Iran’s Hormuz Peace Initiative and Its Offer to Make Changes to the Nuclear Deal: Tehran’s Motives and Its Scope of Influence


Iran made two offers on September 25, 2019: the first was its offer to make an amendment to the nuclear deal in exchange for US sanctions being lifted. The second offer was the establishment of the “Alliance of Hope” for the sake of peace in the Strait of Hormuz, which will include the Gulf states and Iran. In the meantime, Tehran still insists on policies that threaten regional security and stability.
What is the nature of these offers? In what context can they be explained? Is Iran wanting to escalate or calm the situation?
Are Iran’s offers a kind of maneuver? Or has the crisis reached its peak and can the Iranian government no longer endure the pressure after using up all of its levers? Has the Iranian government concluded that there is no alternative but to negotiate?
I- The Nature and Dimensions of the Initiatives
On September 25, 2019, the Iranian government’s spokesman Ali Rabiei announced an Iranian offer to negotiate. He said Iran was prepared to turn the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which permits Iranian nuclear sites to be inspected without notice, into a binding law and to accelerate the implementation of the deferred items in the nuclear deal (JCPOA). This is in exchange for the US Congress approving the nuclear deal and for US sanctions imposed on Iran to be lifted. Future negotiations will not exclude discussions on extending the controversial sunset clause, which is expected to end in 2025.
The Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made a similar offer during his visit to New York on the sidelines of his meeting with the Republican Senator Rand Paul on July 15, 2019. This offer included ratification of the IAEA Additional Protocol in the Iranian Parliament before its scheduled date in 2023 as agreed under the nuclear deal. The Additional Protocol allows broader and more permanent international inspections of declared and undeclared nuclear sites in member states. If Iran ratifies this Additional Protocol and allows IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities, US President Donald Trump would be obliged in asking the US Congress to lift the US sanctions imposed on Iran, as stipulated in the 2015 nuclear deal.
According to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s statements on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2019, if negotiations are to take place again, the United States will have to lift its sanctions for six months. Washington’s negotiations with the P5 + 1 will lead to a change in the nuclear deal in accordance with its interests if it agrees to the sanctions on Iran being lifted and returning to negotiations.
While the Iranian government offered to make amendments to the nuclear agreement, Rouhani presented on September 25, 2019, to the UN General Assembly the “Alliance of Hope” Initiative for Peace in the Strait of Hormuz, which he said was based on mutual understanding, non-aggression and respect for the sovereignty of states. It aims to create an alliance that includes Iran and the Gulf states. In addition, there is a US initiative to form an international coalition to protect Gulf security.
II- Motives and Reasons
Iran’s offers came in the context of a number of developments that can be summarized as follows:
1. The Failure of European Efforts
Iran has been frustrated after French efforts failed to make any progress to resolve the escalating crisis between Iran and the United States. This is in addition to the failure of the European parties to take steps toward easing economic pressures on Iran, through the activation of a recent proposal to provide a credit line of $15 billion in advance for Iranian oil shipments instead of the financial exchange mechanism launched by the European Troika. But this offer did not come to light. Finally, it appeared that the European parties did not have the opportunity, or did not want to defy the United States on the Iranian file. Therefore, the Troika countries, along with other European countries began to talk about a new framework for negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, in addition to its regional role and missile program. It seems that the Europeans have evaded their previous commitments to maintain the nuclear deal as their position towards Iran has converged with that of the United States.
2. Restrictions on Iran Reducing its Nuclear Commitments
Iran’s plan to reduce its nuclear obligations did not achieve its desired objectives. Instead of pressuring the parties to the crisis and prompting them to take practical positions, the plan turned into a disaster. All parties to the agreement rejected Iran’s reduction of its nuclear obligations, including Russia, China, and the European parties. Tehran suspended the implementation of the third phase of reducing its nuclear obligations and gave the European parties two months to fulfill their obligations to save the nuclear agreement, in return for compliance with its full terms. Also, Iran appeared keen to move within the framework of the nuclear agreement as it was aware that any steps towards the militarization of its nuclear program could lead to serious consequences, especially after the European countries issued a warning to Iran. The European warning was based on the latest report of the IAEA in which it said that Iran was increasing its production rate of uranium and deploying centrifuges in the Natanz reactor.
3- The Dangers of Targeting the Gulf’s Oil Facilities
Attacks on oil tankers and the targeting of oil infrastructure facilities in the region by Iran-affiliated militias put Iran under great pressure. In addition, the collective response of the international community brought new challenges for Iran.
The attack on Saudi oil facilities put Iran on the defensive, leading it to lose some sympathetic parties, including the Europeans. The attack also failed to reap any fruit. Iran tried through this attack to deprive the countries of the region of exporting their oil, expecting it would impose pressure on major countries by raising oil prices and creating panic in the economies of industrialized countries that depend on it. Following the targeting of Aramco facilities, oil prices rose by 15 percent.
