GCC’s Iran nuclear talks proposal should be taken seriously
International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi last week warned that “every limit that existed in the JCPOA (nuclear deal) has been violated several times” by Iran. The deal has become an “empty shell” and diplomatic activity to revive it is almost nonexistent, he said, adding that: “Nobody has declared it dead, but no obligation is being pursued.”
One of those violations relates to uranium enrichment. Iran has amassed enough material for “several nuclear weapons,” Grossi told a European Parliament subcommittee in Brussels. He pointed out that Iran has 70 kg of uranium enriched to 60 percent purity and 1,000 kg to 20 percent purity, meaning that Iran is only a short distance away from reaching the critical level of 90 percent, when it can be weaponized.
Hard-liners in Tehran appear to be in no hurry to reach a deal. The talks offer breathing space for Iran as it advances its nuclear program and brings it closer to making nuclear weapons. The talks as such buy time for Iran, giving it space and cover.
Tehran is also getting a free ride from continuing the talks without having to provide concessions. After Iran accepted the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement in 2015, nuclear-related sanctions were lifted and they remain that way even as Iran breaches “every limit” imposed by the deal, according to the IAEA chief. The exception has been the US, which reinstated sanctions in 2018. Following Iran’s harsh crackdown on popular protests since last September, the EU and a number of countries have imposed new sanctions, to be added to earlier human rights and terrorism-related sanctions, which were not affected by the JCPOA.
The failure of the JCPOA to so far prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon calls for a reassessment of the approach to the crisis
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
The failure of the JCPOA to so far prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon calls for a reassessment of the international community’s approach to the crisis. Previously, P5+1 negotiators expressed hope that concluding the deal in 2015 would lead to moderation in Iran’s conduct in the region, but what happened was the opposite, as we witnessed in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere.
There is no doubt Iran’s nuclear program poses a serious threat to the region and beyond and diplomatic efforts need to continue to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Although a nuclear program in a rogue state is a serious threat, it is not the only one. The rapidly expanding production of drones and ballistic and cruise missiles is a major cause of rising concerns. Tehran-supported terrorist and sectarian groups have wreaked havoc in the region and destabilized neighbors.
The protests sweeping Iran have demonstrated widespread dissatisfaction with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-dominated government’s policies. They have brought to light the grim realities on the ground, economically and politically, and restrictions on women are outdone only by the Taliban next door. The future appears even grimmer. The IRGC’s priorities are bankrupting Iran. Its economy has been in a shambles for decades because of its singular focus on military spending.
Iran’s gross domestic product today is not commensurate with that of a country of more than 80 million people, a youthful population and plentiful natural resources, including massive oil and gas reserves. The prospect of Iran destabilizing further under the weight of its economic and political challenges worries its neighbors.
While the status quo could hold for a while, several other scenarios are possible, requiring prudent planning for the future in the region and beyond.
The first scenario is that of a regional nuclear arms race. Nuclear talks could plod along without achieving results but moving enough for Iran to continue weaponizing its nuclear program under the smokescreen of engaging in diplomatic efforts. A nuclear arms race could ensue if Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon is not checked. It is important to prevent such an eventuality in the region, which could happen if Iran reaches that critical stage. A nuclear arms race would divert badly needed development funds to fueling the arms race and would immiserate Iran the most.
The second scenario is for Iran to become another North Korea, i.e., a nuclear military dictatorship, heavily sanctioned and isolated. Its population would be cut off from the rest of the world, impoverished.
A third scenario is of Iran, or big chunks of it, descending into chaos and becoming ungoverned, similar to the fate of so-called Arab Spring states, such as Syria, Libya and Yemen.
The failure of the nuclear talks to so far produce the desired results has shown the wisdom of the GCC’s position regarding the narrow remit of these negotiations and the exclusion of the region from participating in them. GCC states are not just geographically proximate to Iran, but they have also been on the receiving end of its ballistic missiles, drones and malign activities. They also have the most to lose from its nuclear program.
Some have questioned the value of GCC participation in the talks, asking what it could bring to the table. In fact, GCC negotiators could bring plenty of what any other participant could — sticks and carrots. They could help advance the talks by providing the prospect of normalizing Iran’s relations with the region and integrating its economy with those of its neighbors. They could also add pressure when needed to induce Iran to be more flexible.
A GCC ownership stake in the talks would contribute to their success by addressing all the important threats and providing the Iranian people with what they most need: A prosperous economy and normal relations with the country’s neighbors.
This offer from the GCC has been on the table for some time and it is about time it was taken seriously, as the JCPOA talks appear to be heading toward oblivion.
- 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