Negotiate with Iran, Not Its Caricature

Peace Advocate July 2021

Security council adopts resolution on Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Image by United Nations Photo, licensed from Creative Commons.

by Tom Huf

Since April 2021, and after six rounds of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiation in Vienna that started with optimism for a speedy agreement before the Iranian June 18 elections, progress has slowed. There is now speculation about possible failure to close the deal. 

Some US negotiators have recently voiced frustration that the talks  cannot continue indefinitely. The context forgotten by those looking at the short term, as the US is in the habit of doing, is that it is the US that has had no consistent policies toward Iran or for most of the Middle East in the past three decades.   By comparison, Iran has been far more consistent, especially since the JCPOA.

The US and Iran  had made it clear after the inauguration that reversing Trump’s policies quickly was both a substantive and symbolic signal about more than just the JCPOA. That US foreign policy would return to the multilateral path that generated the 2015 deal was the stated goal. Biden, a longtime member and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, put in place a very experienced, widely respected team that would need little time to get up to speed. Leading them, Antony Blinken, Robert Malley and others who were part of the 2015 Vienna negotiating team appeared to confirm to observers that Biden would move forward quickly to fulfill his presidential campaign promise to reenter the Nuclear Deal.

So what happened? 

While the current impasse appears to be significant, it is important to note that all the senior players on both sides continue to put out positive and conditional press releases like Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent statement that the situation is “between the very hard and the possible.”

More recently, experts like Andrew Bacevich at the Quincy Institute have been calling the demonization of Iran a major foreign policy mistake used to justify military rather than diplomatic action and that needs correction.

The fundamentals of the situation have not changed much since 2015, except that the deliberate boycott of the Iranian election in June (48% of eligible voters cast votes as compared to 73% 4 years ago. 13 million “voted” with blank ballots) has placed more pressure on the government to improve the grim economic situation. Others speculate that the Iranian negotiators in Vienna were delayed to allow the incoming president Raisi to claim the credit and benefits of the breakthrough.

Chuck Hegel, former Senator and Defense Secretary, was recently quoted as believing that an agreement will be reached in the coming months. Iran experts widely share such opinions, despite the US negotiating team’s persistence in negotiating with a villainish caricature of Iran rather than the real country.  

George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” name-calling and Donald Trump’s false narratives have distorted perceptions of Iran, turning them into the source of every problem in the Middle East. The team in Vienna is burdened with delivering a tough line that is not in the spirit of the original and simple message of the JCPOA. We should focus on resolving the nuclear issue and then moving forward with other issues involving the integration of Iran, even with all of its flaws, into the international trade structure of which it so greatly desires to be a member. 

Once integrated Iran would have no incentive to cause trouble and every incentive to assist with other issues in the region. The fundamental benefits for all parties today are still as they were in 2015: economic benefits and trade for the world’s 18th largest economy with a population equal to that of Germany, and a verifiable protocol for the world for control of nuclear proliferation with respect to Iran.  

Letting go of the policy of military control and leverage in the Gulf region, as many now advocate in the wake of the 20-year failed policy in Afghanistan, is still not a focus for the Biden team. As a result, Iran understands that the US, having driven Iran into the unnatural orbit of China for oil sales, is weakening its own long term China strategy. A simple return to the JCPOA would solve that problem.

There are now four issues around which the Vienna negotiations have become mired.  

First and most significant is Iran’s legitimate fear that the US could again extract concessions from Iran and again pull out of the agreement after the next election. It wants an assurance this will not happen, but the US cannot offer such a guarantee. 

Second is Iran’s demand for all sanctions to be lifted, while the US insists on keeping some in place. 

Third is disagreement about what Iran needs to do to make up for its irreversible progress on nuclear knowledge and capability, aside from the actual stockpiles of enriched uranium that are easily reversed.  

Fourth is the US’s demand that Iran commit to follow-on talks that were not part of the original agreement.

These four complications are not impossible to resolve but do violate the original spirit of the agreement. In its initial conception, the JCPOA was a simple and straightforward initiative. Many senior American diplomats and foreign policy experts deemed it one of the best-crafted international agreements they’d seen in their diplomatic careers.  

The US exit from the JCPOA, carried out on the basis of non-nuclear issues explicitly excluded from the agreement, caused enormous damage not only by ending the JCPOA but by eroding the credibility of the US as an international leader that could be trusted to honor its commitments. It brought about much international confusion about how to deal with the US in trade or security agreements and still presents the Biden administration with the initial dilemma: how can they achieve their policy objectives  and reverse the damage caused by Trump. 

How these issues will be resolved in the coming months, if at all, is not yet clear. Abandoning the bogeyman we have created, however, and negotiating with the real Iran is the clear first step forward.