In this regard, the attempt to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to change its position towards Iran failed. Tehran believed by targeting the Saudi oil infrastructure it would discourage Riyadh from pursuing policies to confront the Iranian threat and thwart its prominent role in intensifying pressure on Iran.
Iran tried to drag the region into conflict, hoping to reverse the status quo, thereby securing control of the situation at home, confusing the regional landscape as a whole, and finally escaping the current pressure campaign. In addition, Iran hoped not to make concessions that harm the government’s interests, influence and capabilities, and perhaps its legitimacy and survival. But this did not happen.
The United States is no longer in need of Middle Eastern oil, as it is a world leader in terms of oil production with 11.4 million barrels per day, while Saudi Arabia comes second with 11 million barrels. Therefore, it did not look at the attack from an economic perspective; the United States looked at it from a security and strategic perspective. It has reassessed its defense policies and sent new military reinforcements to the region. As for the European parties, contrary to what Tehran expected, the European Troika issued a statement accusing Iran of targeting Saudi oil facilities. Thus, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany joined the United States in blaming Tehran for the attack on Saudi Arabia. The Troika leaders declared that it was time for Tehran to start talks aimed to reach a new long-term agreement on its nuclear, regional and missile activities.
Saudi Arabia seems to be wanting to use the attack to build an international alliance against Iran. This international pressure has restricted Tehran, preventing it from continuing to launch attacks as an approach to dealing with escalating tensions in the region, particularly with the United States. This is because Riyadh realizes that Iranian attacks are only a reaction reflecting the behavior of a government in crisis and its diminishing options.
4- The Growing Military Presence in the Gulf
Iran will face major challenges in light of the alliances to be established in the region to protect security and stability, as they will limit its ability to manipulate the oil card or regional stability in the near term. While Iran’s oil exports will be affected by pressure and sanctions, Tehran will not be able in the future to restrict or influence Gulf oil exports. This policy is not acceptable even from its closest allies, China and Russia. It will also deprive the Iranian navy of freedom of movement in the Gulf and the ability to attack oil tankers.
5- The US Follow-up of Its Maximum Pressure Strategy
Iran has been betting on the possibility of overcoming oil sanctions through backdoor paths and building complex networks to circumvent financial sanctions, but given the unprecedented US pressure, its benefits are dwindling. Oil exports are at their lowest, the domestic situation is getting worse, and the United States is tracking oil and money smuggling networks continuously, in all countries, including China and Russia. In addition, the United States is pursuing a strategy of extreme pressure, impacting Iranian oil exports which appear to have reached very low levels. Reports suggest that they have reached 100,000 barrels per day. Other estimates suggest that they have reached 500,000 barrels per day. This is in addition to sanctions on other exports, such as metals and petrochemicals, which have already caused the country’s budget deficit to reach about $33 billion, as the government announced. On the other hand, Iran senses the danger of the United States reviewing its strategy to deter Iran. “It is clear that we need to re-establish deterrence,” said Brian Hook, the US envoy to Iran. He added, “We are just one missile strike from a regional war.”
III- Ineffective Initiatives
Iran has been accustomed to pursuing contradictory approaches ranging from escalation to calm in the past, as it is well aware of its inability to adopt escalation as a strategy because it is unable to bear the consequences of this option.
It also uses escalation as a testing mechanism and a pressure lever to improve its position, as well as to push its opponent to reconsider its calculations and policies. In addition, it uses a policy of escalation to gain time before making substantial concessions. Overall, Iran’s initiatives to cooperate with the Gulf states to protect the security of the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz as well as to approve amendments to the nuclear agreement are in line with the aforementioned Iranian thinking.
1- An Initiative Contradictory to Iranian Behavior
The Iranian initiative for cooperation to protect the security of the Gulf may be understood in light of its strategic objectives and the Iranian government’s doctrine based on dominating the Arabian Gulf. This offer is not the first of its kind. Iran has in recent months offered many initiatives to reach an understanding with the Gulf states, but Iran’s behavior has continuously been at odds with the spirit of these initiatives and with the goodwill that could push any of these initiatives forward.
There is no doubt that Rouhani’s initiative to create a Gulf alliance as an alternative to the International Alliance for the Protection of Maritime Navigation came only after Iran began to feel the threat posed by international alliances to protect navigation in the Arabian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden. This alliance is primarily aimed at countering the threat of Iran and protecting freedom of navigation in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Iran criticizes the presence of foreign forces in Gulf waters to protect the freedom of navigation, as this undermines the Iranian navy’s ability to cause harm, and to use navigation security as a pressure card in the face of US sanctions. Also, Iran is aware that the US-led coalition may play a future role in tightening the blockade on Iran and restricting further its oil exports, as well as perhaps isolating it internationally once again should Tehran continue to violate its nuclear obligations.
