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JCPOA: The Only Remaining Alternative

Rafael Mariano Grossi, IAEA Director-General, met with Dr. Ali Bagheri Kani, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, during his official visit at the Agency headquarters in Vienna, Austria. 2 December 2021. The Director-General is joined by two of his senior staff Mark Bassett, Special Assistant to the DG for Nuclear Safety and Security and Safeguards and Diego Candano Laris, Senior Advisor to the Director General.| Image credit: Dean Calma/IAEA

By Ali Ahmadi

After months of stalled negotiations aimed at reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, the Raisi administration agreed to resume the talks with world powers in Vienna. The first week of talks ended with a diplomatic stalemate, sending Western delegations to their capitals for further consultations. While the talks resumed last week, JCPOA signatory members, without the United States, continued the negotiations in a more combative environment. The elevation of the new conservative President Ebrahim Raisi and the delay in Iran’s return to negotiations had already led to a wave of pessimism from Western policy-makers and punditocracy.

The dominant narrative has been centered around a “ticking clock” to salvage the deal. In fact, it has now  become fashionable to be pessimistic about the prospects of the renewed nuclear talks. Yet, one must remember that the original JCPOA negotiations evoked deep and widespread fatalism at various points over its grueling two-year span. There was finally a breakthrough, at least in part, because of the propulsion provided by the political necessity that they succeed for national security reasons. The sides, simply put, lacked better options and faced a volatile future if they relented. The same situation exists here again. To quote Margaret Thatcher, there is no alternative. 

Iran’s Economy in the Shadow of Sanctions

With the defeat of Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign”, the Islamic Republic proved that it was neither on the verge of collapse nor desperate for any brief economic respite – a reality that Iranian negotiators seem keen to clarify during this round of talks. However, the Iranian leadership is also well-aware of the fact that the economy cannot sustainably develop with US sanctions in place, preventing long-term foreign investment and fruitful trade partnerships with most countries. In this vein, the Raisi government has mainly focused upon the Asianization of Iranian economic and diplomatic ties to defuse the long-standing issue of sanctions. As Raisi accelerates Iran’s economic interactions with China, he is also engaged in ongoing efforts to improve ties with regional countries, including Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Amid the United States withdrawal from its regional commitments and renewed diplomatic efforts to revive the JCPOA, the two regional powers have shown more flexibility in their dealings with Iran. Nonetheless, these new initiatives could be undermined if Iran fails to reach some truce with the West on the nuclear front.

Much has been made of the Sino-Iranian economic relationship in light of the 25-year strategic partnership signed between Tehran and Beijing earlier this year. But, as it stands today, this relationship is fairly one-dimensional with Iran exporting petroleum, for the most part, to China in exchange for inputs. The Chinese private sector and even many of its state-sponsored enterprises are not immune to US sanctions. The inability of Chinese financial institutions to invest in Belt and Road Initiative projects inside Iran is a key reason as to why the country currently has little involvement in this trans-continental mega project. It is important to underline that the 25-year agreement with China was also never supposed to be an alternative to the JCPOA nor a viable strategy to nullify sanctions. Instead, it was meant to be an add-on to it, given that it is unlikely to be implemented without certain steps including the reconstitution of JCPOA-related sanctions relief, according to former Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Furthermore, the process of improving ties with Persian Gulf countries will certainly be complicated by the continuation of the status quo. After all, the countries in question are US military partners and the last few years of US-Iran tensions have involved a parallel kinetic track of escalation in the region. These tensions seem to have leveled over the last year due to the prospect of reviving the agreement. If these regional tensions were to restart, they could threaten the new more positive dynamic between Iran and its neighbors in the Persian Gulf region.

An imperfect reconstitution of the Iran deal would still improve Iran’s current economic conditions and strengthen the country’s capacity to manage future uncertainties—provided that it results in real economic opportunities. There is a set of long discussed policies such as monetary and subsidy reforms that could greatly improve both the productivity and resilience of the Iranian economy. Yet, these reforms are nearly impossible to implement with US sanctions in place. Thus, it is completely understandable for Iran to insist on some form of guarantee for sanctions relief, providing  a meaningful level of economic benefits for the country. In order to revive the deal, however, Tehran should be flexible on the outstanding technical issues pertaining to its nuclear compliance.

No Realistic Plan B 

The Americans, on the other hand, need to acknowledge the myriad of reasons, articulated by many currently in the administration, that the maximum pressure campaign was a disaster for US national interests. Even the policy’s most fawning cheerleaders are now left to defend it as a failure but “not necessarily an open-and-shut case of foreign policy malpractice.” Therefore, there is no remotely compelling reason to return to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign and rebrand it with another name like the “Plan B” and expect for it to yield different results.

The Trump administration has already fired every bullet in the sanctions chamber. Unlike the Obama administration’s gradualist approach, Trump’s strategy, molded by Pompeo and Bolton, favored piling on as many sanctions as possible to create a shock effect and crush the Iranian economy. But, it overplayed its hands with sanctions to the level that it almost lost its effectiveness in bringing about a desired change of behavior. Robert O’Brien, Trump’s National Security Advisor later explained that “one of the problems we have with both Iran and Russia is that we have so many sanctions on those countries right now that there’s very little left for us to do.”

Many hawks in Democratic circles seem to believe that Biden reclaiming the support of European allies would mean more pressure is now possible. The real problem is that Europe, unlike two decades ago,  is no longer a powerful force capable of  inflicting heavy costs on Iran for non-obedience. The continuation of US secondary sanctions perished Iran-EU economic relationship over the years, pushing Iran to rely more on China and Russia for trade and investments. In fact, US officials have been rather transparent about the fact that their only remaining option to exert real pressure on Iran is to seek cooperation from the Chinese. 

During the Obama administration, Beijing was  more cooperative and inclined to bandwagon with Washington on the Iran nuclear issue. Today, China understands that there has been a structural shift in US policy and that something resembling a Cold War is on the horizon. This put the notion of seeding to Washington’s ambitions in Asia in a very different political context, especially as it would free up more American resources to be shifted and invested towards the Eastern side of the continent.

Both Obama’s ‘‘Pivot to Asia’’ policy and Trump’s early plans for a shift to “near-peer competition” were largely derailed by their focus on the Middle East – and especially Iran. A senior Obama administration national security official once acknowledged that even after the administration had made the decision to focus on China, “about eighty percent of our main meetings at the National Security Council have focused on the Middle East.” 

Lastly, the United States has, over the last two decades, justified its Iran policy on the need to tackle regional instability. While several countries in the region initially opposed the JCPOA, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries now support its revival. A new round of regional escalation is likely to sink the tenuous new detente between Tehran and Riyadh, which is the greatest hope for long-term stability across the Middle East. This indicates that the success of the Vienna dialogue is not only vital for Tehran and Washington, but also critical for regional peace and stability in the post-US withdrawal era.

In recent days, there have been early indications that all sides are already proceeding in a more productive manner. In particular, it seems like Tehran and Washington are trying to look past each other to other opportunities and priorities. Regardless, without reaching some limited modus vivendi, a breakthrough is simply not feasible. With no other viable alternatives, all the negotiating teams and the governing elites in their respective capitals must also consider unattractive policy avenues to save the hobbled nuclear agreement and avoid prolonging this international crisis. 

Ali Ahmadi is a researcher of geoeconomics and geopolitics focusing on U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East and sanctions. His work has been published by The Diplomat, The National Interest, Palladium Magazine, and others. Follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor