19th Jun 2021


Can new Iran talks avoid mistakes of the original JCPOA?

  • Iran's gains across the Middle East since 2015 have spurred a realignment of security interests, most notably the historic Abraham Accords negotiated between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), plus later Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan (Photo: EUobserver)

As a new round of negotiations over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) continue in Vienna, the European Union and the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) have already achieved a key objective: bringing Iran and the United States back to the table to secure a halt on Iran's nuclear programme.

Washington and Tehran both stress the "constructive" nature of the discussions, and even the Israeli intelligence services admit the US will soon return to compliance.

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  • Tenzer: 'Incoherence from Brussels and Washington abandons the region to leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose regime ultimately wants to secure nuclear capabilities while pursuing regional ambitions unchecked' (Photo: Wikimedia)

New talks between Iranian and Saudi officials indicate Europe's Persian Gulf allies share that view.

While Joe Biden's election reversed the fortunes of the nuclear deal, the new American president and his advisors understand the dynamics at play have changed since its original ratification in January 2016.

Biden, secretary of state Antony Blinken, and national security advisor Jake Sullivan have learned from president Barack Obama's mistakes, taking a clear view of the price the international community paid for the JCPOA in strategic setbacks and human lives – particularly in Syria, where Iranian and Russian war crimes have kept Bashar al-Assad's regime in power.

European negotiators have learned those lessons as well, even if Europe's Iran strategy still wants for coherence.

While president Biden promises re-engagement with Europe and the world, the question remains whether the EU can take advantage of the latest talks, and other shifts in the Middle East, to reverse its own diplomatic marginalisation.

Europe, Israel, UAE, change approach

Even if president Emmanuel Macron has stressed the shortcomings of the original nuclear deal and the EU has adopted Magnitsky-style sanctions against Iranian leaders, a senior European official recently explained to me that the European powers are only now opening their eyes to the threats posed by Iran, whose Revolutionary Guards and proxies such as Hezbollah target Western interests in the Middle East and in Europe itself.

That belated realisation is spurred on by the growing perception of parallel Russian and Chinese threats to European interests.

Circumstances have also changed for the EU's regional allies.

Iran's gains across the Middle East since 2015 have spurred a realignment of security interests, most notably the historic Abraham Accords negotiated between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and subsequently joined by other Arab states, including Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. Israel and the UAE have also sealed a parallel agreement within the EU, forming a quartet with Greece and Cyprus in response to Turkish provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Far from disavowing the Abraham Accords, a senior European diplomat recently informed me the Biden presidency could mark a new chapter for Donald Trump's signature foreign policy achievement.

While Biden takes a starkly different view on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and US allies' handling of human rights and conflict zones such as Yemen, increased US involvement in the Israeli-Emirati rapprochement will ultimately benefit broader security interests in the Middle East. Europe's capacity to exert influence over this realignment, by contrast, is less clear.

Even if EU leaders accepted the new circumstances in principle, one European official admitted to me that the diplomatic realities of the Trump era kept the EU from anything beyond a minimal level of engagement with this emerging Arab-Israeli partnership. The Biden administration, by contrast, offers Europe a new opportunity to shape these developments and secure European interests in collaboration with Middle Eastern partners such as the UAE.

Four EU interests

Failing to do so would harm European objectives in the region on at least four fronts.

The first remains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where Biden's arrival augurs a convergence between American and European positions on the issue.

While critics of the Abraham Accords lament their neglect of the Palestinians, the agreement could also constitute an incentive for Palestinian and Israeli negotiators to resume discussions under the eye of a more objective US administration. In any event, security cooperation between Israel and the Arab world, and particularly the UAE, long predates the accords.

The second is Iran.

Of the many obstacles to Iran's return to an amended JCPOA, president Macron has stressed that not involving regional powers in negotiations was a mistake – one the Abraham Accords now offer an opportunity to correct.

At the same time, president Biden is approaching these negotiations from a stronger position than his predecessor. As one American diplomat told me, the key difference between these negotiations and those of 2015 is that the JCPOA is no longer the overriding US foreign policy priority, a circumstance which reduced president Obama's margin for manoeuvre.

The third is Syria.

In addition to committing the most harrowing crimes against humanity seen this century, Bashar al-Assad's regime will destabilise the region for as long as it remains in power.

No long-term resolution is possible in Syria without Iranian and Russian withdrawal, and Brussels must work both to renew US commitments in this area and to keep Europe's Persian Gulf partners from having to accept a fait accompli orchestrated by Tehran and Moscow.

From this point of view, Europe must make every effort to dissuade Riyadh from seeking a rapprochement with the regime in Damascus.

The fourth issue, and perhaps the most unpredictable, concerns Russia and Turkey.

Continued European disengagement could force Israel, the Persian Gulf states, and Turkey to accept separate deals with Putin's regime that harm their own interests as well as those of the US and the EU.

As a French diplomat told me, the United States is the only actor capable of convincing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to change his tone towards Europe and issues such as Russia's involvement in Ukraine, but the Abrahram Accords could nonetheless incite Ankara to pursue its own normalisation of relations with Israel and the Nato alliance – even if Turkey's initial reaction was to threaten to break off diplomatic relations with the UAE instead.

Dangers of an uncertain approach

The ultimate significance of developments like the Abraham Accords depends on the direction of European, American, and regional leaders' policies in the Middle East.

Incoherence from Brussels and Washington abandons the region to leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose regime ultimately wants to secure nuclear capabilities while pursuing regional ambitions unchecked.

By contrast, a concerted, united approach bringing together Europe, the United States, and regional partners such as the UAE and Israel can both reinvigorate longstanding alliances and prevent the type of destabilisation that carries such dramatic costs for European interests.

Author bio

Nicolas Tenzer is a foreign policy and security analyst and guest professor at Sciences-Po Paris. He is the author of 3 officials reports to the French government and the author of 22 books.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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