The JCPOA: a Eulogy
The United States never retreats on anything. That might be a real danger in the current geopolitical struggle.
William Safire, the famed New York Times columnist who thought suicidal nationalism was a great idea for the Ukrainians back in 1991, used to write columns in which he peered into the souls of various leaders to see how the world looked from their point of view. Safire’s oeuvre of columns was a great illustration of how infinite talent, when hitched to bad ideas, makes plodding types seem like geniuses—though Bill was always fun and entertaining, unlike fellow columnist Abe Rosenthal, who wrote about America’s adversaries like he’d just emerged from the State of Nature (Hobbes’s, not Rousseau’s).
Peering into the souls of the parties to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is, then, a good idea, but one especially difficult to prosecute today. For one thing, the onset of the Total Economic War Against Russia (TEWAR) must be seen as altering the calculations of the parties in central ways, though exactly how is a bit obscure. For another, we don’t know basic things about the terms of the putative agreement, the one that is basically all wrapped up. How many sanctions on the Iranians would be lifted? How much ready cash would they get? Not clear.
Also unclear is the status of the Russian objections to the accord that were stated by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on March 8. Those had two components, one of which was that there should be no obstruction to the technical details of the plan, in which Russia is to play a vital role. That has been accepted. The other condition is that a renewed agreement must provide “for the absence of any obstacles to [Russian] trade, economic and investment relations with Iran.” That has not been accepted. In his March 15 press briefing, Lavrov didn’t mention this condition, the far more critical condition. According to observers close to the Vienna talks, that Russian condition has not been withdrawn. It is completely unacceptable to Washington. In Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s view, the Ukraine sanctions are “totally different from the JCPOA, “not in any way linked together.” The Russians say they are. The gap looks unbridgeable.
Beyond the discrete issues there is the fact that the participants to the deal are sniping at one another in vitriolic terms. Washington seems set on drawing up war crimes charges against the Russian leadership; the Russians say that the Americans are straight out liars. Both sides seem much more intent on assigning responsibility for the collapse of the deal than actually reaching a deal.
The conclusion seems unavoidable that the JCPOA is doomed. Perhaps it is not quite dead, but it is near death. It may be too early to conduct an autopsy of the cause of death, with so much still unknown, but a few observations on that score are offered here. We will conclude with a eulogy.
To external appearances, Washington’s motive for getting to an agreement on a revived JCPOA was the desire to get Iranian oil onto the market. That would mitigate the explosive effect on the oil price of the TEWAR. That seems at first sight a sufficient reason to forecast Russian obstruction, on the “whatever you want, we don’t want” principle, but the question is more complicated. Lavrov says the extra 2 million barrels a day is not a big deal and that Russia favors it. Any effect on oil prices would be handled by OPEC+, led by Saudi Arabia and Russia. What do the Saudis think about this?
While President Biden has had conversations with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, he has not since his inauguration had a single conversation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The background story is that MBS is not returning Biden’s calls and doesn’t care what he thinks. Biden denounced the Crown Prince as a murderous thug during the 2020 campaign, while adding that the Saudi government has “very little social redeeming value.” His administration made clear that relations with Saudi Arabia had been recalibrated as of January 20, 2021, which downgraded MBS’s social credit score to junk. So a personal chat would be awkward.
Biden’s conversations with the king, too, are unlikely to have been especially productive, as the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques has been beset by Alzheimer’s for over five years. The meaningful part of this embarrassing situation is that the actual ruler of Saudi Arabia, the crown prince, would much prefer a conversation with Putin than with Biden. America’s influence with the World’s Oil Despots isn’t what it used to be.
This is important. On March 19, one of the world’s foremost authorities on energy said that “oil markets are in an emergency situation” which could get a lot worse.
What of Russia’s interest in nuclear non-proliferation? Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on March 8 that Russia remained “engaged” in efforts to revive the Iran deal, “and it has its own interests in ensuring that Iran is not able to acquire a nuclear weapon.” In other words, Russia fears an Iranian bomb. That is not exactly wrong, but baldly stated it can also be very misleading, because Russia fears an Iranian bomb a lot less than America or Israel or Saudi Arabia does, and for different reasons.
Russia has shared a general “world order” interest in strongly discouraging nuclear proliferation, but one more power to the south with the bomb—China, India, Pakistan, and Israel now have them—would not be especially dangerous to Moscow. The Russians don’t buy the Washington narrative that mad-crazed mullahs are thirsting for a bomb so they can blow up Israel and then America. Iran, of course, denies that it seeks one, though it is impossible to know with what degree of credence Russia takes these pledges.
The Russians certainly sympathize with the Iranian position that Iran has been subject to discriminatory standards by the western powers. As they’re both now in the pirate’s den, they will commiserate with one another on that point. But Russia did genuinely want a deal and wanted it for the reason most sensible people in the West did. It saw as well as anyone in the early 2010s that an Iranian bomb could be an explosive cause of war, if only because Israel and America had stated it to be such. One famous journalist, we may recall, said an Israeli attack on Iran was imminent in 2012. So the Russians favored and even facilitated the compromise. Indeed, they kept doing so until the Ukraine War. On February 23, the day before Putin launched his invasion, the Washington Postreported that “several officials” had praised the role of Russia and China in the negotiations. The two powers had been “cooperative and active in pushing for an agreement.”
That was then. Now, given that the United States is pressed in both Europe and East Asia, the Russians might not mind a refocusing of Washington’s attention on the Iran nuclear danger. A breakdown of the deal would do that.
