Gulf states open to de-escalation

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, current regional dynamics could provide an opportunity for constructive talks on such a framework. The strategic escalation since last summer, in particular Iran’s attacks in September on Saudi Arabian oil facilities and Soleimani’s assassination in January, has shown how close the region may be to a (probably uncontrollable) military confrontation.

As a result, Gulf states that earlier had encouraged Trump to take a hardline stance against Iran have called explicitly for de-escalation. In addition, various parties that had not been on speaking terms began to talk, or at least prepared to do so: the United Arab Emirates to Iran, the Saudis to Yemen’s Houthis and to Qatar and the Saudis and Iranians (through third parties) to each other.

At the time of last August’s G7 summit in Biarritz, even Trump and the Iranian regime seemed prepared for some form of diplomatic engagement. Although hardliners in Tehran and Washington prevented further progress, the so-called Swiss track subsequently led to a prisoner exchange between Iran and the U.S., demonstrating that, with help from friends or partners, basic bilateral understandings are possible. Trump even thanked Iran "on a very fair negotiation" and called it a "precursor to what can be done".

European governments should continue trying to facilitate serious, direct talks between the U.S. and Iran. At the same time, they should use the DRM both to discuss immediate de-escalation measures and to explore the contours of a follow-up agreement to the JCPOA – or an alternative should the current deal collapse.

Such discussions should address how to realise the French proposal, originally endorsed by Trump, of a European credit line to help ease Iran’s economic distress, as well as how to overcome current U.S. resistance to the idea. Iran could support such a move by reinstating some of its recently "reduced" commitments.

Top Iranian priority – "economic ceasefire"

More far-reaching talks could focus on timelines and provisions for future voluntary limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities once the JCPOA’s "sunset clauses" expire. Eventually, the U.S. would have to be part of any new agreement and Iran would need guarantees that a future U.S. administration would not revoke it. Securing congressional approval – which the Obama administration did not seek for the JCPOA – would strengthen such an agreement. This would require addressing major concerns of U.S. legislators, such as the longevity of Iran’s commitments, which Iranian officials have indicated they are open to discussing if certain other conditions, notably an "economic ceasefire", were met.

That said, any future deal with Iran should still be an arms-control agreement that is not overburdened with other contentious matters. Issues regarding sovereignty, security and safety, such as the use and arming of militant proxies, missile proliferation, or the safety of waterways, would be best addressed in a regional context.

Given the recent interest of most regional actors in de-escalating tensions, now may be the right time to go beyond bilateral talks and initiate a regional Conference on Confidence-Building, Security and Cooperation. Such a process would complement renewed and probably lengthy nuclear negotiations between Iran and the major international powers.

Volker Perthes

© Project Syndicate 2020

Volker Perthes is Chairman and Director of Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.

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