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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

Michel Duclos

Special Advisor — Geopolitics, Former Ambassador, Institut Montaigne

The predominant view in the West in general and in France in particular is that Iran is more part of the problem than it is part of the solution. Of course, Iran’s friends and partners, including Russia, argue the opposite. All these disagreements notwithstanding, the broad international consensus is that it is impossible to kick Iran out of the Middle Eastern map, and that some modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic is indispensable.

Four years ago, a protracted and very difficult multilateral negotiating process resulted in the signing of a nuclear agreement with Tehran. Many countries hoped that the success of the JCPOA would mark a turning point in Iran’s relations with the outside world, including with its neighbors in the Middle East. Optimists believed that the JCPOA was just the first step leading towards the integration of Iran as a legitimate and responsible player into the regional security system. It was also supposed to open the country to international trade, investments, and cultural and humanitarian contacts.

Unfortunately, these hopes never materialized. In fact, the very opposite happened. First, while the Iranians did strictly respect their obligations set by the JCPOA, they did nothing to soften their regional policies. Instead, they invested more energy and more money to support their proxies in Syria and elsewhere. Second, the Trump Administration emphatically rejected the Iranian policies of its predecessors and replaced the latter’s rapprochement approach with increased military, diplomatic and economic pressure on the Islamic Republic. The White House walked out of the JCPOA, introduced new and tough sanctions against Tehran, and started energetically building a broad anti-Iran coalition in the region.

The overall stability in the region is eroding; mutual suspicion, as well as inflammatory and belligerent rhetoric, are growing. The prospect of a large war between Iran and some of the US allies in the Middle East — or even of a direct clash between the US and Iran — has become more plausible than it ever has been before in the 21st century.

Today, Iran is standing at the crossroads with regards to its role in the region. It can become the spoiler of the Middle East, undermining the security of its adversaries, promoting religious and ethnic conflicts, sabotaging de-escalation efforts and exploiting crises in the Arab world, which will likely proliferate. Alternatively, it can evolve into a stakeholder that works with its neighbors on common security challenges, that searches for balanced solutions to complex regional conflicts, and that avoids making moves able to increase risks of an unintended escalation.

It is up to Tehran to make this choice, but the latter will partially depend on the carrot and stick approach of non-regional great powers. Since the US under Donald Trump seems to only have sticks at its disposal, it is up to Europe, Russia and China to deal with the deficit of carrots - albeit without being complacent towards Iranian policies.

Three sets of positive incentives could be appealing to the Iranian leadership, and all would benefit from a higher degree of coordination between Europe and Russia.

First, Europe and Russia need to do whatever it takes to save the JCPOA despite the US withdrawal. the Russians and the Europeans should work together and offer both Iran and The US some space for political maneuver, building upon repeated declarations by the Iranian leaders that they do not want to leave the JCPOA and no less frequently repeated declarations by president Trump that he is ready to discuss around a table with Iranian leaders.

Second, Europe and Russia should try to overcome their differing viewpoints on the Iranian military presence, and more general engagement, in Syria. Moscow — with the support of Europe — could incentivize Iranians to limit their presence in the country, as it did in south-western Syria. At the same time, the option of giving Iran a seat at the negotiating table on the political settlement in Syria should be considered.

The third set of incentives is the most challenging and ambitious one. It focuses on carving an appropriate role for Iran in the future Middle Eastern security architecture. Iran, if kept in, can become a stakeholder. If it is left out, Iran might more easily be tempted to become a spoiler in the region.


Iran’s critical role in shaping the security agenda of the Middle East is indisputable. No matter what we discuss — the Syrian settlement, state-building in Iraq, civil war in Yemen or political dynamics in Lebanon —, Iran remains the big elephant in the room. Its impact on the region is profound, multifaceted and controversial. The predominant view in the West in general and in France in particular is that Iran is more part of the problem than it is part of the solution. Of course, Iran’s friends and partners, including Russia, argue the opposite. All these disagreements notwithstanding, the broad international consensus is that it is impossible to kick Iran out of the Middle Eastern map, and that some modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic is indispensable.

