Give Dealmaking Another Try
The Biden Administration has the chance to start building a better relationship with Iran.
As the new administration plays dress up to re-drag us through the muck of failed Obama-era politics, one leftover bit of foreign policy does deserve a second chance: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. Steps toward peace were a good idea in 2015 and an even better idea in 2021.
The United States and Iran again have an opportunity to end decades of hostility. The nuclear deal, however imperfect, would bind the two nations, along with NATO and other actors, to years of engagement, opening the door to fuller relationships. As Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote, the accord “is not a ceiling, but a solid foundation.” For roughly the last six decades the U.S.-Iranian relationship has been antagonistic, unproductive, and often violent. Untangling that requires small steps forward; the accord could be one of them.
As Biden takes control, then, Iran remains isolated globally. At the same time, Iran is in many ways an even stronger regional power than it was a few years ago, and the U.S. thus weaker. The U.S. eliminated Iran’s border enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and handed Tehran the Iraqi oil reserves and pipeline pathway to the sea. U.S. friction with China assures they will not participate in sanctions on Iran and will remain a steady petroleum customer. While the U.S.-Iran proxy war is over in Iraq, it continues in Yemen and Syria, and maybe elsewhere in Africa; holding the U.S. to a status-quo draw counts as a win for Iran.
It’s an ugly history. Things began to fall apart in 1953 when the CIA helped oust Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, who made the mistake of trying to nationalize Iran’s oil industry. The White House installed a puppet leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and lapped up the oil like a hobo scoring a bottle of the good stuff. Through the 1970s, the U.S. also supplied nuclear fuel and technology to build on Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, which had kicked off Iran’s nuclear program in 1957.
Fast forward to 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in the Islamic Revolution. Iranians took over the American Embassy in Tehran, holding hostages for 444 days. The antagonism continued in the 1980s as the U.S. went on to assist Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran. In 1988, an American cruiser in the Persian Gulf shot down a civilian Iran Air flight, killing all 290 people on board.
In 2003, when Iran reached out to Washington following American military successes in Afghanistan, George W. Bush declared the country part of his “Axis of Evil.” Iran responded to this by taking control of the Shiite insurgency in Iraq. At one point U.S. forces raided an Iranian diplomatic office in the country. The U.S. and Israel gutted Iran’s nuclear program with malware. The Trump administration killed Iranian general and national hero Qasem Soleimani. The Iranians responded with a missile attack on an American base in Iraq.
Of course, the U.S. walked away from the 2015 JCPOA. Washington imposed economic sanctions on Iran and its oil, driving it into a deeper relationship with China. The U.S. grew even closer to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and fashioned peace accords with various Iranian rivals, former friends, and Gulf neighbors. And in the end Iran basically won the U.S.-Iraq war and today runs Iraq as a client state.
The same folks are still in power in Tehran and are not going away. Iran is probably the most stable Muslim nation in the Middle East. While still governed in large part by its clerics, the country has nonetheless experienced a series of increasingly democratic electoral transitions. Most significantly, unlike nearly every other nation in the Middle East, Iran’s leaders do not fear an Islamic revolution. They already had one.
Deal or no deal, Iran remains a nuclear threshold state, a very powerful position nearly akin to (and in some ways better than) actually having the bomb. A threshold state holds most or all of the technology and materials needed to make a weapon, but chooses not to take the final steps. Dozens of nations exist in some version of that state, from South Korea to Saudi Arabia. Just exactly how close a country is to a working weapon is called “breakout time.”
If Iran were to get too close, a devastating attack by Israel, and probably the United States, would be inevitable. The Israelis destroyed Saddam’s program, as they did Syria’s. The cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges was a clear warning to back away, and, like the drone killing of Soleimani, a clear message to Tehran that the West has powerful tools. Call it a terrible game of chicken—Iran recently increased the purity of its uranium enrichment and threatens additional steps—but it is one in which the players involved know who has to blink first.
Iran knows that while it cannot get too strong it also cannot become too weak. After watching Libya be destroyed and Qaddafi killed after he voluntarily gave up his nuclear ambitions, never mind Iraq and non-nuclear Saddam, the lessons are all too clear. So think of the 2015 JCPOA as turning the dial down, but not much. There was no mechanism in the agreement to denuclearize and neither side intended it to do so. If a new accord is signed with the same text Iran will slowly move away from its current breakout time. Iran doesn’t have nukes now; Iran would not have nukes if there had been no deal, and Iran won’t have nukes with a deal. The agreement will eliminate weapons of mass destruction that may never exist.
So why bother making a deal? Because it’s how diplomacy works. There are bilateral and regional issues far beyond Iranian breakout time that need attention, and a new accord would be the start of the start. The goal is not a one-step quick-fix. The goal is to achieve a mutually agreeable resolution to a specific problem. Then on to the next one. And for those who don’t yet see the gorilla in the room, almost all of the above applies to North Korea, too, except that the Kims managed to actually go nuclear while the U.S. was distracted by its global war on terrorism. They’re watching. Biden won’t make progress with North Korea without the Iranian example to point to.
The passage of the last few years of relative peace, despite incidents, suggests a growing maturity in Tehran. As did the practical cooperation between the U.S. and Iran that defeated ISIS. Of course there will be saber rattling and grumbling about what is non-negotiable in a new accord. That’s how deals have begun in the Gulf for a long time.
When I was in Iran a few years ago, a takeaway from everyone I met was that Iranians fail to understand the role of domestic politics in U.S. foreign policy. There was only faint awareness of the influence of the evangelical voting bloc on Israel policy, and so little sense then of the powerful role U.S. domestic politics played in moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. Instead, Washington’s actions are imagined as nefarious evidence of anything and everything. Iran is a nation under attack. Zionist banks control the media. There is a dictatorship of the United Nations, Hollywood, and the International Monetary Fund. Then by the third cup of tea you get to the crazy stuff.
But the Iranian reaction has softened, to the point where they may be—maybe—ready to work within the complicated intersection of U.S. domestic policy, U.S. foreign policy, and their own needs for a new status quo in the Gulf that would allow some lifting of sanctions.
The Iranians, for example, did not overreact to the Jerusalem move. They did not press against the tender edges of the deal, when it was in place or not. They did not rise to the constant war bait the Trump administration dangled. They waited for Trump to leave office. They seemingly understood America’s motives are more complex than once thought, and they showed they are taking steps toward working inside the current geopolitical system by not seeking to muck things up.
People from the foreign ministry and former diplomats I met in Iran reflected on a deep frustration over having no Americans to talk to, unsure why more than 40 years after the Islamic Revolution the United States still questions the stability of Iran’s complex democratic theocracy. They wonder why the Voice of America still tries to stir up revolution.
Meanwhile, since I traveled, many of the people I met in Iran are now under USG sanction, first by Trump and continued by Biden. Staying in touch arouses the FBI’s suspicion and invites requests to “talk.” The silence from Washington, one older Iranian diplomat said, was like a phantom itch that people who have lost limbs sometimes experience, left from some past, stuck in the present, an itch there is no way to scratch. “The Americans seem to have quit trying,” he said.
It is time to try again. Reviving the nuclear deal is a place to start.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.