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Source: Foreign Affairs

May 8, 2023

The Path to a New Iran Deal

A Regional Agreement Could Succeed Where Washington Failed


By Ali Vaez and Vali Nasr


It has been exactly five years since former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and more than two years since current U.S. President Joe Biden launched his drive to restore it. But despite high hopes, Biden has been unable to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the JCPOA. In part, this is the administration’s failure; in early negotiations, Biden was hesitant to push Congress to back a controversial foreign policy initiative when he needed its support for his domestic agenda.


The failure is also a consequence of Iranian obstinacy. As talks dragged on, Tehran threw up roadblocks and made multiple demands—including a guarantee that the next U.S. administration will not again withdraw from the deal—that Washington simply could not meet. As a result, there has been virtually no progress in negotiations since September 2022. The two sides are far from an agreement.


Yet Tehran’s nuclear program is now more advanced than it has ever been. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has enriched uranium to 84 percent—just one percentage point short of weapons-grade purity—and has amassed enough enriched fissile material for several bombs. According to Pentagon officials, the country could produce an operational nuclear weapon within a few months. As a result, thanks to Trump’s strategic blunder, Iran is a de facto nuclear state: one screwdriver and one political decision away from weaponizing its nuclear capabilities.  


Even if the negotiations resume, it is unlikely that the JCPOA can be saved. Iran’s program is too advanced to be contained by that deal, and the political climate in the West is not conducive to meaningful negotiations. The widespread, antigovernment social protests in Iran and Tehran’s brutal response have killed any appetite in Washington and European capitals for lifting sanctions on Iran—a necessary part of a deal.


Iran’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been similarly repugnant to Western public opinion. And even if Washington were willing to hold its nose and lift many sanctions to restore the JCPOA, it is not clear that Iran’s hard-line leaders are actually interested in finalizing a deal with an administration that could be out of office in less than two years.


As part of the ongoing requiem over the JCPOA’s all-but-certain demise, policymakers are trying to craft a Plan B. But their prescriptions are generally the same policies—sanctions and international isolation, covert action, military exercises, and military threats—that have utterly failed to curb Iran’s nuclear advances for the past two decades.


The White House seems interested in a kind of “less for less” deal, in which the United States preserves most of its sanctions but offers partial relief in exchange for Tehran freezing the most troublesome aspects of its nuclear program, such as high-level enrichment. Yet for now, Tehran has made clear it is uninterested in this kind of arrangement.


If the United States and Europe do not want Iran to become a nuclear-weapons state, and if they do not want to attack Iran and hazard war to set back the program, they need a new diplomatic approach. Thankfully, recent events in the Middle East have created an opening for one. A U.S.-Iranian deal may not be feasible, but as Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf forge better ties with Tehran, what was once impossible—a regional agreement that simultaneously tackles Iran’s meddling in the Arabian Peninsula and its nuclear program—is now entirely conceivable.


Unlike the JCPOA, this kind of deal would generate buy-in from countries near Iran, making it far more sustainable. It would give Iran more meaningful and lasting economic relief. It could permanently, not temporarily, contain Iran’s nuclear program, and it might reduce Tehran’s support for troublesome militias in the region. In doing so, such a deal could bring more stability to a part of the world that sorely needs it.


GO BIG OR GO HOME

In its nuclear diplomacy with Iran, the West has pursued narrow, transactional deals. Many of the JCPOA’s provisions, for example, would phase out over time, and the agreement deliberately sidestepped regional problems, including Iran’s funding for armed groups, because Western policymakers believed they could not conclude a nuclear deal and address other tensions simultaneously. It was better, they decided, to first focus on freezing Iran’s nuclear program. Future negotiators could then tackle other issues.


But this narrow approach is no longer viable. Iran’s nuclear program is too advanced for temporary restrictions and transparency measures to alleviate Western and Israeli concerns. The United States has also demonstrated that it cannot stick to its word, making it impossible for the West to provide Iran with the kind of effective and sustainable economic benefits it seeks. For their part, the Europeans have proved incapable of delivering on their economic promises to Iran without U.S. approval.


And the JCPOA’s failure demonstrated that a successful nuclear agreement may actually require that Iran de-escalate tensions with its neighbors. When the JCPOA was finalized in 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates saw the deal as a blank check that would allow Iran to deepen its involvement in Arab affairs and further expand its ballistic missiles program. As a result, they prodded a sympathetic Trump to abandon the accord. He misguidedly agreed.


Years later, these countries have realized that killing the deal was a grave mistake. The end of the JCPOA made a spiteful Iran even more aggressive and added Tehran’s now unrestrained nuclear activities to its list of concerns. But although the Gulf states cannot resurrect the nuclear deal, their worries about Iran have, paradoxically, made a bigger, regional agreement a real possibility. That is because, in an attempt to curtail Iranian attacks on their territories, Gulf countries have engaged Iran in ways that they have not since the early 2000s.


