Skip to main content

Iran nuclear deal is model for 'rule-based' international relations

An Iranian diplomat writes that the "joint action plan" agreed in Geneva last month reflects Iran’s commitment to "rule-based" international relations.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks to the media about the deal that has been reached between six world powers and Iran at the International Conference Centre of Geneva in Geneva November 24, 2013. Iran and six world powers reached a breakthrough deal early on Sunday to curb Tehran's nuclear programme in exchange for limited sanctions relief, in what could be the first sign of an emerging rapprochement between the Islamic state and the West.      REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool    (SWITZERLAND

The Iranian negotiating team and its P5+1 counterparts — United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France and Germany — headed by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton concluded an interim agreement in Geneva on Nov. 24. This was achieved after several rounds of intense and inconclusive talks as well as concurrent bilateral contacts, and has sparked ferocious debates among pundits and policy experts around the world.

In both Washington and Tehran, divergent interpretations of the Geneva agreement and its future prospects have emerged, given the importance of garnering public and legislative support, which remains vital for both sides. Many have welcomed the deal as the triumph of diplomacy over a potential risk of slipping into an all-out conflict that could engulf the entire region with devastating consequences. This achievement is also described as the triumph of rationalism of those who have been concerned about the scourge of war that has been inflicted upon the Middle East in recent years.  

In the United States, the dominant paradigm of “coercive diplomacy” has become the core element of heated debates, following the argument that there's a correlation between tougher sanctions and the setbacks of the Iranian government in its desire to develop its growing peaceful nuclear industry. But, this broad generalization without due consideration of other aspects, including the historical behavior of Iran in its international relations, mainly since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, would hardly provide an extensive and correct understanding of the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, looking back at several past examples of how Iran resolved major foreign policy issues by resorting to peaceful and legal means is instructive in understanding Iran’s negotiation behavior today, in direct continuity with the past. Also, such an inquiry supports the theory that Iran finds the strengthening of the rule of law in international relations to be in its national interest.

No need to go far back to the negotiations with the Soviet Union, which saved Iran’s occupied territories in the northwest in 1946, or the active involvement of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in the proceedings of the International Court of Justice in 1952 regarding the nationalization of Iran's oil industry. Just shortly after the establishment of the Islamic Republic and following breaking of bilateral diplomatic relations by the United States, Iran negotiated and concluded a deal with the United States known as the Algiers Accords in 1981, whereby the two sides set up the Iran-US Claims Tribunal in The Hague. The tribunal has been working ever since, has dealt with settling numerous claims, and buttressed a legacy of recourse to legal solutions to address disputes. Iran used the same tribunal in 1996 to complain about the US failure to abide by its obligation of non-interference in the internal affairs of Iran; the “A-30 case” is still pending before the tribunal.

In 1995, Iran took the case over its oil platforms in the Persian Gulf having been attacked by the US Navy in 1987 and 1988 to the International Court of Justice. In its initial written submission, Iran invoked the Treaty of Amity of 1955 to prove the court's jurisdiction, a fundamental prerequisite for the court before it delves into a case’s substance. The implementation of the 1955 treaty had actually been suspended by both parties after the revolution, although neither of them ever sought its abolition. Invoking the provisions of this treaty at a time when the level of hostility was high indicates once again how Iran viewed international law and legal mechanisms of dispute settlement as a pragmatic tool to preserve its interests. There were, though, dissenting observations at home questioning the impartiality and usefulness of such mechanisms and whether or not Iran would be able to get favorable judgment out of the ICJ.

These above-mentioned cases are simply pertinent examples of a series of cases of Iran's recourse to peaceful settlement of international disputes. Together, these cases reveal a fundamental propensity of the Islamic Republic to the principle of negotiation and reaching agreement, particularly when the vital interests of the state are involved as the dominant foreign policy paradigm. In case of sanctions, be they of the UN Security Council or those unilaterally imposed by the United States or the European Union, Iran launched a legal campaign questioning their legitimacy and also focusing on certain criteria that have not been met in imposing them. Iran’s efforts have targeted both the substantive nature of sanctions as well as their particular applications in every single case.

