The ambition of “Iran in-between us” is to capture the unravelling of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a transformative moment in international relations. Rather than advancing a thesis – for or against engaging in a transactional relationship with Iran to limit the country’s nuclear ambitions – the objective was to view the unfolding events from multiple perspectives, capturing the spectrum of opinion. In doing so, this project contributes less to our collective understanding of Iran and focuses instead on the failure of the Transatlantic Partners – US, UK, EU – to consolidate a single position, acting as a collective security actor or “community.”
Washington cannot be counted upon as a security provider
The volume sets the stage for a deeper understanding of unfolding events. A US strike against the Iran-backed militias in Iraq in June 2021 suggested a policy of deterrence, while President Biden made clear that Iran would not be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb “on his watch.” This strike and Biden’s rhetorical assurances extended to the newly formed Yair Lapid – Naftali Bennet government of Israel offering assurances of the enduring special US-Israeli relationship, further suggesting that Washington will not invest in a transformational agenda in the region. The successors to Benjamin Netanyahu were quick to underscore that Israel’s opposition to JCPOA is as relentless as it has ever been. Ilan Berman (Chapter 2) was among those who have made the case in Washington that maximum pressure was largely an effective policy that entailed a tremendous economic cost for Iran, undermining the regime’s legitimacy and ability to project power.
That line of argument remains popular among Republicans and less appealing among Democrats. But that does not mean Biden will expend precious political capital to restore the status quo. For the State Department, the JCPOA is a nonbinding political agreement, as a treaty would require a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate that the Biden Administration cannot push through. Therefore, Washington cannot be a credible stakeholder neither vis-à-vis Tehran nor Brussels. Although the stated objective of the Biden Administration is the restoration of JCPOA, he is not politically able to deliver as it is not clear that he could even rally all the Democratic votes on the Hill. Senior Democrats such as Jack Schumer, Bob Menendez, and Lois Frankel have criticised the JCPOA on the grounds that it did not address Iran’s ballistic program or hinder its capacity to pursue a nuclear program in the future. As people with knowledge on how intelligence services operate (Chapter 3: London, Behravesh), hard line positions are mutually constituting: each side seeks to limit the choices of the other.
No mistake should be made: Iran’s President elect, Ebrahim Raisi, may be open to negotiating the restoration of the agreement as that would yield economic returns. A revived JCPOA would be an economic boon and a political boost for the conservatives, delivering where the reformists failed. That is significant. Raisi is well aware that he came to power because disillusioned reformist stayed at home on June 18, 2021: the 48% electoral turnout was a record low. But Raisi ruled out further discussions on Iran’s regional role and missiles. And in doing so he makes it difficult for Biden to carve a path towards the restoration of JCPOA. It is foreseeable that Tehran will articulate “maximum scepticism,” step back from the logic of step-by-step compliance, and work closer with Russia and China.
But it is not only Iran that finds it difficult to trust Washington. As explained by Clingendael’s Ervin van Veen (Chapter 1), the last time Europe took Washington’s political commitment at face value they faced a dramatic political U-turn at the cost of billions of dollars. Washington’s “maximum pressure” was turned towards its allies, through the credible threat of secondary sanctions, presenting a litmus test for the Alliance. That kicked off a process of reflection on strategic infrastructures which, coupled with Brexit, could insert a wedge between Transatlantic partners. One of the significant conclusions was that Washington’s ability to commit has little to do with the intentions of its President. The polarised American political system cannot be trusted to make long term strategic commitments. That realisation accelerates a passage from a multilateral “West” to plurinational arrangements within Europe that may in time undermine the historical umbrella of Euro-Atlantic security.
Britain falling through the cracks of the Euro-Atlantic partnership
In this context, Britain was caught in-between Europe and the United States. For more than two years, London reflected on the substance of the “Global Britain” brand, with then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson articulating a traditionally Conservative position that begins every foreign policy calculus with the primacy of the special relationship. But the substance of that special relationship is now very different.
For decades, the UK was seen as the Anglospheres’ liaison in the Continent, with London aspiring to put European mass behind British qualitative advantages: membership of the Five Eyes (FVEY) intelligence sharing framework, one of the five privileged seats at the UN Security Council, the nuclear deterrent, and global power projection capabilities. Within Europe, the UK favoured a vision of the EU as the Economic pillar of the Euro-Atlantic partnership, striving to dissuade and undermine any notion of European interest articulation that did not reference the Alliance. In Brussels, the UK articulated the interests of global trade, finance, and paradoxically made the case for further enlargement. Now the UK is a stakeholder but not a decision-maker in European political coordination.