The United States could avoid this unpleasant outcome by accepting Lavrov’s conditions, but it just can’t. It never retreats from anything, just hunkers down in applying pressure. It got out of Afghanistan, but it did not accept its defeat, aiming still after all these years to dictate the form of government the people of Afghanistan shall have. This bullheadedness is rather unusual in diplomatic history, and it has stemmed from America’s unique position as the unipolar power, rare in the classic history of the European system over five centuries. But it is a vital legacy from the past decades, much harder to give up than nicotine addiction. Washington’s refusal to concede any merit to the Russian position should therefore win the day, as it always seems to do. We’re back to where we started. No deal, with both sides parting with declarations that the breakdown is the other state’s fault.
The Iran hawks always wanted that outcome, as they hated the JCPOA, but a breakdown now has a fundamentally different meaning than previously. The target of opportunity in Iran, in these circumstances, gains protection from the swirling U.S. crises in Europe and East Asia with Russia and China.
The thesis that the parties can’t get to a signing ceremony may, for reasons unknown, be wrong. Let’s assume it is wrong. Would the JCPOA then survive the Washington gauntlet? The executive-congressional basis for an accord is obscure, but the intention previously stated was that the administration was “girding itself for a vote” in Congress. How that would work was never clear, in part because the full details of the putative agreement, especially on sanctions relief, aren’t known. But inevitably the administration would come to Congress on an awkward footing.
Over the last five years, the biggest obstacle to an agreement was not Russia but Washington. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia opposed the JCPOA back in 2015. The Obama administration made the initial deal over the opposition of both Crown Prince Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To reassure them, the Obama administration said that the agreement would not imperil their security. Yes, the deal had required some painful compromises, but it also had tons of safeguards. It was a lot better than the alternative. “We understand you disagree,” said the Obama administration in effect, “but also understand that we have no intention of breaking our friendship and that we fully appreciate your security concerns.” In 2015, the administration was politically vulnerable at home, charged with the sin of “selling out its allies.” It made repeated efforts to reassure them.
That was 2015. Right now, in the last few weeks, the primary motive has seemed to change. It finds Biden’s people greedily eyeing that extra two million barrels of oil a day and just maybe some gas for Europe. The administration has resolutely denied that this is its primary motivation for the deal. The primary motive, they say, remains the same: the deal on the merits, especially its vital contribution in preventing an Iranian bomb. The Iranian oil is an after-dinner cognac, not the main dish.
To critics, however, the explanation would look very fishy. The Biden administration has been in office for over the year. Why, the critics would ask, the zeal now for an agreement, as opposed to a year ago? If the United States waived its previous objections, why were they given up? Why were they important previously and then not important? Riyadh and Jerusalem would ask themselves these questions. Nay, in the very bowels of neoconservatism, which wants both to crush Russia and protect Israel, these questions would be asked. Republicans would ask such questions not to get answers—they’ve already made up their mind—but to pummel the administration.
The introduction of the two-million-barrel-motive onto the political table wounds the original promise, which was that the Iran deal was all about security. Now, it’s obviously about not just that, but something else, and the desire to get that something else would cast a very sooty pall over its reception in Congress.
The likely Republican sweep of the 2022 congressional mid-terms also suggests a limited shelf-life for any deal, like a six-month apartment lease with an option to leave if the apt. dweller got sick of living there. Whatever Biden achieves is easily reversed, as Obama’s signature accomplishment was reversed. Surely all the parties to the negotiations are aware of the U.S. record in that respect. But even putting aside what looks like a grim thrashing in November, the deal might not pass muster with Congress even before that fearful electoral reckoning. Check out Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland’s testimony to Congress on March 8. She was beset by a pack of Republican barkers, appalled that she should ever think of engaging in such a sordid transaction as the liberation of Iranian oil.
The people against the Iran deal—that odd eyrie of hawks and neocons, of Atlantic Council types and Atlantic Magazine scribblers—wanted its breakdown because they wanted to set the Iranian program to rights, by economic coercion if possible, through force if necessary. They had read their Machiavelli and knew that the secret to Rome’s success was to encounter one enemy at a time, each adversary too dim-witted to see the danger. They assumed that the opportunity to squeeze Iran, opened by the collapse of the diplomatic track, would arise without a searing international crisis elsewhere. Then history messed with their plans. Now that escalation with Russia is on everybody’s mind, and China has been since 2020 America’s biggest strategic threat, how would escalation with Iran look? From a geostrategic point of view, not too well, but you can bet that a breakdown of the agreement will lead to renewed furor in Washington about the danger of an Iranian bomb.
That intra-Washington spat would not be unwelcome in Moscow right now. It would open up a new front against the Americans, in a Sun Tzu kind of way, whereby the United States is sorely tempted to use its strength against Iran, but with consequences that would weaken it on the Russia front. A U.S. war with Iran, even the threat of such, would mean, in practice, a great diversion from the goings-on in Europe. Both the threat of force and the act of force would violate the UN Charter. An actual war would have extremely icky consequences for the world oil price, a factor making for restraint in a town not known for such.
The United States has a three-and-a-half-war foreign policy, alongside a one-and-a-half-war military strategy, yet it abhors the idea of retrenchment. Big Problem.
Here we come to the eulogy. The JCPOA will one day be seen like Minsk 2, a phantom of the prelapsarian imagination. These agreements, reached in 2015, were valiant efforts to solve or mitigate intractable conflicts that clearly had further war-producing potential. Their making, conducted by distinguished diplomats like Frank-Walter Steinmeier, John Kerry, and Mohammad Javad Zarif, showed real skill and honest endeavor, with heart and head in tune, trying to do the right thing well. The sinking feeling is that they—and agreements like them—arose in another era and are doomed in the new era. These compromises are incompatible with the spirit of the new age. They have fallen and will continue to fall before the “no more neutrals” sentiment prevailing in Washington.
David Hendrickson is president of the John Quincy Adams Society and the author of Republic in Peril: American Empire and the Liberal Tradition (Oxford, 2018). His website is davidhendrickson.org.