Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Separate the Iran Deal From Regional Security Negotiations

U.S. allies have already taken the initiative on regional issues. Insisting on a package deal could permanently derail nuclear talks.

By , the Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and , a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security and a former Iranian diplomat.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi remotely addresses the U.N.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi remotely addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21. EDUARDO MUNOZ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past year, the United States and Iran have struggled to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Despite progress made in several rounds of talks in Vienna, the two governments remain deadlocked, and there is increasing worry that time is running out.

Iran is rapidly approaching a point of no return on its nuclear program, after which the United States will not see any benefit in returning to a deal if its key provisions are no longer attainable. Iran is also coming to the conclusion that the U.S. government is stalling and is unlikely to lift economic sanctions; hence, they would see no point in persevering to restore the JCPOA.

One stumbling block is how to address Iran’s role in the region. The United States and Iran must find a way to do so without threatening progress on the already difficult nuclear talks. Insisting on discussing regional issues—such as Iran’s role in Syria and Iraq, its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, an end to war in Yemen, and maritime security in the Persian Gulf region—as part of nuclear talks also runs the risk of dooming progress on diplomatic efforts to resolve some of those issues if nuclear talks stall.

Over the past year, the United States and Iran have struggled to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Despite progress made in several rounds of talks in Vienna, the two governments remain deadlocked, and there is increasing worry that time is running out.

Iran is rapidly approaching a point of no return on its nuclear program, after which the United States will not see any benefit in returning to a deal if its key provisions are no longer attainable. Iran is also coming to the conclusion that the U.S. government is stalling and is unlikely to lift economic sanctions; hence, they would see no point in persevering to restore the JCPOA.

One stumbling block is how to address Iran’s role in the region. The United States and Iran must find a way to do so without threatening progress on the already difficult nuclear talks. Insisting on discussing regional issues—such as Iran’s role in Syria and Iraq, its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, an end to war in Yemen, and maritime security in the Persian Gulf region—as part of nuclear talks also runs the risk of dooming progress on diplomatic efforts to resolve some of those issues if nuclear talks stall.

Currently, disagreements on regional issues are slowing progress on nuclear talks, and failure to get to a nuclear deal will worsen regional security.

Currently, disagreements on regional issues are slowing progress on nuclear talks, and failure to get to a nuclear deal will worsen regional security. With the two issues joined at the hip in the same negotiations process, failure at the nuclear table will be followed by more economic pressure on Iran and sabotage of its nuclear facilities.

The Iranian response will likely unfold in the form of fresh conflict in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq as well as escalatory provocations involving oil and infrastructure facilities in Saudi Arabia or shipping on the high seas.

If the Biden administration is determined to avoid costly conflicts in the Middle East, then it should change its approach to remove a significant stumbling block facing nuclear talks and help regional security at a time when the United States is looking to reduce its military commitments in the region. It should decouple the two issues and pursue a resolution to the regional standoff separately.


The United States has, for some time, been insisting its return to the JCPOA is contingent on Iran agreeing to negotiate its regional policies. That was not its position when nuclear negotiations started in 2011. Then, Iran was more open to a broader negotiations’ framework, and it was the United States that insisted talks focus narrowly on the nuclear issue to quickly get to a deal. The U.S. posture changed after the JCPOA was signed and the Obama administration came under fire for not demanding a rollback of Iranian policies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

Critics of the nuclear deal at home and U.S. regional allies were quick to fault the agreement for giving Iran greater resources and room to expand its regional influence. There was scant evidence for this linkage, but regardless of its merit, the criticism became an obvious shortcoming of the JCPOA, which the Biden administration must rectify if it is to return to the deal. Washington seems to think anything less would be a concession to Tehran.

Iran has rejected the allegation it escalated aggressive policies after signing the JCPOA and is unwilling to discuss an issue that was not on the table during nuclear negotiations. It sees the focus on regional issues as a product of successful lobbying by its regional rivals who want to undermine the nuclear deal.

It does not help that Iran also deeply distrusts Washington’s motivations. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei recently dismissed a U.S. demand tying its return to the JCPOA to future negotiations over regional issues, saying the United States is using the issue to drag its feet on rejoining the nuclear deal. Iran, he added, will not accept foreign meddling when it comes to its national security interests.

The United States’ allies have already concluded that Washington will not be able to address Iran’s regional role in the context of nuclear talks.

Iran’s rulers are quick to point to a history of initiatives and contacts with the United States regarding the region that came to naught. Iran cooperated with the United States in dislodging the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001 and then in establishing a new order at the Bonn conference, only to be almost immediately assigned as a member of the “axis of evil.”

Two years later, the George W. Bush administration rebuffed then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s offer to discuss regional issues. Tehran believes it is not regional security the United States is after but weakening Iran and regime change. Having unilaterally left the 2015 nuclear deal, the United States is hard pressed to overcome Tehran’s deep distrust even before returning to that deal.

Still, Tehran has come to recognize that progress in nuclear talks ultimately needs to deal with regional security, just not as part of the JCPOA or in negotiations with the United States. Iran wants to negotiate regional issues directly with its neighbors. It has repeatedly called for resolutions of regional issues under the aegis of the United Nations and directly called on the U.N. Secretary-General to initiate a process. Then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also put forth the Hormuz Peace Initiative in 2019, inviting Persian Gulf countries to a security dialogue; and during his last months in office, he launched a security dialogue with Saudi Arabia in Iraq.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have since met for three rounds of talks discussing cease-fires in Yemen, an end to drone attacks on Saudi facilities, and a path to normalized relations. Both sides have characterized their dialogue as productive.

Those talks laid the groundwork for last month’s regional security conference in Baghdad that brought together several heads of state and foreign ministers. At the end of the conference, Iran and Saudi Arabia announced they will meet for a fourth round of talks later this month. Saudi Arabia will need U.S. encouragement and promise of continued military support, but direct U.S. involvement is not necessary for the talks to progress.

The United States’ allies have already concluded that Washington will not be able to address Iran’s regional role in the context of nuclear talks, and the fragility of nuclear talks means there are no plans for reining in Iran’s influence. That is the reason why, unlike in 2015, U.S. allies have started engaging Iran even before there is a conclusion to nuclear talks. What they are looking for is U.S. support for their own diplomatic initiatives and future guarantees of their security.

Washington is right to think Iran could construe a change in its position as a concession, but that would not be the case if Washington demanded Iran give up on one of its redlines in return, such as a U.S. guarantee that a deal will not be reversed. Furthermore, Washington does not need to formally abandon its demand for a change to Iran’s regional posture but merely not insist on follow-up negotiations as a precondition to a nuclear deal. It can also provide incentives to Iran to negotiate directly with its neighbors by offering additional sanctions relief.

Rather than insisting on including regional security discussions in nuclear talks, the United States should encourage ongoing regional security talks and let them proceed separately but in tandem with nuclear talks. The United States should encourage Saudi Arabia and other regional actors to turn the Baghdad forum into a platform for negotiations on regional security.

The process could be led by the United Nations, which—in accordance with Resolution 598 from 1987, which helped conclude the Iran-Iraq War—has the mandate to lead resolutions regarding Middle East regional security issues. That resolution was approved with broad international support, including from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other interested Middle East actors.

The United States should support that process, and once there is sufficient progress, it can join it. A U.N.-led process is more likely to make progress on regional security issues than JCPOA talks—and by tackling regional issues in a separate forum, the United States will remove a major obstacle to nuclear talks.

Vali Nasr is the Majid Khadduri professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He served in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011 and is the author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.
 Twitter: @vali_nasr

Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security and a former Iranian diplomat.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.