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US-Iran Nuclear Negotiation – What is Next?

Dr. Gawdat Bahgat is professor of National Security Affairs at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Study. He is an Egyptian-born specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly Egypt, Iran, and the Gulf region. His areas of expertise include energy security, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, counter-terrorism, Arab-Israeli conflict, North Africa, and American foreign policy in the Middle East. Bahgat’s career blends scholarship with national security practicing. Before joining NESA in December 2009, he taught at different universities. Bahgat published ten books including Alternative Energy in the Middle East (2013), Energy Security (2011) and so on. Bahgat’s articles have appeared in International Affairs, Middle East Journal, Middle East Policy, Oil and Gas Journal, and OPEC Review, among others. His work has been translated to several foreign languages.

The Iranian nuclear issue, as a hot event related to nuclear proliferation and regional security, has been an important event in international politics. The United States and Iran, as important actors, play an irreplaceable role in resolving the problem. For the upcoming Vienna talks, whether they can reach an agreement is related to whether the United States and Iran can successfully resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. In response to this issue, the Center conducted an exclusive interview with Mr. Gawdat Bahgat to understand his views on the Iranian nuclear issue and the Vienna talks.

Gawdat Bahgat: US-Iran Nuclear Negotiation – What is Next?

For more than four decades the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have seen each other as archenemies. Washington accuses Tehran of sponsoring terrorism, violating human rights, intervening in its neighbors’ domestic affairs and seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Iranian leaders categorically deny all these accusations and claim that the United States has never accepted their revolution.

Since the early 1990s the nuclear issue has dominated relations between the two nations. By signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)/nuclear deal in 2015, President Obama thought to stall Tehran’s nuclear advances and use the agreement to build trust in order to tackle the other urgent challenges in the contentious relationship between Washington and Tehran. Convinced that the deal did not go far enough, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and adopted a “maximum pressure” strategy. Based on this policy Washington imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Iran. The goal was to force its leaders to capitulate and make more concessions and/or facilitate a regime change. Tehran responded by its own “maximum resistance” strategy and despite severe economic pain, the Islamic Republic has refused to re-negotiate a modified nuclear deal.

Before taking office, then-candidate Joe Biden pledged that if elected he would immediately lift all economic sanctions imposed by his predecessor and, in return, Iran would return to its commitments under the 2015 nuclear pact. These expectations, however, have been proven to be too optimistic. Instead, a consensus has emerged that a complicated diplomatic process is needed to restore confidence and keep the nuclear deal alive. To break this stalemate, the Europeans have engaged in diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing both Washington and Tehran back to the negotiating table. These efforts to revive the JCPOA raise several key questions: What are the main hurdles preventing the revival of the nuclear deal? What are the implications of the Russia-Ukraine war on the Vienna nuclear negotiation? And how is this conflict shaping Europe’s energy security?

After eight rounds and a year-long negotiations, the parties seem to have reached a compromise on several major issues, including the lifting of most sanctions and re-imposing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear advances. However, there are still some important areas of disagreement. A major one is the de-classification of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. President Trump designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization. This was an unprecedented step, given that the IRGC is a major part of the Iranian government. The Iranian government insists that this designation must change, while President Biden is reluctant to take this step. It is not clear if the two sides can find a common ground that will be mutually acceptable to both of them.

The war between Russia and Ukraine has further complicated the Vienna talks. It will take some time to fully understand the connections between these two major events. But preliminary assessment suggests that Iran has gained some leverage. Under heavy American and European sanctions, Moscow is likely to move closer to Tehran. The Iranian government has refrained from criticizing Russia and, instead, has called for a ceasefire and a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Furthermore, the war has underscored Europe’s heavy dependency on Russia’s oil and gas supplies. European countries have sought to find other suppliers, particularly from the Middle East. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the United States has substantially increased its oil and gas exports to Europe. But the rise in US production and export has proven insufficient. Prices of the two commodities are skyrocketing. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two major Middle Eastern producers, have refused to increase their oil production. Qatar, a leading natural gas producer and exporter, is negotiating with several European countries to supply them with liquified natural gas, but this is likely to take time since Qatar has long-term agreements to sell its gas to Asian market.

Despite this global economic and political instability, the collapse of Vienna talks would be a disaster for both the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran and indeed to the entire world. In any negotiation, no side gets all what it wants. Iran has been able to survive the severe economic sanctions, but it needs these sanctions to be lifted in order to thrive and reach its potential. On the other hand, the Biden administration needs to slow down Iran’s nuclear advances. A successful conclusion of the Vienna talks would be a “win-win” outcome not only to both Tehran and Washington, but to political stability and economic prosperity in the broad Middle East and, indeed, in the entire world.

Interviewers: Hou Yunxi, Zhou Linzhan

Translators: Xu Houkun, Wang Xuetong


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