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Balancing on the Nuclear Edge

Pathways to Manage Iran at the Nuclear Threshold and Prevent Proliferation in the Middle East

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This commentary is published as part of IPD’s project and policy paper series, The Middle East in a Multipolar World.


Iran’s advancing nuclear program poses a growing proliferation risk, but restoring the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is no longer a viable policy option. While the U.S. intelligence community assesses that Tehran is not undertaking key nuclear weaponization-related activities, the country is closer to a nuclear weapon than at any point in its history.1Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” February 6, 2023. This threshold status, combined with rising regional tensions, increases the risk of conflict erupting over Iran’s nuclear ambitions or Tehran determining that nuclear weapons are necessary for state security and making the political decision to pursue the bomb.  

While a new comprehensive nuclear agreement stands the best chance of rolling back Iran’s nuclear program and preventing proliferation in the long term, it is unlikely that negotiations will begin in earnest until after the U.S. election in November 2024. Even if talks were to resume before that, the trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program would require Tehran to modify its nuclear activities to create an environment conducive to those negotiations. 

This paper examines the steps that the United States and its partners should pursue to stabilize the current nuclear situation over the coming year and incentivize Iran to roll back some of its most proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities. It argues that de-escalatory measures would reduce the risk of kinetic action against Iran’s nuclear program and the likelihood of proliferation.

The Post JCPOA-Diplomatic Vacuum

The 2015 nuclear deal negotiated between Iran and six countries known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) proved to be an effective, verifiable agreement that traded stringent nuclear restrictions and monitoring for sanctions relief. Despite the success of the accord and Iran’s implementation of the nuclear requirements, then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and reimposed sanctions on Iran in May 2018. A year later Iran began breaching the JCPOA’s limits and has expanded its nuclear program significantly beyond the capacity of the pre-JCPOA program.

President Joe Biden pledged to return the United States to compliance with the accord alongside Iran2Joe Biden, “There’s a smarter way to be tough on Iran,” CNN, September. 13, 2020. and came close to reaching an agreement with Tehran in August 2022 to revive the nuclear deal. However, an unrealistic eleventh-hour demand by Iran killed that agreement and cast doubt on Tehran’s intentions to return to the JCPOA.3“Is Restoring the Iran Nuclear Deal Still Possible?” Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N 87, Tehran/Washington/Brussels. September 12, 2022.

Since then, the political space for U.S.-Iranian negotiations has narrowed significantly. The United States and its European partners are under pressure to refrain from reaching any deal with the current Iranian government after its brutal crackdown on domestic protesters and Tehran’s long-running support for Hamas. As a result of this pressure, the Biden administration is cautious about any further engagement with Iran ahead of the November 2024 presidential election.

Iran’s nuclear advances since talks broke down in August 2022 continued to erode the nonproliferation value of the JCPOA. As Iran masters new nuclear capabilities, the knowledge gained cannot be reversed, negatively affecting the strength of the nuclear restrictions.

Furthermore, Iran’s nuclear advances since talks broke down in August 2022 continued to erode the nonproliferation value of the JCPOA. As Iran masters new nuclear capabilities, the knowledge gained cannot be reversed, negatively affecting the strength of the nuclear restrictions.4Kelsey Davenport, “Explainer: Iran’s Nuclear Progress.” Iran Primer, (United States Institute for Peace. November 22, 2021.)’s-nuclear-progress As a result, restoring the JCPOA is no longer viable from a technical or political standpoint.

Iran’s actions since August 2022 suggest that while Tehran continues to rhetorically support a return to the JCPOA, opposition to restoring the nuclear deal is solidifying. Comments in December 2023 from Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian that the JCPOA is “becoming useless” are indicative of that shift.5“Iran Says Reviving Nuclear Deal ‘Useless,’” Agence France-Presse. December 9, 2023. However, there does appear to be more openness to de-escalatory steps to stabilize the current situation, as compared to 2021 when Iran rejected interim measures. For instance, Iran temporarily slowed down higher-level enrichment in the second half of 2023 and allowed the installation of enrichment monitoring devices in May 2023, suggesting Tehran may be willing to take further steps to reduce nuclear risk.

An Unsustainable Status Quo

While the JCPOA is off the table, U.S. and Iranian strategies appear to be focused on building leverage while trying to control escalation and avoid triggering a wider conflict. That approach, however, is not sustainable given the trajectory of Iran’s nuclear program and heightened regional tensions.

