Future Iran nuclear talks should include the GCC and regional issues
During its summit in AlUla last month, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) made public its position on future talks with Iran, stating that any future negotiation process should address Tehran’s regional conduct and missile program “all in one basket” along with its nuclear program. It also stressed the need to include GCC countries in this process.
The GCC’s concerns go far beyond the confines of the current Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (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.
While it is exceedingly important to close the gaps in the old text, Iran’s missile program is equally worrisome, especially as the regime has beefed up its arsenal with cruise missiles, drones and new generations of ballistic missiles.
For the region, the most immediate threat is Iran’s regional conduct, i.e., supporting sectarian militias regionally and all types of terrorists globally.
In addition, there is an urgent need to address the environmental risks associated with Iran’s nuclear program, even if it were non-military. Some of its nuclear reactors are built or planned along earthquake fault lines. Japan’s Fukushima disaster demonstrated the risk earthquakes pose to nuclear installations. The Bushehr nuclear facility is only 200 km from major population centers in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. If nuclear effluents pollute Gulf waters, it could spell disaster for desalination plants.
All of these issues are urgent and need to be addressed in the talks with Iran: Its rush to acquire military nuclear capability, a runaway missile program, expanding rogue regional activities, and nuclear safety. There appears to be a regional and global consensus that any future talks should have a wider scope to include most of these issues. There is also a growing consensus to include regional actors, although no agreement yet on the shape of that participation.
Most of the JCPOA’s original participants have voiced support for widening the scope and participation of any new talks. US President Joe Biden has said that, if Iran returns to compliance with the agreement, Washington would rejoin and then seek to build a broader pact to also deal with Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and support for proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have also made similar comments.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday told Al-Arabiya TV that Saudi Arabia should be involved in any new negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program. He cautioned against repeating the mistake of excluding the countries of the region, other than Iran, from discussions when the 2015 deal was negotiated. He added that talks with Tehran would be very “strict” and warned that little time remains to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon.
Germany also believes that the 2015 JCPOA is no longer enough and needs an overhaul, calling for a broader accord to rein in Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its regional activities. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in December told Der Spiegel: “A form of ‘nuclear agreement plus’ is needed, which also lies in our interest.” He added: “We have clear expectations for Iran: No nuclear weapons, but also no ballistic rocket program which threatens the whole region. Iran must also play another role in the region … We need this accord because we distrust Iran.”
France, Germany and the UK are in talks with the US to coordinate their positions on modalities for the resumption and scope of the talks. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also voiced support, saying: “The matter is progressively moving toward a situation where we can have an agreement that is essential for peace and stability in the Gulf and the world … I believe that everyone, all those who entered the JCPOA and other interested parties, must work together to reduce uncertainties, to face difficulties and obstacles.”
Iran has voiced opposition to both widening the scope of the talks and including other regional actors. This opposition contradicts its own pronouncements about the need for dialogue with its neighbors. President Hassan Rouhani has publicly expressed and sent missives suggesting that Iran and the GCC countries turn a new page and start talking about their differences.
It is not yet clear where Russia and China stand on the agenda of the future talks or regional participation. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif last week visited Russia, but there was no mention of this issue in the public statements made during his trip. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a Jan. 26 joint press conference with Zarif: “Particularly we discussed cooperation on construction of new power units of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Iran,” as well as trade, economic, energy, agriculture, transport and industrial fields.
While it is exceedingly important to close the gaps in the old text, Iran’s missile program is equally worrisome.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Comments attributed to some Russian diplomats at the UN appeared to oppose broadening the nuclear talks to include other issues, but it is not clear whether those comments represent Russia’s final position on the subject. In fact, Moscow has for some time advocated multilateral engagement in the Gulf, which it has suggested should include discussions of regional issues among both regional actors and the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) permanent members. As such, it should see any new Iran talks as an example of the engagement it has been advocating, most recently at the session Russia organized on Gulf security in the UNSC during its presidency last October. At that session, China also supported some form of regional engagement on security issues.
The US and other parties to the original JCPOA agreement should avoid its shortcomings and its side effects. The deal was strongly opposed by regional actors and eventually failed as a counter proliferation instrument. In addition, the hope that it would be followed by regional de-escalation did not materialize. In fact, it led to greater regional escalation.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1