The election of President Hassan Rouhani on June 14 offered a strong boost for Iranian diplomacy to extend its long-standing approach of negotiations and translating the results into binding agreements. “I am a lawyer” — a statement he used in his famous pre-election debate with other candidates — became a key phrase in Rouhani’s campaign, signaling that the rule of law would have a priority in his administration. Rouhani’s clear commitment to the rule of law at the national and international levels was also reflected in his 57 pages of “General Principles and Policies” he presented to the parliament following his mid-August swearing-in.

The Non-Aligned Movement, composed of roughly 120 member-countries of the United Nations and chaired by Iran since 2012, held its first ministerial meeting under Rouhani's chairmanship in late September in New York to exchange views on the rule of law at the international level. Rouhani made outstanding opening remarks in favor of an international relations strongly committed to the rule of law. Below are excerpts of Rouhani’s statement:

  • “Strengthening the rule of law was a major component of my platform during my electoral campaign.”
  • “I am committed by … and will do whatever in my power to enhance the rule of law at the national and international levels in all its aspects.”
  • “The rule of law at the international level is a sine qua none for global peace, … (and) our collective response to ongoing challenges should be guided by the rule of law.”
  • “As UN members [we are] committed to abide by the principle of refraining in our international relations from the threat or use of force.” 

Rouhani’s agenda for international relations is thus characterized by a deeply held priority on the rule of law. For his part, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, from the moment he assumed office, embarked on a campaign to denounce violent measures and promote peaceful resolution of disputes. This policy was the core mantra of the Iranian negotiators in New York in September, followed by two more rounds of talks in Geneva. Zarif, himself holding Ph.D. in international law, placed Iran’s plan on the one hand on “recognition of Iran’s right to the full cycle of peaceful nuclear energy” and, on the other, on “non-proliferation of WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] and delegitimizing any form of use of force and sanctions.” Both pillars are rooted in the core orientation of framing Iran’s foreign relations based on the rule of law.

Rouhani also pioneered in fighting violence and extremism by proposing the initiative World Against Violence and Extremism, or WAVE, to the United Nations in his first appearance before the UN General Assembly in September. Member-states from all corners of the world responded positively to him by passing a resolution endorsing his project for a more peaceful world in which tolerance and respect for the rights of others remain an inevitable policy choice for all. The adoption by consensus of the “violence and extremism-free world” initiative as proposed by the resolution initially drafted by Iran speaks for itself.     

Looking back at the recent developments from various dimensions and their background helps gain a broader vision on what is going on, and to see why it is better to refrain from the narrow-minded flawed paradigm which sees more pressure as the key to gain optimal results. This paradigm already has resulted in terrible decisions leading to catastrophic events in the Middle East. We need to be mindful that at the threshold of 2014, the US is still struggling to get rid of pending conflicts in the region.

Meanwhile, several decent authoritative studies have appeared on the effectiveness of sanctions policies, showing that at their best only a minimum percentage of such sanction regimes succeeded even relatively. Therefore, a direct link between coercive foreign pressures with the aim of changing behavior of the targeted state or states, particularly when the crucial interest of a nation is at stake, can hardly be established. Facts and historical realities should discourage political decision makers from relying on coercive measures and lead them to do their best to contribute to enhance the rule of law at the international level as a mutually beneficial option for all.

The United Nations was created, among other things, for the noble purposes of ending the use of force and promoting peaceful settlement of international disputes. Just in 2012, world leaders gathered at the UN General Assembly to acknowledge the Rule of Law Declaration. It encompasses elements based on which a just and prosperous world can be envisaged for all. A year after the adoption of this document, Iran’s nuclear issue as a hot case on the agenda of the world powers for a relatively long time appeared to have found its way through peaceful resolution. It is indeed serving as an inspiring model of fostering aptitude for peace and order in a way compatible with the aspirations of the United Nations' founders. Iran seriously adheres to its commitments. And its practice in contemporary history has proven its genuine desire for a rule-based international relations.          

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial