Between deja vu and detente for the Middle East.
While some may regard the current multilateral talks in Vienna that include the Biden administration and Iran as a reboot of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), much has changed for the United States and its presence in the Middle East since the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018.
The geopolitical realities facing America require a pragmatic approach that may elude the ideologically and politically charged but affirm that Washington’s primary motivation lies beyond the accord itself, and as a way to reassert American foreign policy both regionally and globally.
There are three critical impetuses for the Biden administration’s reentry to talks with Iran, none of which suggest an Obama-era redux. The first is to demonstrate to America’s European allies that the U.S. is returning to a multilateral mode of geopolitics. Great Britain, France and Germany — the so-called E3 European members of the P5+1 (U.N. Security Council members and Germany) Iran deal — felt that the U.S. had abandoned not only the JCPOA, but also NATO and other long-standing trans-Atlantic conventions.
Trump administration actions — additional sanctions and the assassination of Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 2020 — were viewed by the E3 as heavy-handed and unilateral. The Biden administration sees Vienna as the venue for America to “return” to the world stage as a team player.
The ongoing negotiations are also putting the non-E.U. members of the P5 — Russia and China — on notice that the U.S. is still very much engaged with the Middle East. Over the past five years, both superpowers have made substantial and unprecedented inroads to the region, expanding greatly their influence among several countries, including Iran.
Beijing’s recent 25 year/$400 billion infrastructure development pact with Tehran furthers China’s burgeoning Belt & Road Initiative and gives Iran a powerful patron to stanch the impact of sanctions and external threats, as the Chinese will strive to protect their investment.
The Biden administration seeks to counter Beijing’s growing dominance in the region by offering Iran what it craves: greater access to U.S. and Western markets as well as recission of its pariah status. The danger of increased Chinese regional influence, in fact, was a driving force behind the original JCPOA, to prevent Iran from gravitating toward the welcoming arms of Beijing, something, ironically, accelerated by America leaving the agreement.
Lastly, along with Russia, China and our European allies, the third audience for the Vienna proceedings is Washington’s regional allies. The negotiations are intended to show Israel, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and others that America is still firmly committed to the region through direct involvement instead of outsourced and ambiguous policies.
The U.S. was the sole superpower in the Middle East for over seven decades; that is no longer the reality. With Russian and Chinese presence in the area, America’s allies will seek U.S. presence as a visible, audible and engaged counterweight, which will rely upon non-military forms of engagement.
Many of America’s regional allies were highly and vocally critical of the 2015 JCPOA. Today, reaction from the same parties is noticeably more muted. Israel and the Gulf States certainly anticipated President Biden’s reengagement with Iran, being consulted on the process throughout. The “wait-and-see” approach out of Jerusalem, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may be seen as a realization that the JCPOA was more effective as a containment strategy of Iran than what the past three years have yielded.
At the same time, these same allies are understandably concerned that the U.S. may be returning to diplomacy impetuously, without preconditions on Iran, and with the proposed lifting of sanctions. In reality, President Biden removed only those sanctions deemed “inconsistent” to the original agreement, and that had been enacted by the prior administration after it withdrew from the JCPOA. This indicates a reset to use the 2015 accord as the starting point to rebuild trust and confidence among the parties.
While former President Trump’s left his pledge to strike a comprehensive deal with Iran unfulfilled after withdrawing from the JCPOA, a new deal on the nuclear issue can serve as a first step toward addressing broader issues such as Iran’s toxic rhetoric toward Israel and its support of regional proxies.
While no one is expecting U.S. talks with Iran in Vienna to produce miracles or a grand bargain to fix all the myriad conflicts and concerns in the Middle East, America’s rejuvenated diplomatic mission sends the right message to all the important players, both ally and adversary.
The return to multilateralism by way of the Iran nuclear negotiations signals a return to America’s traditional geopolitical role, to the relief of a world that has been waiting.
Saeed A. Khan is a lecturer in the Department of Near East & Asian Studies at Wayne State University.