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Iran’s talk of nonaggression pacts a red herring

Iran’s diplomacy these days appears focused on one goal: Driving a wedge between the US and its allies to frustrate Washington’s efforts to build a global coalition to safeguard international shipping in the Gulf against Tehran’s repeated attacks. As he has crisscrossed the region and Europe in recent weeks, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has tried to divert attention from the real bones of contention between his country and the rest of the world by framing the conflict in narrow terms, such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal or US sanctions.

One of the most cynical ideas coming from Tehran is the proposal to sign nonaggression pacts (NAPs) with its neighbors. Such agreements are a relic of the pre-UN past and were made especially notorious by Nazi Germany, which used them to divide European countries and enable itself to swallow them one by one. By coincidence, last week marked the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a NAP Germany signed with the Soviet Union in 1939, a week before it attacked Poland to start the Second World War.

Iranian officials have so far rejected US and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) calls for negotiations. They have also turned down suggestions of discussions about the country’s ballistic missile program and refused calls to debate its support for terrorism and other malign activities that have preoccupied the international community. Instead, Iran wanted talks with the international community to be exclusively on implementing the JCPOA, not changing it. 

With its neighbors, Iran has floated a number of ideas that appear to be hopelessly out of date or cynically designed to be rejected, such as NAPs. Zarif raised this suggestion in May and then again earlier this month when he visited the region.

The NAPs suggestion was part of Iran’s response to US efforts to put together a global coalition to counter its attacks on international shipping in the Gulf. Iran is, of course, opposed to international efforts to safeguard maritime security through the Gulf and regional passageways. It has comically suggested that only countries of the region should carry out that task, overlooking the fact that the threat emanates from Iran and that it is Iran which has been attacking oil tankers navigating the Gulf.

In light of the US proposal to form a coalition to safeguard freedom of navigation, Iran’s NAP proposal aims at weakening the defense mechanisms employed by its neighbors to protect themselves against its transgressions. It is a transparent attempt to discourage the countries that may agree to such a pact from joining the coalition. 

Similarly, Iran is proposing signing bilateral NAPs with individual GCC countries that are already members of the bloc’s Joint Defense Treaty, which is a mutual defense agreement signed and ratified by all GCC member states. Article 2 of the treaty stipulates that the security of the six members is indivisible; each and all are obligated to come to the defense of any member state facing external aggression. A NAP with Iran would be inconsistent with this treaty obligation.

It is sad that the best idea Iranian diplomacy can come up with goes back to that dark period of modern history when Nazi ambitions took the world into a devastating war. Among the Nazis’ first diplomatic forays was concluding NAPs with unsuspecting neighbors, such as Denmark, Estonia, Latvia and Russia, to keep them neutral in its upcoming wars of annexation. 

Perhaps the most notorious NAP is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It was signed just before Germany’s invasion of Poland and lasted until its invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. By signing such agreements, Germany neutralized some of its potential adversaries and enabled it to free up its military resources to pursue other fronts. Regionally, about 30 years ago, as Saddam Hussein planned for his invasion of Kuwait, he also proposed NAPs with neighbors for the same reason.

The world has moved away from such agreements because their implementation depended on the good faith and trust of the parties. Instead, the UN Charter has established strong rules against aggression, overseen by the UN Security Council, which every nation has to live by, without having to sign NAPs. Iran has so far chosen to live outside those rules, claiming that the international system is rigged against it.

In its communications with Iran, the GCC has proposed that adherence to the UN Charter and international rules for state conduct should be the basis for any talks between the two parties. The UN Charter is based on respect for national borders, political independence and the territorial integrity of member states. It also bars states from the use or threat of force to achieve their goals.