Iran’s recent crossing of the enrichment limit of the 2015 nuclear agreement (JCPOA) de facto seals the fate of the already faltering deal. Sabre rattling to coerce each other while placating domestic and external constituencies. They nonetheless struggle to contain escalation to a war neither wishes to take place. And most critically, maneuver to improve their opening position for when negotiations between them (and others?) inevitably commence. Inept crisis management could still result in a showdown. This process –could provide an opportunity to move away from a temporary transactional deal that failed toward a transformational one that might fare better.
Iran’s supreme leader profoundly distrust the US. Many of Trump’s advisers share no less skeptical view of Iran, preferring regime change or at a minimum its profound regime transformation. Yet at the end of the day, Both will have to bite the bitter bullet and negotiate. .Against that background, Intermediaries would first have to work out de-escalation ground rules to diminish friction that might derail the process, let alone result in a military confrontation. These will require the US at the very least to ease enforcement of some of the Iran sanctions currently in place. Whereas Iran would have to exercise restraint in its nuclear and regional pursuits.
Once the parties warm up to the prospects of direct negotiations, they would have to confront and rectify the sobering lessons of the JCPOA’s negotiations and implementations. First and foremost, by expanding the scope of discussions beyond nuclear to include also regional and missile issues. Though the nuclear file still looks most acute, what makes it so pressing is its symbolism, not (yet) Iran’s proximity to the bomb. It still is mostly a symptom of the broader predicament: the failure of the nuclear JCPOA, contrary to the hopes of the Obama administration, to generate positive spillover on Iranian domestic and international situation. These make it imperative to deal now also with Iran’s primary means for force projection directly --its missile arsenal (not merely the dual capable ones)—and indirectly --support for militant proxies across the region.
While all three issues are inextricably linked, it is the latter that currently present the most immediate triggers for a likely escalation into armed conflict. Consequently, the success and durability of new negotiations would hinge on their broader scope and ability to involve in the process additional parties. Regional ones (Gulf states and Israel) as well as extra regional parties (Russia).
An expedient starting point for the nuclear negotiations would be to revert to the principles of the JPOA-the original interim nuclear agreement that has paved the way for the JCPOA. Its core principles provide a more solid basis to discuss the nuclear file with Iran than the follow on JCPOA. Most importantly, conditioning Iran uranium enrichment on actual requirements, and making commitments under the agreement open ended rather than time bound as in the JCPOA.
Additionally, a new agreement should require Iran to acknowledge its heretofore unadmitted past nuclear weapons pursuits and subject the residual bomb making capabilities to IAEA monitoring . And further enhance the IAEA’s capacity to ascertain the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program through the ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol, and cooperation with IAEA’s Broader Conclusion inquiry and the mechanisms to review of its dual use procurement.
On missiles, given Iran’s steadfast resistance to any unilateral restraint, any hope for constraint on would need to come in the form of a regional arrangement. Such as a ban on all ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles (and perhaps UAV as well) exceeding a tactical range (say 1000 Kms). Coupled with prohibition on transfer or deployment even of the permissible delivery platforms in any foreign lands.
On the regional issues the aim ought to be a ban on Iranian assistance the Houthis in Yemen and other factions in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. In return Iran would undoubtedly have to be offered some leeway to project its influence into both in Iraq and Afghanistan and security assurances to placate its other concerns.
Obviously, it would be unrealistic to expect rapid progress in such broad, complex and charged negotiations. Nor is success guaranteed. All the parties would have to give up on their maximalist demands to facilitate progress. But finding some common ground along the lines presented above might ultimately prove possible.
Trump’s erratic and bombastic style could miraculously still lure both DPRK and Iran to opt for serious negotiations now rather than risking a suffocating prolonged stalemate and gambling on waiting him out for two to six years. When this happens, even Israel is bound to be more disposed to endorse an Iran deal.