Conflict and Leadership
US-Russian Arms Control in the Middle East: Defining the Diplomatic Playing Field

In the rich history of US-Russian (and before that, US-Soviet) cooperation on WMD arms control and non-proliferation, the Middle East has long occupied a central place. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, Arab states were given assurances, through a resolution sponsored by Russia, the US and the UK, that NPT states parties would pursue the goal of establishing a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East. From the mid-2000s, Russia and the US worked within the “P5+1” framework on resolving the Iranian nuclear dispute. While such cooperation was never without friction, it culminated in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Finally, US-Russian cooperation in destroying Syria’s declared chemical weapons (CW) in 2013-2014 was hailed as a notable arms control achievement at a time of growing bilateral friction.

More recently, however, widespread worries about a bilateral US-Russian arms control agenda in disarray – given the fate of the INF and Open Skies Treaties, and the unresolved future of New START – have been compounded by serious setbacks to cooperative arms control in the Middle East. The Trump administration walked away from the JCPOA in May 2018, launching a “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic. Equally unnerving, US-Russian cooperation on Syria’s CW has dissolved into outright confrontation over efforts at pursuing attribution and accountability for CW use. A closer look at these two examples suggests that US-Russian diplomacy on Middle East arms control is characterised by three tensions: that between coercion and consent, that over legal interpretations of agreements reached, and that between arms control and extraneous motivations. In the end, it all boils down to priorities of interest. 

Syria’s chemical weapons: From cooperation to confrontation

Starting with the disarmament of Syria’s CW, US-Russian cooperation in 2013-14 was enabled by a variety of factors, including the resonance of previous bilateral exchanges on the Syrian stockpile and modest expectations of positive “spillover” into the US–Russian relationship. That said, the perception of a coercive threat to Syria at the time (remember President Obama’s “red line” threat) was critical: Russia viewed cooperation as a means to avert possible Western military action against Syria, following the August 2013 chemical attack in East Ghouta. 

It was also crucial that the US and Russia were able to agree on a hybrid legal framework underpinning CW disarmament, which entailed both an Executive Council decision by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2118. Under ordinary circumstances, CW disarmament takes place within the purview of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which mandates that an acceding state provide a comprehensive declaration of all CW and production facilities. Those are verified through OPCW-led on-site inspections, before the OPCW and the state jointly implement a plan for CW destruction. In the Syrian case, Western countries pushed for important exceptions to this routine, including the passing of a UNSC resolution and an extremely tight destruction schedule. In its subsequent reading of the hybrid framework, Russia repeatedly emphasized the regular, consent-based CWC component, and hence the voluntary and sovereign nature of Syria’s engagement in disarmament. This resulted in a dilemma for Washington, since condoning a modicum of engagement with the Syrian government contradicted the principled US position that President Assad had lost all legitimacy to lead his country. 

As allegations of CW use in Syria resumed from 2014, US-Russian disagreement over the pursuit of attribution and accountability played out over various efforts, including the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM), the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) and most recently the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team (IIT). Western states have since lamented continued CW use by the Syrian government – unrestrained by Russia and undeterred both by Obama’s original “red line” and the Trump administration’s punitive airstrikes in April 2017 and April 2018. Russian officials, meanwhile, have questioned the objectivity and even legality of the OPCW’s recent engagement with the Syrian CW file, accusing Western countries of instrumentalising the hybrid legal framework to single out Syria for special “mistreatment”, rather than implementing international law objectively. This contestation is currently epitomised in the quarrel over the IIT’s first report, published in April, which attributes culpability for CW use in March 2017 to the Syrian Arab Air Force.

The JCPOA: “Can’t have your cake and eat it too”

Turning to Iran’s nuclear program, evidence of Iran violating its IAEA safeguards agreement in the early 2000s spurred international efforts for a diplomatic solution. Before 2005, Russia partnered with the EU to elicit Iranian acceptance of the IAEA’s additional protocol, which would allow the agency to make unannounced visits to Iranian nuclear installations. And when Iran, following the presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, rejected its agreement with the EU-3, the IAEA Board of Governors - supported by Russia - moved the Iran file to the UN Security Council. Moscow consistently emphasized Tehran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, while opposing the weaponisation of Iran’s program. In that spirit, Russia softened, though never vetoed, a string of UNSC resolutions concerning Iran’s nuclear program between 2006 and 2010. 

US-Russian cooperation within the “P5+1” framework then culminated in the adoption of the 2015 JCPOA, which imposed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the lifting (or suspension) of nuclear-related sanctions. UNSC Resolution 2231, which endorsed and supported implementation of the JCPOA, stipulated that the conventional arms embargo against Iran expire in October 2020. Listed parties to the nuclear deal were also granted the ability to invoke a “snapback” of all UN restrictions lifted by the agreement. 