As of late 2023, Iran can produce enough weapons-grade nuclear material for one bomb in about a week and enough for five bombs in about three weeks.6Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin, “Iran’s Nuclear Timetable: The Weapon Potential,” Iran Watch, Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, December 22, 2023. While the timeframe for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade material for one bomb will likely remain constant, the time to multiple weapons will drop further if Iran continues to stockpile highly-enriched uranium and install more efficient centrifuges. As the window to multiple bombs worth of weapons-grade fissile material shortens, the proliferation threat increases.

It is highly unlikely that Iran will risk breaking out to build just one bomb, but when it can produce enough material for several weapons before the international community can react, there is a greater chance Tehran will make the political decision to build nuclear weapons. Weaponization would take additional time—anywhere from six months to one year—but that process would take place at covert facilities and be more difficult to detect and disrupt when compared to the production of fissile material, which takes place at known sites.7Paul Kerr, “Iran and Nuclear Weapons Production,” Congressional Research Service, Updated November 27, 2023.

Additionally, Iran severely curtailed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections in February 2021, including suspending a more intrusive monitoring arrangement that gave inspectors access to facilities that support the country’s nuclear program but do not contain nuclear materials, such as centrifuge production workshops.8Kelsey Davenport and Julia Masterson, “Explainer: Problems for IAEA Monitoring in Iran” Iran Primer, (United States Institute for Peace. January 11, 2023.) As a result, there is an increased risk that Tehran could divert these materials without detection.

The monitoring gap creates longer-term challenges as well. IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi assesses that the agency lost its continuity of knowledge regarding Iran’s nuclear activities due to the reduced access to information and facilities.9“Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015),” Report of by the Director General, (International Atomic Energy Agency. Vienna. November. 15. 2023.) Even with Iranian assistance, it will be challenging for the agency to reconstruct credible baselines for certain materials, such as centrifuges. Without reliable baselines, it will be more challenging, if not impossible, to verify certain limits that may be included in any future nuclear agreement.

There is a greater risk that the United States, or more likely Israel, miscalculates Iran’s intentions or Iran misjudges the space it has to expand its program and crosses a redline.

Iran’s nuclear advances coupled with limited IAEA monitoring increase risk in several key areas. First, there is a greater risk that the United States, or more likely Israel, miscalculates Iran’s intentions or Iran misjudges the space it has to expand its program and crosses a redline. Either scenario increases the risk of kinetic action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. While any large-scale attack on Iran’s nuclear sites may roll back the country’s nuclear program in the short term, military action is more likely to push Tehran to ratchet up its nuclear activities, or more seriously, to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and/or openly pursue nuclear weapons to prevent further attacks. Tehran already threatened to withdraw from that treaty if the European parties to the JCPOA attempt to reimpose UN sanctions modified by the nuclear deal under a special ‘snapback’ provision in Resolution 2231 (the United States cannot exercise this option given that it withdrew from the JCPOA).10“U.S. says Iran sanctions back on, but the world is ignoring Washington,” Associated Press, September 21, 2020. The snapback cannot be vetoed.

Perhaps more likely, Iran may judge that it can maintain the leverage of being a threshold state while further insulating its economy from the effects of sanctions. Under this scenario, an Iranian nuclear weapon remains an existential threat and the pressure on Tehran to negotiate diminishes.

Allowing Iran to remain on the threshold of nuclear weapons also has implications for the broader nonproliferation regime and regional stability. The perception of a long-term latent nuclear threat could push Iran’s regional adversaries to match its nuclear weapons capability. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has threatened to build a nuclear weapon if Iran goes down that path.11Peter Aitekn, “Bret Baier interviews Saudi Prince: Israel peace, 9/11 ties, Iran nuke fears: ‘Cannot see another Hiroshima,’” Fox News, September 20, 2023. More broadly, a failure to return Iran to compliance with legal obligations under the NPT would weaken nonproliferation norms at a time when the treaty is under significant stress. Thus, the risks of remaining on the current trajectory underscore the critical importance of a new diplomatic strategy for engaging with Iran.

The Limits of the U.S. Approach

The Biden administration is committed to the long-standing U.S. policy goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. However, it currently appears focused on de-escalating nuclear tensions without directly engaging Iran and building leverage for future talks. This approach is often described as “no deal, no crisis.”

For the United States, alongside other European and NATO countries, this strategy includes ratcheting up coercive measures and attempting to isolate Iran diplomatically and economically, primarily by building up support for sanctions. Another component of the U.S. strategy includes deterring Iran from making the decision to build nuclear weapons, including through signalling a credible military threat if Iran attempts to pursue nuclear weapons.

While the United States appears open to de-escalation with Iran to reduce nuclear risk, the Biden administration has not clearly articulated its longer-term diplomatic goals to prevent proliferation now that restoring the JCPOA is off the table.