Last August, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates restored full diplomatic ties with Iran, and in March, Iran and Saudi Arabia normalized relations after seven years of estrangement in a deal brokered by China. These agreements mean it is now possible for the Middle East’s most powerful states (with the exception of Israel) to launch a regional dialogue with Iran, one that aims to achieve what all the would-be participants have claimed they desire: enhanced security, expanded trade, and a nuclear weapons–free zone in the Gulf.


The sine qua non for achieving this objective is assurances from Iran about its regional power projection, such as a commitment to not support nonstate actors financially or militarily on the Arabian Peninsula. In exchange, these countries would themselves commit to not supporting groups that destabilize Iran. This approach would also entail all the states on the rim of the Gulf agreeing to strict controls on nuclear development, Iran included.


These countries could, for example, permanently forgo uranium enrichment above five percent, give up plutonium reprocessing forever, and ratify the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—which provides UN inspectors with irreversible, enhanced access to all declared and suspected nuclear sites. To meet these requirements, Iran could blend its existing stockpiles of 20 and 60 percent fissile material down to below five percent or ship them out. All signatories could also agree to joint inspections and joint ventures in nuclear fuel, as well as in nuclear safety and security, as Argentina and Brazil did in 1981.


These nuclear provisions will come at a low cost for Iran’s Arab neighbors, since none of them—Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions notwithstanding—currently possess an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle program that they would need to abandon. But it would also come at a tolerable cost for Iran.


Unlike the JCPOA, these provisions would allow Iran to agree to long-term restrictions on its nuclear program without dismantling its infrastructure or being treated as an exception to the rule among other Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty member states, whose nuclear programs are not subject to ad hoc restrictions. It would also defuse the risk of a strike by the United States and Israel over Iran’s nuclear program, something Gulf Arab countries want to avoid too—lest they become collateral damage.


In fact, the United States and its European allies could—and should—actively back such a deal. They should exempt an Iranian-Gulf free-trade agreement from sanctions, creating a powerful avenue for economic growth among all the agreement’s parties. The UN Security Council could endorse this accord as the JCPOA’s successor and stipulate punitive repercussions for violations, which could include letting companies sue countries that violate the deal under the UN Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards.


If Washington imposes sanctions on the Iranian-Gulf trade deal after agreeing to exempt it, one of those countries could be the United States. Anchoring a nuclear deal in a regional framework will also make it harder for the United States to reimpose sanctions because, unlike in 2018, Washington would face resistance from its Gulf Arab friends if it tried to walk away. For Iran, then, this deal might have the kind of guaranteed longevity the JCPOA never offered, rectifying one of that agreement’s key shortcomings.


LOCAL AND GLOBAL

A broad regional deal would face opposition from Iran hawks in the United States and Europe, who might see it as a lifeline to an Iranian regime that they perceive as being on the ropes after months of protests. Yet it is worth recalling that cordial relations with Iran’s neighbors (and the West) did not prevent the collapse of the shah’s regime in 1979; they would not save a regime that lacks popular legitimacy today. Nor would a deal be a magical solution that resolves all the main tensions in the region. Many European states, after all, integrated their economies with Russia’s, and it did nothing to stop Moscow from invading Ukraine.


Yet even though stronger economic ties cannot guarantee stability, they will make it more costly for Tehran to harm its neighbors. As economic interdependence with Iran grows, wealthy Gulf Arab states will gain more leverage over Tehran, disincentivizing aggressive policies. Iran, in turn, will have the opportunity to rebuild its economy. These advantages explain why, when we proposed such a deal in conversations with policymakers in Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran, we received positive feedback. Gulf state officials indicated that they would be especially receptive to a deal if it were supported by the United States.


For Washington and its allies, a broad regional deal would have other advantages. It would both serve as crisis management, helping put a lid on further Iranian nuclear development, and establish permanent restrictions and transparency measures on Tehran’s nuclear program—averting a race among Iran’s neighbors to match Tehran’s nuclear fuel cycle technology.


This deal would, in other words, be a far more durable and powerful agreement than the JCPOA. And if this deal did de-escalate tensions between Iran and its neighbors, it would allow the United States to focus more on big-ticket political concerns, such as climate change and great-power competition.


Above all else—and unlike a restored JCPOA—this deal could actually happen. It is ambitious, but the world needs an arrangement that merges nuclear and regional issues if it wants to bring lasting stability to the Middle East; ambition is required. Sometimes, the best way to resolve a thorny problem is to make it bigger.


  • ALI VAEZ is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group.

  • VALI NASR is Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle East Studies and International Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. From 2009 to 2011, he served as Senior Adviser to the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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