In May 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the JCPOA, citing concerns not only with the perceived flaws of a “rotten” agreement – such as its “sunset” provisions – but also with the Islamic Republic’s alleged export of dangerous missiles and support for terrorist proxies across the region. Emphasizing the linkage between the nuclear file and what it called Iran’s “regional behaviour”, the Trump administration demanded that the Islamic Republic start acting like a “normal nation” and initiated a policy of “maximum pressure”, which has included biting economic sanctions. Since Resolution 2231 was never amended to reflect the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, Washington has recently threatened to force a unilateral “snapback” of all UN sanctions against Iran, should the Security Council fail to extend the arms embargo.

Russia, meanwhile, has vehemently resisted what it considers a blatant US violation of an existing UNSC resolution and an impermissible linkage between the nuclear file and other aspects of Iran’s foreign policy. Recent US diplomatic efforts at garnering support for an extension of the arms embargo – which were dealt a final blow in the relevant UNSC vote on August 14 – were rebuffed repeatedly by Russian diplomats, who derided the US’ attempt at “having its cake and eating it too.” 

Defining the diplomatic playing field

Notwithstanding the obvious differences between the Syrian and Iranian examples, they point to three fundamental tensions:

The tension between consent and coercion (and related, carrots and sticks)

Returning to Syria in 2013, the perception of a credible military threat was critical to elicit Syria’s accession to the CWC. Indeed, it appears that some degree of coercion is necessary, especially in today’s Middle East, to compel reluctant leaders to part with what they have long viewed as strategic weapons required to ensure regime survival or face external adversaries. That said, the current impasse over Iran’s nuclear dispute suggests that a “sticks only” approach is problematic. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, devoid of any carrots (engaging a party through consensual approaches is one possible carrot, but obviously not the only one), has thus far failed to elicit the desired Iranian policy changes. Russia and the United States have in the past often disagreed on the right balance between carrots and sticks in dealing with Middle Eastern players, and will likely continue to do so. Should Joe Biden be elected US President in November, however, we could see a return to greater convergence.

The tension over interpretations of international law

As discussed, the legal terms underpinning CW disarmament in Syria crystallized through a hybrid framework which, however, left room for later disagreement regarding the OPCW’s mandate for verifying Syria’s initial chemical declarations and investigating CW use. In short, the hybrid framework was both key to the initial successful cooperation and the enabler of its subsequent erosion. Similar legal contestation has now infested the Iranian nuclear issue. The Trump administration’s contention that it remains a legal party to Resolution 2231, notwithstanding its withdrawal from the JCPOA, is considered untenable by Russia. It appears that, as and when a joint US-Russian interest in arms control is overtaken by other calculations, the underlying agreements become increasingly contested, with Moscow and Washington offering nuanced legal interpretations to make their respective cases. Rather than speaking truth to power, arms control agreements then say what their powerful architects take them to say. 

The tension between arms control and other motivations

These tensions between coercion and consent, and between this or that legal interpretation of any given agreement, boil down to a broader conundrum: All too often, arms control objectives simply clash with other motivations, especially in the dynamic context that is today’s Middle East. In Syria, US-Russian cooperation in 2013 was possible due to a short-lived interest convergence. To US officials, pursuing the narrow interest of chemical disarmament was a noble thing even if Washington had to “bite the bullet” and accept a role for the Syrian government in the process. Russia, on the other hand, managed to avert military action and understood that the hybrid disarmament framework would bolster President Assad. As CW attacks resumed from 2014, the brief moment of US-Russian interest convergence was lost. Meanwhile, having prioritised the narrow interest of pursuing a nuclear agreement with Tehran in 2015, the Obama administration left other considerations – such as concerns with Iran’s foreign policy – to be dealt with later. Egged on by leaders in the Gulf and Israel, the Trump administration then rushed to redress that “original sin” of the JCPOA, ignoring Iran’s argument (backed by Russia) that raising issues originally considered “extraneous to the JCPOA by mutual agreement” is impermissible. 


US-Russian diplomacy on WMD arms control in the Middle East will continue to be defined by these tensions. Yet, it is the final one – the degree to which arms control is put on the back burner, due to other motivations – that is decisive. If the examples of Syrian CW disarmament and the Iranian nuclear dispute are any guide, the prospects for arms-control achievements in the region appear dim, unless the US and Russia make them a joint priority, which in turn enables them to compromise on legal approaches and an agreeable mix of carrots and sticks. But as long as their broader interests in the region and in their bilateral relationship remain as starkly at odds as is the case today, we should not hold our breath.

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