With growing voices calling for a US “plan B” if Iran nuclear talks fail, the Washington-based Middle East Institute hosted a Zoom chat on Friday.
Norman Roule, adviser to the advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran and a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, and Mohammad Al-Sulamipresident of the International Institute of Iranian Studies based in Riyadh, both argued that the United States should tighten the implementation existing penalties.
Both claimed Iran was now selling 1.3 million barrels of oil a day, despite US ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions threatening to take punitive action against any third party buying Iranian crude or dealing with its central bank. .
With the death of the 2015 nuclear deal, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), according to Roule, Beijing was taking undue advantage of its political and military neutrality.
“China is part of the problem… Iran sells about 1.3 million barrels of oil a day and a lot of it goes to China,” Roule said. “The money that comes from these sales…finances the missile industry [in Iran] and funds the militia industry – not in its entirety, but it is part of the general budget that funds these two organizations. If a missile lands in Saudi Arabia, it is not unreasonable to think that Chinese money went into giving that missile to the Houthis [Ansar Allah, Yemenis].”
Sulami claimed that there was no support in the region to “return to the JCPOA as it is”, and pointed to recent public disagreement between visiting US President Joe Bidenwho says he is engaged in talks aimed at reviving the JCPOA, and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
While Sulami wanted existing sanctions enforced — presumably through US action against Chinese buyers — he ruled out further sanctions.
A different and integrated approach was needed, he argued. “For the United States, the nuclear issue is the priority. For Europe, the missile program [of Iran] this is important…these countries are within range of Iranian missiles. For the regional counties, both of these issues…need to be dealt with, but the threat that we live…is Iranian behavior in the region, proxies, militias, Houthis, Iraq, Syria and other places. This is the main immediate threat.
Iranian Command Headquarters during military exercises on October 12, 2021
Sulami conceded that in-depth talks with Iran on all of these issues could take two to three years. “Of course we support reaching an agreement…we want very good relations with Iran. The [Saudi] Heir prince [Mohammad bin Salman] said it more than once… Plan B should be to bring Iran back to the negotiating table with hope… it will be a win-win situation for everyone.
‘Enough is enough’
Sulami warned of a military confrontation. “Nobody supports this, especially the countries in the region – nobody wants more wars in the region – enough is enough.” He added that the “give and take” conflict – presumably meaning low-key engagement – had “benefited Iran and gained more support for the political system inside the country”.
It was also important, noted Sulami, that Arab leaders continue to “normalize” with the “Syrian regime”, bring it back after “reforms” in the Arab League and thus prevent Iran from “disseminating ideology, spread Shiism, spread medicine through the IRGC [Revolutionary Guards].”
Among other recent supporters of a “plan B”, the historian John Ghazvinian argued in the Los Angeles Times that the JCPOA was a “roadblock” that should be replaced by “broader, deeper and more comprehensive negotiations with Iran”.
The British Ambassador to Iran Simon Shercliff in a tweet on Friday, after visiting businesses in Shiraz, called on UK businesses to boost trade “JCPOA or not”. While the UK, alongside France and Germany, has moved closer to the US under the Biden administration, it does not accept third-party US sanctions as legitimate.