Iran has been experiencing a campaign of maximum pressure under a severe and complex system of sanctions that were strengthened under the previous Trump Administration to either change the regime or at least its aggressive behavior. Nonetheless, the regime is still ruling the country without any change of behavior, although sanctions have had a devastating impact on Iran’s economy and have even led to widespread riots and deep discontent of the Iranian public.
With a return of a Democrat President to the White House, hopes of the revival of JCPOA surged in the international community. However, with the resumption of negotiations, the return to the 2015 JCPOA proved to be much more complicated than it was first thought. Both Washington and Tehran have introduced new demands and have been persistent on them. Given the current stalemate, the million-dollar question now is what the consequences of failed negotiations in Vienna are? In other words, what considerations should a “Plan B” include?
Not unlike the Iranian government, Biden does not enjoy a high approval rate and the result of JCPOA talks can directly affect future elections. This is while the Biden administration is dealing with the devastating Covid 19 pandemic and the consequences of the emergence of far-right views in both domestic and foreign policy during the Trump administration to improve the international image of the United States. He enjoyed a fair amount of success until he made a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, announced to be a measure to increase focus on China as the main threat to US interests around the world, and badly damaged the United States’ credibility. Thus, it is difficult times for both sides at home and abroad.
If the United States and Iran fail to reach an agreement on returning to the JCPOA and Tehran does not provide security guarantees in exchange for actionable economic incentives, to the consternation of both sides, the Middle East will again plunge into a multifaceted matrix of crisis.
Firstly, failure of Vienna talks practically means failure of the regional talks of US Arab allies with Iran. It is near certainty that Persian Gulf states would align themselves with the United States rather than Iran as their regional rival. Therefore, de-escalation of tensions in the region will hit the rock. This is undoubtedly not in line with the United States interests and long-term strategies as the withdrawal from Afghanistan clearly showed that Washington is determined in pulling out of the Middle East’s endless wars and focusing instead on China and the Indo-Pacific region.
Secondly, the collapse of negotiations will lead to more instability in the region as Iran is a key player in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. Any war in the Middle East will send a wave of refugees and open the flow of drugs and human trafficking from Iran’s eastern borders to Europe and increase the threat of terrorist attacks both in the Middle East and elsewhere. Therefore, creating regional stability and consensus without Iran’s presence and inclusion in the Middle East talks seems to be a tall order to fill.
A review of the US-Iran confrontations shows an inverse relationship between the growth and empowerment of civil society in Iran with the increase of US sanctions and threats. That is, as the economic sanctions increase, Iranian civil society is also weakened and extremist ayatollahs and military generals take the upper hand making the diplomatic resolution of issues far-fetched.
Thirdly, Iran will have no choice but to fall further into China and Russia’s trap to protect its existence through granting more economic and security concessions to China and Russia. In other words, Tehran will be China and Russia’s Trojan horse to gain more influence in the region as a result of which new military-security blocs like revisionist powers blocs will form and in turn completely change the security arrangements of the region.
Biden administration should bear in mind that the escalation of tensions with Iran will lay the foundation of the emergence of revisionist powers such as Turkey, and more influence for expansionist powers such as Russia in the Middle East. The absence of Iran in the region to redress the balance of regional powers will be a recipe for Ankara’s revisionism and expansionism, more hegemonic and totalitarian policies of the Saudis, and more influence for Russia to create a rift in NATO. Thus, failing to strike a balance of power in the region can drag both the Middle East and Baltic region as well as Ukraine to war.
Fourthly, Iran’s market and its role in the oil price and oil transit security cannot be easily overlooked. Iran with the largest number of experts and the most populous market in the Middle East is a great opportunity for Europe and the United States to rejuvenate their Covid- and inflation-hit economies. The return of the Iranian oil to the international market can also help control global inflation and oil price more effectively and encourage Tehran to contribute to the security of the oil transit route in the Persian Gulf more actively. This in turn can break up the Saudi-Russian domination and the hegemony of OPEC Plus as well. Nonetheless, without a successful return to the JCPOA, none of these windows of opportunities will open.
All in all, a “Plan B” should address the devastating consequences of the failure of Vienna talks for both Tehran and Washington, the Middle East, and even the whole world. Without JCPOA a nuclear-armed Iran, a new arms race in the Middle East, a precarious regional balance of power, more intervention and influence of China and the expansionist Russia and Turkey, more never-ending wars, and failure of diplomacy are apparently inevitable.
By taking the necessary and step-by-step assurances from Tehran, Washington can lead the regime toward a bottom-up reform by empowering Iran’s civil society, which also happens to be pro-Western, and lay the groundwork for controlling and normalizing relations with Iran. In fact, even the religious and military extremists can be deradicalized in Iran if the nuclear deal becomes a non-security matter. Choosing diplomacy over war and its horrible consequences might not seem a difficult decision to make, but only time can tell which one will be chosen in Vienna.
*Peter Rodgers is an international relations graduate of Penn State University