Four years ago, a protracted and very difficult multilateral negotiating process resulted in the signing of a nuclear agreement with Tehran. Many countries hoped that the success of the JCPOA would mark a turning point in Iran’s relations with the outside world, including with its neighbors in the Middle East. Optimists believed that the JCPOA was just the first step leading towards the integration of Iran as a legitimate and responsible player into the regional security system. It was also supposed to open the country to international trade, investments, and cultural and humanitarian contacts.

Unfortunately, these hopes never materialized. In fact, the very opposite happened. First, while the Iranians did strictly respect their obligations set by the JCPOA, they did nothing to soften their regional policies. Instead, they invested more energy and more money to support their proxies in Syria and elsewhere. Second, the Trump Administration emphatically rejected the Iranian policies of its predecessors and replaced the latter’s rapprochement approach with increased military, diplomatic and economic pressure on the Islamic Republic. The White House walked out of the JCPOA, introduced new and tough sanctions against Tehran, and started energetically building a broad anti-Iran coalition in the region.

As might be expected, this dramatic change in US policy is profoundly impacting the balance of political powers within Iran — reformers and pragmatics are losing more and more ground to conservatives and ideologists. The overall stability in the region is eroding; mutual suspicion, as well as inflammatory and belligerent rhetoric, are growing. The prospect of a large war between Iran and some of the US allies in the Middle East — or even of a direct clash between the US and Iran — has become more plausible than it ever has been before in the 21st century.

Today, Iran is standing at the crossroads with regards to its role in the region. It can become the spoiler of the Middle East, undermining the security of its adversaries, promoting religious and ethnic conflicts, sabotaging de-escalation efforts and exploiting crises in the Arab world, which will likely proliferate. Alternatively, it can evolve into a stakeholder that works with its neighbors on common security challenges, that searches for balanced solutions to complex regional conflicts, and that avoids making moves able to increase risks of an unintended escalation.

It is up to Tehran to make this choice, but the latter will partially depend on the carrot and stick approach of non-regional great powers. Since the US under Donald Trump seems to only have sticks at its disposal, it is up to Europe, Russia and China to deal with the deficit of carrots - albeit without being complacent towards Iranian policies.

Three sets of positive incentives could be appealing to the Iranian leadership, and all would benefit from a higher degree of coordination between Europe and Russia. All also come at a certain political cost, given that none is immune to criticism and resistance from numerous opponents, including those sitting in the White House today. Moreover, even if implemented, none of these incentives fully guarantee that the Iranian leadership will make all the right decisions. However, they do significantly increase the chances of a positive outcome.

First, Europe and Russia need to do whatever it takes to save the JCPOA despite the US withdrawal. Initially, the Iranian leadership primarily perceived the agreement as a catalyst for unlocking economic, technological and political cooperation with the United States. Since Iran has not achieved this goal, the domestic pressure on the JCPOA is intensifying. The decisions that has been announced by president Rouhani on May 8 — halting Iran’s compliance to some elements of the nuclear deal and threatening to go further into that direction after 60 days if some conditions are not met by the other signatories- are a clear signal that the fate of the JCPOA is now at stake. Moreover, Iranians are beginning to question the country’s adherence to the NPT, and the hardliners in Tehran are positioning their military assets in the region so as to face (or to provoke) the possibility of a major showdown, at least with Israel. The alleged increased transfers of rockets to regional proxies is a sign of this worrisome trend.

Russia and the main European powers do not see completely eye to eye on these issues. Moscow is less adamant about the Iranian ballistic program, less prone to condemn so-called “destabilizing” activities in the region and is in any case not prepared to establish any causal effect between these matters and the implementation of the JCPOA. However, Russia and Europe do share some obvious common interests. Indeed, both want to avoid the non-proliferation crises that would ensue, were Tehran to decide to distance itself from the constraints of the JCPOA or the NPT, and both want to make sure that the risk of escalation in the region does not materialize.

