Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.07.05

Iranian, Israeli and U.S. hard-liners muddle nuclear deal prospects

the japan times on June 24, 2021

National Security The U.S.A. Middle East

A cautious optimism prevails among some pundits in Washington and Tehran for the resurrection of the nuclear deal reached in 2015. They are oddly optimistic despite no assurances of success as the window of opportunity to reach an agreement following Iran’s recent election appears to be closing rapidly.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, took a severe hit in 2018 when the Trump administration withdrew from the agreement. But many in Tokyo last week thought the game was really over when Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative hard-line Islamic scholar, was elected as Iran’s president.

The optimists say the coming few weeks could be critical for both the Biden and Rouhani administrations to revive the nuclear deal, which for lack of a better word, is now in a coma. Some even warn that this could be the last chance to save the agreement before Raisi is sworn in as president in August.

Talking hope

A recent New York Times article noted that Iran’s supreme leader “wants to restore a nuclear agreement” and since “the detailed wording of the resurrected agreement was worked out weeks ago,” the final decision “could come in the next few weeks, before Mr. Raisi is inaugurated.”

I sincerely hope so. But with that said, as a longtime veteran of Middle East politics, I am skeptical. My experience tells me what could go wrong in the region will most likely go wrong. In that part of the world, people often conflate hopes and dreams with reality and facts. Those are the lessons I learned in the Middle East.

According to the New York Times article, to my surprise, the “Iranians have demanded a written commitment that no future American government could scrap the deal as Mr. Trump did. They want something permanent.” The problem is no U.S. president would or could agree to such a condition.

The Biden administration, the article continues, “wants Iran to agree, in writing, to return to the negotiating table as soon as the old deal is restored and begin hammering out the terms of a bigger, longer, and stronger agreement.” No Iranian president could accept that, either.

A hard-line trifecta

To make matters worse, a perfect storm similar to what was experienced between 2005 and 2013 is brewing. At the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an anti-American conservative hard-liner, was the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In those years, President Ahmadinejad had the perfect enemies that allowed him to advance his agenda, namely Israel’s right-wing conservative prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the so-called “neocons” in Washington, who were influential conservative policymakers and very pro-Israel.

The three complemented each other. Ahmadinejad needed Netanyahu to legitimatize his anti-American, anti-Israel positions both domestically and internationally. It was a similar situation for Netanyahu, who needed a cause to justify his hard-line policies. And the neocons needed the rivalry between the other two to boost their influence in Washington.

A similar situation is returning. In August, Tehran will inaugurate a new president who is a scholar and politician known for his ultraconservative, anti-American and anti-Israeli views. Jerusalem has a new prime minister now who is arguably no less antagonistic toward Tehran than Netanyahu was.

A Rouhani deal

If Hassan Rouhani, the outgoing president of Iran, decides he wants to reach a deal with the United States, he must first get permission from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, to start new negotiations. The Americans, for their part, will do their best to further limit Iran’s nuclear and missile development programs, as well as their ambitions to expand their influence in the region.

If I were a U.S. negotiator, I would not lift the sanctions against Iran unless it halts or curbs its nuclear and missile programs and pulls back on its support for groups such as Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, just to name a few. Still, the new president of Iran could never agree to such terms and Mr. Khamenei would never approve to such a deal, which would only endanger his legitimacy and ability to stay in power.

If Biden backs off

If Biden decides to make a deal with Rouhani before he leaves the presidency in August, the United States would have to at least hint that Washington will not abandon the agreement again — a move that would tie his hands in future negotiations. Such a predicament would surely please former President Donald Trump and his hard-liners, as well as promote further Islamic xenophobia in the United States.

A status quo mirage

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote, “So, when dealing with Iran, you do what you can, where you can, how you can, but with the understanding that (1) perfect is not on the menu and (2) Iran’s Islamic regime is not going to change.”

He continued, as I fully agree, that Iran’s “savvy and ruthless clerics found a way to never fully give up their nuclear capacity. The negotiations always came down to the same thing: trying to get the best from Iran that money or covert action could buy.”

If so, where does the world go from here? As in the case of China, such a proud empire cannot be pressured to change from the outside. What can best be expected is change from within, namely an erosion in the support for the 42-year-old Islamic revolution by ordinary Iranians.

The last thing that is needed to make this happen is to animate and invigorate the three hard-line camps in Tehran, Jerusalem and Washington who feed off each other’s agendas. What is required is the patience to allow the desired change in Tehran and Iran to occur from within.