Gulf states need a seat at Iran talks table

Gulf states need a seat at Iran talks table

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Khonsari. (AFP)

The philosopher George Santayana once famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This appears to be the case with the international community’s interaction with Iran. 
The EU is negotiating with the regime in Tehran in order to find a resolution to the heightened tensions in the region, and to salvage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of sanctions. 
However, the European leaders appear to be repeating the same mistakes that occurred during the negotiations with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration between 2013 and 2015.
To clarify, when the leaders of the UN Security Council’s five permanent member states sat around the table to hammer out the nuclear agreement, there was a major shortcoming; not one representative from a Gulf state was present at the table. It was therefore not entirely unsurprising that the final agreement, rather than limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions, failed to stabilize regional security, and resulted in an increased flow of funds to violent Iranian proxies and greater regional tensions.
Without a doubt, halting Tehran’s ability to manufacture a nuclear weapon is a priority. Nevertheless, to ignore the national security of the Gulf states, and Iran’s other malign action  as the price of doing business and negotiating with Tehran has proved to be a total failure in terms of enhancing Middle East security. 
In fact, for world powers to sit at the negotiating table with the Iranian leaders while disregarding other regional states has had very real and damaging consequences on Iran’s neighbors. 

The US and European nations now have a golden opportunity to seek an agreement that puts the long-term security interest of the Middle East at its heart. 

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Listening to the concerns of the Gulf states and regional powers is crucial. For those living in the major cities of the Gulf, one of the primary concerns is Tehran’s ability to wage indirect war via its network of well funded proxies, and the threat posed by its missile program. The attack last month on a Saudi Aramco facility in Abqaiq has thrown into sharp focus the very real threat that hangs over the day-to-day functioning of the economies and civilian life of the Gulf nations. Although it has increased in recent times, this is by no means a new development; Iran’s neighbors have been living with this constant menace for years.
Thankfully, it appears the penny has finally dropped for some European leaders. Speaking on US TV last week, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, previously a staunch advocate of maintaining the deal, said he was “willing to accept that it had many, many defects” before saying it was time to try for a new, “better deal.” Furthermore, French President Emmanuel Macron made some comments at the UN General Assembly suggesting new rounds of negotiations could be in the offing.
Therefore it seems an acceptance that the JCPOA has had its day has finally taken hold in Europe. The misguided attempts at special purpose financial vehicles and rhetoric about keeping the deal alive have fallen by the wayside. That should have happened over a year ago. Now attention must turn to how new rounds of negotiations, which has full American buy-in, should look.
The exclusion of other states in the region from the last round of negotiations was a major flaw which is at the root of why the JCPOA failed to curb expansion of Iran’s proxy and missile programs. If you have a negotiating team featuring no Middle East members, then it is hardly surprising when an agreement emerges that does not take their interests into account. 
In addition, for the Gulf states, the fear of missiles, whether from the Houthis in Yemen or from within Iran itself, will be at the top of their list of concerns. It would be foolish and willfully ignorant to suggest that Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are all that should concern us. That was the tone of the  JCPOA negotiations. To create a truly enduring agreement that can bring effective security and stability to the region, then Iran’s ballistic missile program and its funding of violent proxies must be at its center. It has been forgotten that the JCPOA was meant to be part of a series of negotiations that would tackle these other issues; the failure to do so is why it now lies in ruins.
Tehran’s funding and backing of the region’s most violent extremists has been at the center of recent tensions and longer-term destabilization. In fact, the funds freed up by the JCPOA’s easing of sanctions exacerbated this threat. Add to this their development of increasingly sophisticated drone and missile technology, and weaponry they have supplied to Yemen’s Houthis with lethal effect, and a picture emerges of where new negotiations should be focused.
The US and European nations now have a golden opportunity to seek an agreement that puts the long-term security interest of the Middle East at its heart. However, it cannot achieve that without hearing the voices of those directly affect by Iranian aggression. This is the only diplomatic route forward.

  • Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh
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