The Iranian question was the first “either or” dilemma pressing London to pick a side between Brussels and Washington. The UK is a guarantor of the JCPOA and London did not officially fall in line with the “maximum pressure” doctrine. However, when it mattered, the UK’s loyalty was first and foremost with its American partners. On July 4, 2019, a detachment of 30 Royal Marines intercepted and seized an Iranian oil tanker, Grace I, off the coast of the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. The official position was that the intercepted Iranian vessel was boarded not because it was Iranian but because it was bound for Syria. The vessel itself was registered with a UAE company, as the Emirates have become instrumental in circumventing oil export sanctions as well as channeling assistance to Iranian proxies in the Middle East, according to the US Treasury. But that was only applied to an Iranian rather than a Russian vessel. For the first time, Iran did retaliate, moving to restore a transactional symmetry between London and Tehran, testing at once the resolve of Europe and Washington to stand by Britain (Sarris, Chapter 4).
While an actor like Britain can be caught between the cracks of the Euro-Atlantic partnership, other states need to slide through in an “open horizons” game that is increasingly more feasible. By withdrawing from the JCPOA, the Trump Administration moved away from a predictable rules-based international order towards a more transactional model of plurinational alliances, with greater scope for opportunism and unforeseen challenges. A volatile actor in this scheme is the United Arab Emirates.
The Emirates as a factor of volatility
The Israeli-UAE normalisation agreement in 2020 was condemned by Tehran as a stab in the back for Palestinians, while Iran has warned that it will hold the Emiratis responsible if there is an attack on Iranian soil via the Persian Gulf and pronounce the UAE a legitimate and target. Naturally, the Emiratis will not be an easy target.
A European-led maritime mission to monitor Gulf waters is stationed at the French naval base in Abu Dhabi, designed to deter attacks on oil tankers, allegedly by Iran. The mission liaises with the Anglo-American maritime coalition (Operation Sentinel) based in Bahrain but the two have not merged, partly because Europe does not want to be in the same frame with Washington after the demise of JCPOA. Needless to say, Tehran is not happy to have either an American or a French Naval base stationed in the region. But this is not a straightforwardly Iran versus the West issue anymore. As ship mining, drone shootdowns, and facility bombings attributed to Iran-backed militias have not always been met with tit-for-tat responses by Washington, the Emiratis are hedging their bets, building on multi-layered ties with Paris.
At the same time, the Emiratis cannot ignore geography. Dubai is home to more than 8,000 trading firms and 500,000 Iranian citizens that control hundreds of billions of dollars in assets. If Iran is under embargo on the insistence of Israel and on the basis of US enforcement, the UAE has been able to provide a window for Iran to international banking, shipping, oil markets, and financial transactions, made clear throughout this volume. The problem with this approach is that the UAE itself may become a legitimate ground for the proxy clash of Israeli and Iranian intelligence services and paramilitary groups. For instance, it has been reported that the Israelis avoided the Emirati biennial International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX, 2021) fearing that its delegates could be targeted by Iran. In March, Israel warned tourists to avoid the UAE fearing they would be targeted by Iran. At the same time, Israeli media reported a foiled attempt by Iran to attack the Emirati Embassy in Ethiopia. The Emirati policy of building military deterrence against Tehran while remaining financially instrumental to Tehran could backfire, providing both countries with legitimate targets. In this scheme, the UAE is the epicentre of a volatile region that will test an emerging system of alliances that has yet to be balanced.
As noted by Julian Richers, the central arguments in this volume are twofold. Firstly, the changing geopolitical dynamics have allowed Iran to turn the tables and play its own Great Game with the EU, the UK, and the US. Doubt and mistrust between the Western allies and the opportunism of emerging non-aligned actors, like the Emirates, create an unpredictable security landscape, where Iran will test the solidarity of Allies. In sum, “Iran in between us” can be read as a review of the Euro-Atlantic debate on JCPOA, the articulation of a profound Euro-Atlantic crisis, and as a review of the processes that are transforming “The West” as a community of collective defence, trade, political and economic cooperation. Regardless of how one perceives the arguments in this volume, the culminative effect is that the question of Iran has been catalytic in rethinking the Euro-Atlantic partnership as an independent variable in global diplomacy.
Click to Read Report “Iran In Between us” August 2021