, it is only pertinent to note that this could be our last chance to keep the region free of nuclear weapons. Pragmatically speaking, a negotiated settlement with the GCC onboard will suit Iran’s dire economic situation and may even become an incentive for the country.
Tehran has understandably been ratcheting up the rhetoric for an end to sanctions before negotiations but will eventually realise that it is in the country’s interest to conclude these protracted negotiations that keep the entire region on tenterhooks.
A nuclear-powered Iran which destabilises the region is in no one’s interest, and the GCC should ensure this doesn’t happen. It should be clear to world capitals that the region may not be a party to the problem but wants to be a part of the solution. In other words, the GCC is willing to play this role to ensure regional and global security and stability.
Ahmed Al Astad is the Director-General of TRENDS Research & Advisory.