Generally, the United States pairs coercive pressure with a diplomatic offramp, which demonstrates to would-be proliferators that there is a viable path to lifting punitive measures and ending diplomatic isolation. While the United States appears open to de-escalation with Iran to reduce nuclear risk, the Biden administration has not clearly articulated its longer-term diplomatic goals to prevent proliferation now that restoring the JCPOA is off the table.

In the current environment, however, this strategy of building leverage while controlling escalation is unlikely to be effective and risks backfiring. First, Washington is facing new challenges in building international support for pressuring and isolating Iran. The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA while Iran was complying with its obligations contributed to a larger sanctions fatigue and made sanctions relief appear a less credible incentive. Furthermore, the geopolitical rift between NATO and Russia has driven Tehran and Moscow to strengthen their relationship.12Ellie Geranmayeh and Nicole Grajewski, “Alone together: How the war in Ukraine shapes the Russian-Iranian relationship,” Policy Brief, (London: European Council on Foreign Relations.  September 6, 2023.) As a result, it is more challenging to build and sustain pressure on Iran than in the past. Waning pressure disincentivizes Iran from seeking a deal that provides it with sanctions relief, particularly when there are legitimate concerns about the credibility of that relief.

Second, while the United States has dismissed the JCPOA as a viable diplomatic option, the Biden administration has yet to articulate its new diplomatic approach to addressing the growing nuclear crisis and demonstrate how that approach will benefit Iran.

As a result, there is a real risk that the current U.S. strategy will not bring sufficient pressure or provide necessary incentives for Iran to engage in negotiations. Furthermore, without engagement, there is a greater risk that spoilers, heightened regional tensions, or a nuclear miscalculation trigger a conflict. 

An Alternative Option: De-escalatory Actions

Given the risks posed by maintaining the status quo and the challenges the United States faces in its current strategy, the Biden administration must consider alternative diplomatic approaches to stabilize the nuclear crisis and create time and space for future talks.

A lack of political will and the electoral calendar suggest that negotiating even an interim deal is unlikely. However, the United States and Iran could consider reciprocal steps that prevent further escalation and reduce the risk of conflict. A series of de-escalatory actions is insufficient in the long-term to address the proliferation risk posed by Iran’s nuclear program, but it would stabilize the current crisis and buy time until a window for more comprehensive talks opens, perhaps after the U.S. election. Even if it is possible to resume talks on a new agreement before that point, Iran’s threshold status and regional tensions increase the risk of spoilers or miscalculation. Limited de-escalatory steps would reduce those risks and build confidence that both sides are approaching negotiations in good faith.

Reciprocal actions from the United States and its partners that provide tangible benefits to Iran also help restore U.S. credibility, which will be necessary for negotiating a long-term deal.

Furthermore, there are indications that both Washington and Tehran may be open to such a process. In the second half of 2023, Iran reduced its production of uranium enriched to 60 percent.13Iran produced approximately 9 kg of uranium enriched to 60 percent per month from January-June 2023. In June 2023, Iran reduced its monthly production of uranium enriched to 60 percent to about 3 kilograms. In late November 2023, Iran resumed producing approximately 9 kilograms 60 percent enriched uranium per month.   “Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015).” Report by the Director General. (International Atomic Energy Agency. Vienna. Nov. 15. 2023.); “Verification and monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in light of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231 (2015).” Report by the Director General.  (International Atomic Energy Agency. Vienna. December 26, 2023.) While Iran reversed the slowdown in November 2023, the willingness to reduce 60 percent production sends a political signal that Iran may be open to decelerating aspects of its nuclear program. Iran and the United States also implemented a prisoner swap in September 2023 that included transferring $6 billion of Iran’s frozen assets from South Korea to Qatar, where Tehran can use the funds to pay vendors for humanitarian goods exempt from U.S. sanctions. While a rise in clashes between U.S. forces and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria in late 2023 and Iran’s support for Hamas makes Washington’s engagement with Tehran more difficult, the swap and Iran’s limited nuclear steps indicate there may be an opening for incentivizing Iran to reduce near-term proliferation risk and a model for providing tangible benefits to Tehran. Furthermore, reciprocal actions from the United States and its partners that provide tangible benefits to Iran also help restore U.S. credibility, which will be necessary for negotiating a long-term deal.

In addition to de-escalatory steps, the United States and its partners must build international support to pressure Iran into meeting its legally required safeguards obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and refrain from actions likely to ignite a crisis, such as withdrawing from the NPT or breaking out to produce nuclear weapons. That pressure will help demonstrate to Iran that there is strong international support for nonproliferation norms and that Tehran will face consequences for undermining the NPT.

