Reshaping NATO’s Policy Towards Iran

By THO Team Member, Jacqueline Schluger

Nuclear proliferation in Iran is currently one of NATO’s top security concerns in the Middle East. In the wake of Former President Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), President Biden and NATO leaders have been pushing for a renegotiation of the deal. So far, talks with Tehran have proved unsuccessful as both sides continue to move the goalposts. Rejoining the JCPOA, however, is not practical because the Iranian government cannot be trusted to uphold the rules and regulations of the agreement. Instead, the West must focus their efforts on supporting the Iranian people so that they can instill an elected government that can offer allyship to NATO members and partners.

Despite international efforts to create a second JCPOA agreement, a deal similar to the one brokered in 2015 is no longer realistic and is not necessarily in the West’s best interest. Shifting away from Trump’s divisive “maximum pressure” strategy, Biden's administration has pushed for a “maximum diplomacy” approach, expressing their commitment to carrying out strong diplomatic efforts on arms control to ensure a peaceful nuclear program in Iran. This is a mistake, however, and the international community has good reason to cast doubt on Iran’s ability to abide by the agreement’s rules and regulations. Historically, Iran has violated the terms of nearly every international treaty that it has been a part of, specifically the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran breached the NPT by illicitly developing its nuclear program without consulting the IAEA and providing misinformation regarding past nuclear activities. This behavior persisted when the JCPOA was in place. For example, the Nuclear Deal allowed Iran to have a low-enriched uranium stockpile of 202.8 kilograms. In 2019, the U.N. atomic watchdog reported that Iran had a stockpile of 1,571.6 kilograms, over 7 times the amount permitted by the agreement. Currently, in the midst of renegotiations, Iran is enriching Uranium at a new high of 60% purity while the Nuclear Deal permitted enrichment of just 3.67%. Aside from the fact that Theran has explicitly stated that it will not adhere to JCPOA regulations, the U.S. must not rely on compliance from a Khamenei regime that has consistently overstepped the rules of several nuclear pacts. Engaging directly with Iran through negotiations has proved fruitless for the West and NATO leaders should not expect cooperation from a government that has proven time and time again to be unreliable and dishonest. 

U.S. policy towards Iran, no matter the administration, has always centered around modifying the behavior of a regime that has not changed its conduct since its establishment in 1979. These efforts are misguided and will only allow Iran to squeeze more concessions from the West. Iran keeps coming back to the negotiating table because it knows how desperate the U.S. and its partners are to secure a deal that will seemingly stall the progression of their nuclear program. The longer the talks last, the more eager Western powers will be to come to an agreement, resulting in even more compromises in favor of Iran on top of the already billions of dollars that would come with sanction relief. Iran engages in these discussions to further its economic interests without any intention to uphold the regulations that would slow the development of its nuclear program, as was evident with the NPT and the JCPOA. 

Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is inevitable, therefore the West should not work to develop an agreement to stop it, especially if it is predicated on the Iranian government abandoning its decades-long tendency to lie and cheat their way through international cooperation. Instead, the U.S. and NATO should concentrate on ensuring that when Iran does have full nuclear capability, its political environment is one that puts it in a position to be an ally to the West rather than an adversary. This would eliminate the threat of its nuclear capabilities being used in hostile ways that disrupt international stability and security. Evidently, a benevolent Iran will never be possible under a Khameini-Raisi regime. Together, these two leaders are responsible for thousands of instances of human rights abuses. Ruthless leaders with violent track records cannot, under any logical assumption, be trusted by the U.S. and NATO to change its notoriously unchanging behavior.  

The dilemma that the alliance faces now is how to guarantee the eventual partnership of a friendly Iran under a new government, without invading or forcing a regime change militarily. The answer lies within the sentiments of Iranian society. While Iranians have been suffering at the hands of their government for 42 years, they have turned to Western democracies for support that will allow them to instate a new government and new leaders that are endorsed by the people. Revitalized leadership in Iran that is eager to partner with powers such as the U.S. will not only benefit Iranian citizens who have been demanding freedom, but also Western governments who prioritize non-proliferation. The U.S. and NATO must re-center its Iranian policy around providing maximum support to Iranians through strike funds, securing internet access, and strengthening media channels between Iran and the West. These democratization efforts will empower Iranians who have long been abused by their government and allow them to form their own fairly-elected leadership as well as ensure the peaceful operation of their nuclear program.