As the May 12 deadline approaches for President Donald Trump to renew sanctions waivers in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), multiple European leaders, as well as the Chinese and Russians, are working to keep the agreement in place. President Emanuel Macron’s three-day State visit to Washington on April 23 was for the same reason.
Macron presented a four-point plan to Trump during their meeting at the White House, to address Iran’s nuclear program in the short and long term, the development of ballistic missiles, and the Islamic Republic’s regional presence.
By design, the JCPOA only focused on the nuclear issue, and addressed all essential nuclear-related concerns by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, the so-called P5+1. While some of the limitations on Iran’s nuclear program will be lifted by 2025, almost all of the inspections and verification regimes by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will continue to monitor the entirety of Iran’s nuclear program indefinitely. Furthermore, by October 2023 Iran’s Majles (Parliament) will have to have ratified the Additional Protocol of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which enforces monitoring measures in perpetuity. Thus, the first and second point of Macron’s plan has already been achieved in full by the JCPOA. Restating these facts may alleviate the concerns over Iran’s nuclear program in the long term. However, any negotiations on this topic are a non-starter for the Islamic Republic, and possibly other P5+1 members. Furthermore, there is a religious fatwa against the use of weapons of mass destruction by the Supreme Leader, and Iranian leaders have repeatedly stated the country’s stance against obtaining nuclear weapons.
What Trump is often alluding to when he refers to the Iran deal as “terrible,” “ridiculous,” and “dumb,” is the fact that the JCPOA only addressed the nuclear issue and not Iran’s ballistic missile program and the country’s support for various groups around the Middle East and West Asia. To find solutions for these “flaws,” Macron incorporated these issues as the third and fourth “pillars” of his plan.
In order to move forward on the other issues, it is crucial that the Trump Administration renew sanctions waivers by the May 12 deadline, and state its intentions for full implementation of the agreement.
During the nuclear negotiations, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif repeatedly reiterated the Islamic Republic’s willingness to move forward on discussions and negotiations over other issues, contingent on the full implementation of the JCPOA. Announcing the finalization of the agreement on July 14, 2015, Zariftweeted that the “‘Iran deal is not a ceiling but a solid foundation. We must now begin to build on it.” In addition, President Hassan Rouhani pledged during the 2017 presidential elections that he is prepared to seek the lifting of all the remaining sanctions on Iran during his term in office.
A day after Macron and Trump’s comments at the White House, Rouhani responded during a speech in Tabriz that someone who owes us, is requesting a new loan. Addressing Trump directly, he said the US should implement and abide by what it had agreed on before thinking about the future of the deal. These remarks illustrate that if Iran accepts to engage in new negotiations, it will only be after the United States implements the JCPOA in full and abandons its regime change policies towards the Islamic Republic.
Trump’s change of tone and vocabulary in reference to the North Korean leader, from “little rocket man,” to “very honorable,” illustrates the US president’s self-professed flexibility. In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei discussed the concept of “heroic flexibility” during the nuclear negotiations, which provided an insight into his foreign policy decision making.
Economic advantages are the overarching reason for both Iran and the United States to engage in negotiations. The multitude of investment opportunities and the possibility to create thousands of American jobs can be reasons for Trump to reevaluate his stance on dealing with Iran, including whether or not to allow Boeing to move forward with selling about a hundred airplanes to Iran, and the issuance of new waivers by the Office of Foreign Assets Control for American and international companies wanting to conduct business with Iran.
Iran will engage if the ultimate objective of the new round of negotiations is the complete removal of all sanctions on the Islamic Republic by the United States, European Union, and the United Nations.
Iran’s stance on the development of ballistic missiles has been firm before and after the negotiations over the nuclear issue. The Islamic Republic views ballistic missiles as a pillar of the country’s national defense strategy, and it would be difficult to negotiate over this topic if nothing is offered to Iran in return besides sanctions relief. For four decades, the Islamic Republic has been barred from purchasing the necessary military equipment for defensive purposes and it is for this reason that the country has developed its own types of cruise and ballistic missiles, along with other types of military hardware since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 calls upon Iran not to develop ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, and the Islamic Republic does not view this provision as limiting its program as the Iranian missiles are not designed in that particular way. Moreover, this limitation is set to expire by October 2023, if not earlier, if the IAEA submits the “Broader Conclusion” that concretely verifies the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program by deducing the program will not have the possibility to deviate towards weaponization.
It is not clear what Macron and Trump expect from the negotiations over Iran’s ballistic missiles program and what they are prepared to offer the Islamic Republic. France and the United States might be proposing a limitation on the range, type or number of ballistic missiles, in exchange for removing missile-related sanctions on Iran and possibly allowing the sale of military equipment to Iran, or a decrease in military involvement in the Persian Gulf region. What is clear, however, is that if the French and American presidents seek meaningful discussions, they ought to present Iran with incentives rather than threats to its national security.
The fourth pillar of Macron’s plan relates to what he refers to as Iran’s destabilizing role in the region. During his address to the joint session of Congress on April 25, Macron stated that he aims to find a political solution to contain Iran’s involvement around the region, while at the same time explicitly declaring that Iran’s sovereignty must be respected, alluding to his objection to Washington’s regime change policies, by saying “let us not replicate past mistakes in the region.”
What Macron stated was that he is seeking to find a political framework to engage Iran in negotiations over its role in regional conflicts, while leaving the option open for including other regional actors in the negotiations. It is again unclear how he envisions these delicate negotiations to proceed. However, it is very likely that Iran would engage in these discussions without pre-conditions. Zarif mentioned this proposal during his speech on April 23 at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York, where he spoke about the need for talking about the region, and that “there is a lot to ask on the Iranian side about what’s happening in our region.” This illustrates Iran’s eagerness to engage in discussion about the region’s recent past and future trajectory.
At the CFR event, Zarif also reiterated Iran’s oft-repeated proposal for a regional dialogue forum between Iran and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. This proposal, if initiated, can greatly assist the third and fourth points of Macron’s plan, while at the same time, provide a feasible pathway for peace and stability in the region that addresses the dialogue and confidence deficit that currently exists.
This new round of negotiations will only be possible if Trump renews sanctions waivers and implements the US obligations. This would mean the new additions to the Trump Administration, namely National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will have to alter their approach towards the Islamic Republic and their advice to the president of the United States.
Leaving the JCPOA will automatically destroy any chance of these negotiations ever occurring, and the consequences will be multifold for all signatories to the agreement. Iran’s ultimatums that if the United States leaves the agreement, the country will vigorously restart the nuclear enrichment program, or that it will abandon the NPT, will create an endless cycle of dangerous actions and reactions by all sides.
Trump’s ultimate aim to withdraw American troops from the Middle East and decrease the amount of money spent on the region will be shattered if his administration abandons the JCPOA and pursues regime change policies towards the Islamic Republic.
Mehran Haghirian is a recent graduate of American University’s School of International Service in Washington, with a Master’s degree in International Affairs and a focus on Iran and the Persian Gulf region. He is currently in Tehran. Read his Thesis: “Effectuating A Cooperative Future Between Iran and the Arab States of the Persian Gulf.” @MehranHaghirian