It was reported that the meeting of the Joint Commission of Members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna made good progress. Although the US and Iran are not yet in direct talks, the other negotiating parties have given positive feedback on the progress of the talks. Iran had also expressed its full cooperation on this multilateral endeavor. The diplomatic effort to revive the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA) withdrawn by President Donald Trump comes at the right time. It wasn’t until December 2020 that the Supreme Council of Iran passed a nuclear law instructing the state to increase its uranium enrichment rate by up to 20%. Despite President Hassan Rouhani’s warning of the consequences of such laws, the Board of Governors passed them. By February 2021, Iran had produced 17 kg of weapons-grade uranium. Unlike the previous administration in the US, President Joe Biden was determined to work with Iran to get the nuclear deal back on track.
However, the negotiation process is not looking rosy. Disagreements between the US and Iran over which sanctions to remove are a potential hurdle to the negotiations. While Tehran’s representatives are calling for all sanctions imposed after January 2016 to be lifted, the Washington DC delegation believes that sanctions that are “inconsistent with the agreement” will only be lifted. For the Iranian government, the negotiations ahead of the June presidential elections must bear fruit. If a hardliner replaces Hassan Rouhani, Iran could reconsider its decisions related to the negotiations. The deal must see the light of the moderates to hold its own in the face of widespread calls for a persistent presidential candidate in Iran. Such political change could delay the results of the talks, contrary to what the other parties are trying to achieve.
Even if the JCPOA overcomes these obstacles to reach a nuclear deal, the sustainability of such an agreement will be determined for shaky reasons. The main reason this could be the case is because the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been kept out of the negotiations. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been vocal critics of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and have continually called for participation in the negotiations. Aside from Tel Aviv, Riyadh pressured President Trump to withdraw from the deal. This group of Arab states play an important role in maintaining peace and stability in the region, and their cooperation is indirectly crucial to the sustainability of the Iranian nuclear deal. Currently, the GCC does not trust Iran and is concerned that the Persian state is developing a nuclear weapon that could invariably start the Middle East nuclear weapons race.
The GCC has concerns beyond the JCPOA. Iran’s missile program has been an issue of concern for the Arab Gulf States. The missile threat is particularly compounded as the Houthis in Yemen have launched frequent missile and drone strikes on Saudi Arabian territory. Much of the weapons used by the Houthis are of Iranian origin and the Arab states are trying to put an end to this. Iran has also equipped its proxies elsewhere in the Middle East with these weapons. Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg, GCC Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs and Negotiations, was again excluded from the negotiation process, stressing the need to involve regional states and address issues that could affect the region, such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and related risks with the Iranian nuclear program, apart from the JCPOA. He has made a call for a “Nuclear Plus Agreement”.
Failure to involve the regional states in the talks could also be counterproductive insofar as these states cannot be prevented from trying to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program within the scope of their individual possibilities. The latest cyber attack on Natanz’s enrichment facility in Iran triggers an alarm. While Iran accuses Israel, it has at the same time increased uranium enrichment to 60%, which disrupts the ongoing nuclear talks. Attacks of this type are not new to Iran, as one of its best nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was recently assassinated. However, it is not new to Israel, known for the 1981, 2007 and 2010 attacks on Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian nuclear power plants, to launch offensive attacks on nuclear facilities.
The Middle East no longer harbors the traditional patterns of hostility. The Arab states have forged closer ties with Israel, a shift that became more apparent after the signing of the Abrahamic Accords in the second half of 2020. Israel and the Arab Gulf States are on the same side with Iran, and that has been a major driver of their rapprochement. If the current nuclear talks do not take into account the views of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the future of a renewed JCPOA could be jeopardized. Another cyber attack on Iran’s critical infrastructure could spark a range of responses that may not be good for the region, which is already in a state of turmoil.
At various points in time, EU members, particularly France, had stressed the need to broaden the scope of the nuclear talks and make it a multilateral engagement involving key actors in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia or the GCC as a whole. The positions of China and Russia are still unclear. Since states that seek healthy relations with the Gulf states may not be against including the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Iranian nuclear talks. Although Iran has refused, the participation of the Gulf Cooperation Council is vital if tensions over Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs in the Middle East are to be resisted.
According to the latest media reports, Iran has accepted its willingness to hold talks with Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the Arab states show distrust of the Shiite state and vice versa. The first step towards such bilateral talks is, of course, the establishment of a confidence-building mechanism that can provide a platform for future comprehensive talks between the regional rivals. The Viennese world powers currently negotiating with Iran must examine the prospect of involving the Gulf Cooperation Council if they seek a solution that is not limited to the JCPOA alone.
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