A Path Forward

To achieve these goals, the United States and its partners should consider the following policy recommendations.


The United States should offer access to additional frozen assets for humanitarian transactions and perhaps waivers for limited oil sales in exchange for Iran enhancing IAEA monitoring. Enhanced monitoring measures should include giving the IAEA access to data recorded from facilities inspectors have not had access to since February 2021,14When Iran suspended its more intrusive monitoring agreement, known as the additional protocol, it allowed IAEA surveillance equipment to continue recording at facilities inspectors could no longer access. Iran turned off those cameras in June 2022, but retains the data. Some of the cameras were reconnected in the spring of 2023, but the IAEA has not had access to any of the data. restoring all remote surveillance at those locations and new facilities, and allowing the IAEA to conduct technical visits to those sites. The benefits of these actions are two-fold: first, enhanced transparency provides greater assurance that Iran is not diverting materials to a covert program.

Second, allowing the IAEA to begin recreating a record of Iran’s nuclear activities during the gaps in monitoring gives the agency a jump-start in creating new baseline inventories for materials such as centrifuges. These will be necessary to verify limits in a future deal.


The United States and its partners should offer Iran additional economic benefits, perhaps in the form of waivers allowing certain regional trade, in exchange for Iran taking steps to increase breakout and reduce proliferation risk. Specifically, Iran could agree to convert its most proliferation-sensitive stockpile of uranium (60 percent enriched) into a powder form and cap the amount of 60 percent material held in gas form (the form necessary for further enrichment).

Tehran views its stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent as a significant form of leverage. Conversion would allow Iran to retain the material in the country while ensuring that the material cannot be quickly enriched to weapons grade-levels (90 percent). Any move to convert the material back to gas form would be quickly detected by the IAEA. Furthermore, Iran could agree to refrain from installing additional advanced centrifuges, particularly IR-6 centrifuges planned for the Fordow uranium enrichment facility. Preventing expansion at this facility is particularly crucial because its deeply buried location makes it difficult, if not impossible, to strike using conventional military explosives.


The United States and its partners should prioritize diplomatic outreach to NPT member states, particularly those in the non-aligned movement, to underscore the damage Iran will do to the NPT if Tehran continues flouting its safeguards obligations or withdraws from the treaty. If Tehran feels pressure from coalitions it has aligned with in the past, that could help deter Iran from nuclear escalation and encourage compliance with the NPT.


While the geopolitical rift over Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and tensions between the United States and China make the P5+1 no longer a viable model for talks with Iran, it is still in the national security interests of all states to prevent proliferation and the erosion of the NPT. The United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom should look for shared redlines with China and Russia, such as increasing enrichment above 60 percent and withdrawing from the NPT, to send a message to Tehran that there would be a unified response if makes a further move toward nuclear weapons.


The United States should engage now with domestic and foreign companies to better understand the necessary steps and actions that would create an environment more conducive to facilitating trade and investment in Iran if sanctions were lifted in the future. Taking these steps now will help demonstrate to Tehran that there will be tangible benefits in a future agreement.


As states in the Middle East, most notably Saudi Arabia, look to develop civil nuclear programs, the United States and its NATO partners should push for the highest nonproliferation standards in any nuclear cooperation agreements, such as increased transparency and limits (or prohibitions) or activities that produce fissile materials (enrichment and reprocessing). These states should also incentivize cooperation on nuclear projects in the Middle East to increase transparency and provide greater assurances that these nuclear programs are peaceful. Preventing other states from matching Iran’s hedging capabilities increases the likelihood of a negotiated agreement that blocks Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons.


The Iranian nuclear crisis is not taking place in a vacuum. In addition to the real risk that Iran’s advancing nuclear program could trigger a conflict, there are broader implications for the nonproliferation regime. Saudi Arabia has ambitious plans to build up its nuclear program, including uranium enrichment, and its leaders have openly threatened to build nuclear weapons. Turkey operates a civil nuclear program and has similarly raised the prospects of a nuclear bomb. Further afield, the nonproliferation regime is under threat from Russian actions that undermine the nuclear order. If Iran maintains its status as a threshold state or, more concerningly, decides to develop nuclear weapons, it will destabilize the region and threaten the integrity of the NPT. It is critical that the United States and its partners act now to de-escalate nuclear tensions and lay the groundwork for future negotiations on a deal that resolves the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Written By:
Kelsey Davenport
Kelsey Davenport is the Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, where she focuses on the nuclear and missile programs in Iran and North Korea and on international efforts to prevent proliferation and nuclear terrorism.
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