On 7 April, the House of Lords is due to consider the following question for short debate:

Lord Polak (Conservative) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure the United Kingdom and other signatories establish a second negotiating track on “regional issues” should all parties return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

1. The JCPOA: current state of the negotiations

In 2015, Iran, six negotiating nations—China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US—and the European Union announced they had reached an agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to limit the development of Iran’s nuclear programme. As part of the agreement, Iran suspended certain activities and allowed enhanced inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, United Nations (UN) Security Council sanctions and significant multilateral and national sanctions were lifted. The UN Security Council endorsed the JCPOA in Resolution 2231.

However, following allegations that Iran was failing to abide by the terms of the agreement, the former American President, Donald Trump, announced in 2018 that the United States would reimpose sanctions. This was followed in 2020, despite efforts by other parties to the agreement, by an announcement from Iran that it would no longer abide by its commitments under the JCPOA. (Though the statement fell short of a full withdrawal, as Iran confirmed it would continue its cooperation with the IAEA.)

Since that time, efforts to restart the process have continued, assisted by a recommitment to the process by the current US President, Joe Biden. According to recent media coverage, negotiations taking place in Vienna are reported to be in their final stages and various parties have expressed optimism that an agreement will soon be reached. Recent moves by the Iranian administration to release imprisoned dual Iranian-UK nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori (and the release of Morad Tahbaz on furlough) would also indicate such progress (though the two matters have not been explicitly linked).

The negotiation process has been complicated by the recent developments in Ukraine. Whilst the conflict has arguably added further impetus to the search for an agreement, Russia recently issued a demand that sanctions would not be imposed on any trade between Russia and Iran once an agreement was signed, prompting a pause to the negotiations. However, it was reported on 15 March 2022 that Moscow had now withdrawn this demand, partly in response to Iranian diplomatic efforts.

However, there have also been calls to widen the scope of the negotiations, or at least to seek further commitments, aimed at addressing Iran’s wider activities in the region, prompting significant pushback from the Iranian authorities.

2. Iran’s regional influence and role

Iran has complex relationships with a number of countries in the Middle East, and has long sought to exert influence on regional affairs through a variety of means. This includes supporting controversial regimes, such as the Assad Government in Syria, and providing backing for non-state actors, including militant groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, and Houthi rebels in Yemen. This has drawn fierce criticism from Western governments and other regional actors such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the International Crisis Group (ICG) suggests there is “almost no crisis in today’s Middle East that can be analysed without attention to Iran’s role in it”.

The ICG suggests that Iran’s strategy can be traced to several goals:

  • A strategy of “forward defence”, through which it takes on its regional opponents through proxy conflicts in other states (such as Lebanon and Iraq).
  • Protecting Shia Muslims in a region where most countries are governed by Sunni Muslim rulers.
  • To combat US and Western influence, and that of other powerful regional actors such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Many of these activities are long-standing, with Iranian support for Hezbollah, for example, dating back to the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s. Similarly, since the Iraq war in 2003 and the emergence of Islamic State/Daesh in the mid-2010s, Iran has financed and trained militia groups which now stand as a separate force to the Iraqi military. In Yemen, Iran has provided military support and training to the Houthis, who opposed the internationally recognised Hadi Government, and following the conflict that broke out in Syria in 2011, Iran has provided significant military and economic support to the Assad regime.

Since the intervention of the Trump administration in 2018, and its intention to exert ‘maximum pressure’ on the country, Iran has in turn reportedly pursued a strategy of ‘maximum resistance’. This has seen Iran reduce its compliance with the JCPOA whilst boosting economic ties to international actors such as Russia and China as well as regional neighbours. There are also fears that the impact of economic sanctions, as discussed below, has further emboldened hard-line elements like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

In recent years, there have been several flashpoints between Iran, other regional actors, and the United States. They include missile strikes against US and coalition bases in Iraq following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ overseas (Quds) force in 2020, and against a US base in Erbil in March 2022. There have also been attacks against shipping in the Gulf of Oman that the UK Government believes to be the work of the Quds force.

There have been some signs of a thawing of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who met for direct talks in 2021 which reportedly focused on the situation in Yemen. However, the UN has since reported that the participants in the conflict were “doubling down” on military options with the recent escalation “among the worst we have seen in Yemen for years”. Attempts in 2022 for further talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia also appear to have been unsuccessful, despite calls from the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, to look for “ways to coexist”.

Further, as noted by Chatham House scholars Dr Sanam Vakil and Dr Neil Quilliam, whilst regional actors view Iran’s interference in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq as deeply destabilising, many Arab states have failed to publicly acknowledge that Tehran is not alone in Middle Eastern states in engaging in disruptive activities. Nor, they observe, will removing the Iranian variable “miraculously resolve crises”.