In the wake of Iran’s May 8 decisions, there are more reasons than ever for Russian and Europe to work together and try to save the JCPOA. The Europeans have made a major effort by establishing a special vehicle — called INSTEX — to facilitate trade with Iran. However, the Iranians deem that this effort fell short from their expectations and their new stance on the JCPOA is openly designed to put pressure on Europe. The temptation exists in Moscow also to blame the Europeans for not doing enough. Those are short-sighted views. In fact, Russia and China could also do more, for instance in implementing their part of the civilian nuclear cooperation covered by the nuclear agreement.

More generally, time has come to establish a better coordination between Russia, China and the main European partners both to put in place practical measures related to trade with Iran and also to devise a political strategy towards Iran and — as a matter of fact — the United-States. Russia and Europe are more specifically better positioned to send coordinated messages to Tehran and to Washington and urge both parties to stop escalating. Ideally, the Russians and the Europeans should work together and offer both Iran and The US some space for political maneuver, building upon repeated declarations by the Iranian leaders that they do not want to leave the JCPOA and no less frequently repeated declarations by president Trump that he is ready to discuss around a table with Iranian leaders.

Second, Europe and Russia should try to overcome their differing viewpoints on the Iranian military presence, and more general engagement, in Syria. Perhaps a practical way forward could consist of distinguishing the long-term perspective from the short-term challenges. Regarding the long term, it’s not too early for Russia and Europe to start discussing foreign military presences in Syria after the endgame. No doubt that the Syrians themselves will be the ones making the final decision on this matter. However, many Syrians with different political beliefs have made it clear that they reject the establishment of foreign troops in their country after the war, with the notable exception of Russian bases. At some point, it may be appropriate for great powers to agree on a roadmap allowing for the realization of this Syrian aspiration, including a request to Tehran to withdraw all Iran-led militias and Iranian military forces.

In the short term, Iran cannot be pushed out of Syria simply because great powers wish to do so. However, Moscow — with the support of Europe — could incentivize Iranians to limit their presence in the country, as it did in south-western Syria. In particular, Iran could commit to not using Syria as a launching pad for operations against neighboring countries, or as a training center for radical paramilitary groups. At the same time, the option of giving Iran a seat at the negotiating table on the political settlement in Syria should be considered. Such ‘rules of conduct’ would not only apply to Iranian military and paramilitary forces, but also to all other foreign troops currently stationed in Syria.

The third set of incentives is the most challenging and ambitious one. It focuses on carving an appropriate role for Iran in the future Middle Eastern security architecture. Many, both within and without the region, argue that any reliable security system in the Middle East should be built against Iran, rather than with Iran. They claim that the Islamic Republic does not belong to the region, that it needs to be forced out of the Middle East, and that its military should similarly be ejected from Syria. This position, in our view, is misleading and dangerous. Even if we put aside the millennia of Iranian presence in neighboring Arab states, we should recognize that it is in everybody’s interests to keep Iranians in, rather than out. The logic is simple: Iran, if kept in, can become a stakeholder. If it is left out, Iran might more easily be tempted to become a spoiler in the region.

An inclusive and collective security system for the Middle East that welcomes Iran (as well as other non-Arab states of the region) is still a long way off. Nevertheless, a shared European and Russian vision of such a system would already be an important first step, and a powerful signal to Tehran, as well as to its current opponents in the region. It would also show that the current confrontation between the US and Iran is not the only future available to the Middle East.

To complement this long-term vision, Europe and Russia could come up with a list of specific proposals on incremental, modest yet practical measures to build up trust between Iran and its Middle Eastern neighbors. For instance, it might be worth considering the implementation of a regional dialogue on military doctrines, regular meetings of defense ministers, “hotlines” between national defense departments, advance notice with regards to military exercises and flights, the invitation of observers to such exercises, the sharing of information regarding acquisitions of sophisticated weapons, and so on.

First published in the Institute Montaigne website.

(votes: 4, rating: 5)
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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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