The initiative may also be understood as a maneuver purely intended to polish Iran’s image internationally. It could also be an attempt to align with some European and US policies that see the importance of building regional understanding between Iran and its neighbors, similar to the policy of the former US President Barack Obama as a necessary way to maintain security and stability. It may be an attempt to exploit growing doubts concerning the importance of the Gulf and its interests to the Trump administration, following Trump’s negative reaction in the aftermath of the attacks that have endangered Gulf security, especially after the latest attack which targeted Aramco’s oil facilities inside Saudi territory.
In fact, this initiative is doomed to failure. It is not the subject of discussion in the Gulf, as there is a gap of confidence between the Gulf states and Iran. This gap cannot be easily overcome, given Iran’s regional interventions, and its threat to stability and security in the region by it spreading chaos, as well as its expansionist ambitions and sectarian and factional policies. These are the factors that hold back the initiative which does not tackle the thorny issues between the two sides.
2- Unrealistic Offer
The removal of US sanctions in exchange for Iran’s acceptance of permanent supervision of its nuclear facilities is not a new proposal. Floating it again could be attributed to the difficult circumstances faced by the Iranian government under US sanctions. In addition, the government has used most of its levers without achieving an actual breakthrough in the American position. Initially, the initiative could be seen as the beginning of a partial concession by Iran on the issue of negotiating a new agreement. It also addresses one of the core issues that the United States has been seeking to address, namely the amendment of the sunset clause, which has long been criticized by Trump and Israel.
But this partial initiative ignores US conditions on other issues, including Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional interventions, which the United States insists should be on the table, so the United States is not expected to accept this initiative. But, in any case, it represents a change in Iran’s position.
On the other hand, this move may encourage the Trump administration to continue the pressure campaign that seems to be paying off. This Iranian concession may also be the beginning of a marathon of negotiations between the two sides that could revive European efforts, particularly French mediation, especially in light of Trump’s situation at home after the Democrats moved ahead with impeachment measures against him.
IV- Iran’s Future Options
It is clear that Iran is presenting its initiative to maintain security in the Strait of Hormuz in a maneuver to buy time, and to contain international pressure after the attack, by it or its affiliated militias, on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. Iran will not halt its regional policies without the existence of a strategy of military deterrence and the ability to inflict equal harm, especially as deterring Iran’s regional expansion is one of the most significant shortcomings of the US strategy. Maybe it is one of the reasons for the ineffectiveness of its strategy, including the pressures, which Iran is still capable of overcoming. Its offer of a partial amendment to the nuclear deal in exchange for the lifting of sanctions is a limited initiative. By only offering an amendment to the nuclear deal, without putting its ballistic missiles and regional interventions on the negotiating table, Iran is taking advantage of European pressure on the United States and the pressure Trump faces at home. Iran is also aware that amendments to the nuclear agreement, a change to the sunset clause and full control over Tehran’s nuclear facilities are all priorities for Israel and the United States. Therefore, Iran is persuading Washington and Moscow with this offer, considering that Washington may turn a blind eye to Tehran’s regional interventions and Russia will handle the file between the Iranians and Israelis.
Iran is presenting its offer at this current juncture due to the heavy damage suffered by the Iranian government in recent months, and the erosion of its ability to pursue its strategy of resistance for long periods. In addition, this offer is a kind of response to European mediation, which is looking for a middle ground between the United States and Iran so that they can start negotiating to resolve the current crisis. However, Iran’s offer hinges on the removal of US sanctions, a condition that the United States government will not agree to unless Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign benefits from this action. Trump does not have a genuine desire to resolve Washington’s outstanding issues with Iran. This is not on the cards as Trump would come under harsh attack at home and abroad, in addition to losing many of his allies and regional supporters.
Since the two initiatives are not successful in providing real solutions to the crisis, whether with the Gulf states or with the United States, Iran may return to the use of its levers in the hope of exerting more pressure on the parties to the crisis in search of a cheap settlement. Iran will not make concessions easily before it exploits all the room available to act and exert pressure. Given the weaknesses of the US strategy, especially the retreat of its deterrence option, Iran will continue to pose threats to regional security and stability.
However, Iran’s continued trade-off based on sanctions removal in return for regional security will undoubtedly weaken its levers and strengthen regional and international anti-Iranian alliances, as well as push international powers to exert more pressure on Tehran and strengthen their military presence to reduce Iran’s threat. This is in light of the US position, which remains firm in pursuing its policy of maximum pressure, and the Iranian ineffectiveness of putting any pressure on the United States to retract its policies. Iran’s militarization of its nuclear program could be a watershed moment in resolving the differences between Europe and the United States, uniting the two sides in a way that could tighten the noose around the Iranian government and lead it to negotiate a new agreement on US terms and with a limited margin of maneuver for Iran.

Editorial Team