3. Impact of economic sanctions

Economic sanctions against Iran have had some impact on its ability to pursue its regional strategies. The US State Department reports that Iran has spent as much as $700 million per year to support militant groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas. However, it also notes that its ability to do so has been significantly constrained in recent years due to the reimposition of a greater level of US sanctions. (Even between 2015 and 2018, Iran remained under some forms of sanction from the United States, including on direct US-Iran trade, and those sanctions levied for Iran’s support for regional armed factions, human rights abuses, and efforts to acquire missile and advanced conventional weapons technology.)

Iran also remains under sanctions imposed by the European Union, the UK, and the United Nations. The US Congressional Research Service provides a helpful overview of comparative measures.

In the UK, sanctions have been imposed on Iran under separate regimes in relation to attempts to deter the development of the Iranian nuclear programme and aimed at encouraging the government of Iran to comply with international human rights law and respect human rights.

However, alongside seeking to mitigate the impact of these measures through its maximum resistance strategy, Iran has continued to support militant groups and some analysts argue that sanctions have not dramatically changed its outlook or behaviour.

4. Opportunities for further dialogue and negotiation?

The 2015 JCPOA did not include measures on Iranian foreign policy. A number of actors, notably the Gulf states, have called for any new agreement to be widened to address their concerns over Iran’s support for proxy groups in the Middle East, threats to maritime traffic in the Persian/Arabian Gulf, and Iran’s ballistic missile program.

In 2020, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee examined what it called Iran’s “malign regional actions”. It also drew particular attention to Iran’s ballistic missiles programme, noting it had been omitted from the JCPOA, and concerns that Iran could use these technologies to aid the development of inter-continental ballistic missiles or “further expand its export of terrorism”. The committee also drew attention to Iran’s human rights record, saying that the “prime victims of the Iranian regime remained the Iranian people”.

The committee specifically examined the question of whether a more wide-ranging agreement than the JCPOA could be achieved which addressed Iran’s regional activities, finding that opinions of witnesses to the committee were divided:

Some cited concerns that Iran had already rejected such broad talks and instead told us that they favoured separate stand-alone agreements to successively address areas of concern and Ellie Geranmayeh [Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations] noted that a separate stand-alone framework might be better suited to addressing issues of regional security. […]

However, an approach seeking to construct separate agreements to respectively address themes such as human rights, regional security or nuclear proliferation was rejected by other witnesses. Behnam Ben Taleblu [Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies] argued that “sanctions are the primary tool the West has to be able to persuade Tehran to make reforms to its behaviour” and that failing to address the broad range of threats posed by Iran comprehensively risked “creating isolated tracks for talks where Tehran can impede or threaten progress on one based on how the other is going” and further noted that “failing to include [missile restrictions] in a comprehensive deal would by definition make that new accord not comprehensive”. Dr Sanam Vakil [Chatham House] agreed that a broader deal incorporating ballistic missiles was preferable, but that Iran would be unlikely to make concessions without similar restraints on neighbouring countries.

The committee also noted that witnesses were broadly in agreement that, at that time, no groundwork had been laid for a successor to the JCPOA which could address regional security issues alongside concerns over nuclear proliferation. It quoted Dr Vakil, who said that although she was in favour of a broader deal, “there have been no incentives offered to Iran to open the door to negotiations and no serious discussion on what would be offered to Iran for concessions”.

Whilst noting these challenges, in its own recommendations the committee said the UK Government’s long-term goal should be to replace the JCPOA with a broader agreement which additionally addressed regional security. It said this should draw upon dialogue and agreement with both regional allies and key partners such as the US.

In its response to the committee, the UK Government said “both Iran’s nuclear programme and its destabilising behaviour in the region need to be addressed”, and that, from a UK perspective, stronger restrictions on the development of ballistic missiles would have been a “desirable feature” of the 2015 agreement. However, it said that limiting Iran’s nuclear programme remained the Government’s priority.

Ministers maintained a similar line in response to a recent parliamentary question on the “implications for its policy on regional stability of the technical abilities and knowledge Iran has acquired during its progressive breaches of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”. In response, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office minister James Cleverly said:

Iran has been out of compliance with its Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) commitments since 2019. Iran’s nuclear programme is more advanced today than it has ever been and is undermining regional and international security. The deal on the table in Vienna talks would return Iran to full compliance with its JCPOA commitments. It would reverse Iran’s nuclear escalation, return its nuclear programme to strict JCPOA limits and restore extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The full implementation of the JCPOA could contribute positively to regional prosperity and security in the Middle East and beyond. We urge a conclusion of this deal.

Iran has vociferously opposed the idea of a wider agreement. In March 2022, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a statement which stressed that his country would not give up on elements of “national strength”, such the country’s wider military capabilities and links to armed groups abroad. The statement followed claims by Iran that the US had introduced “unacceptable proposals” into the talks.

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