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If you are not going to go to war, you might as well talk.
The result of the US election is keenly awaited in the UK. No other state’s election process is as closely observed, either for its significance to the economy, security and foreign policy objectives of the UK, or because of its display of elements of a democratic process which requires it to be watched with caution.
The election outcome is likely to be of profound importance to the UK in terms of the Iran file in general, and the nuclear element of it in particular. Notwithstanding the fact that the UK must continue with an independent approach to Iran, with which it has a long and decidedly mixed history, what path the US follows post-election will have an impact on both the UK’s individual stance, and on the security and stability of a region close to the UK and that is of historic and contemporary interest.
The UK would assume that a renewed Donald Trump mandate would see a continuation of the policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran. The UK should maintain its scepticism of this policy as the complete answer to the complex challenges which Iran presents to the region. The application of economic pressure to Iran was a factor in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but not the only one. The UK was right to have supported a policy which contained a bargain between restricting Iran’s potential nuclear capacity in return for enhanced economic benefit. The UK was right to oppose the US leaving this bargain, which undermined those in Iran who had advocated it at cost to themselves and their propositions for Iran’s future.
A second term for the Trump administration would however require Iran to recognise the reality of that maximum pressure policy, the most likely response being a ratcheting up of physical challenges in the area, all of which run the risk of miscalculation and escalation. The contrary, that the president would produce something completely different as a new bargain, is not beyond the realms of possibility, and could continue his foreign policy of occasional surprise, but there has been no evidence of this to date.
An Iran policy under Joe Biden’s administration, should it carry through its campaign pledge to seek to re-engage with the JCPOA, under particular terms, should be welcomed by the UK. It would reinforce the view of the UK that dealing with Iran is not straightforward, and that pressure on it needs to be combined with the possibility of movement in a direction that benefits Iran. The UK needs to stand firm on its position that understanding any state and its history and relationship with others does not entail justification or excuse of actions considered to be wrong and outside accepted norms. Such understanding, clear-eyed, and not to be misinterpreted, allows the chance to build up a relationship of mutual opportunity.
No Easy Work
A ‘return to the JCPOA’ is not a simple matter. Iran may well be persuaded to re-engage in the JCPOA, but there will be a price. The International Atomic Energy Agency judged that Iran had kept its side of the verification bargain at least at the time when the US decided to leave the agreement. This will not be forgotten by negotiators, nor can it be overlooked that other things have also moved on, and that R&D technical capability has improved for Iran in ways which cannot be erased.
The UK would also assume that a Biden administration appreciated that the previous policy of Barack Obama on the Middle East had its limitations. Any future agreement with Iran would not be solely related to the nuclear issues, but must tackle the concerns expressed by regional states over what they see as Iran’s threatening behaviour in other respects. These states will not accept, unlike as in the JCPOA, their role solely to be bystanders in any agreement, as they now expect serious consideration in its content. As they would be first in line should a conflict erupt, such considerations seem entirely reasonable.
These issues are complex and deep seated, going to the heart of regional disputes over political and religious hegemony and bitter memories of recent conflicts, expressed in conventional arms, missiles and proxy forces. Reaching agreement on these issues was not possible in 2015; that is unlikely to have changed, but it has become clearer that without consideration of these, future progress on de-escalation would be slow and uncertain.
After the US election, the UK will be correct to judge that nuclear proliferation in the region remains a risk that must be countered, and that an unravelling of the NPT would be a disastrous policy defeat. Returning Iran and the US to the JCPOA as a start of a process should be a goal. The UK should encourage the US to listen carefully to the region in handling Iran, and maintain that actions, of many kinds, to deter Iran’s influence in the affairs of nearby states are as important as those lined to the nuclear file. Economic pressure and other sanctions need not be relieved without a complementary response. But at the same time, attempts might be explored to ascertain if regional conferences and meetings could open some doors, perhaps based on common environmental threats. Confidence, currently low in relation to conflict areas, such as Yemen, might grow. There must be a point, and benefit, to Iran but also to its neighbours, for bargains and changes in policies.
The internal politics of Iran are not incidental, and an election in 2021 looms. The UK might have a role, as part of an E3 (which is likely to be enhanced post-Brexit rather than weakened, for fears of losing a vital partnership) and with regional allies. The aim would be to work with a US administration willing to have a greater understanding of Iran, without excusing it, to minimise risk and de-escalate tension. There has been much talk about such efforts, but too little action. The UK’s diplomatic reach could and should be deployed.
In the end, either states go to war if differences are unresolved, or they talk. The catastrophes of the region would be magnified by yet another conflict. Those, on all sides, who risk that should always know that there is another way.
Alistair Burt had a distinguished parliamentary career, culminating in serving as Minister of State at the Foreign Office in the governments of Prime Minister Theresa May. He is a RUSI Distinguished Fellow.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.