Response

U.S. Policymakers Are Misreading Iran

Ebrahim Raisi needs a deal. Military threats from Washington would derail any remaining hopes of achieving one.

By , a senior research analyst for the National Iranian American Council.
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi (C) gestures during his swearing in ceremony at the Iranian parliament in Tehran on Aug. 5.
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi (C) gestures during his swearing in ceremony at the Iranian parliament in Tehran on Aug. 5. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. and Iranian governments are at a critical juncture in their long-running feud. After months of delay, Iran’s new conservative presidential administration has said it will return to negotiations over restoring the 2015 nuclear deal on Nov. 29. This comes as the U.S. government and its allies have grown increasingly concerned that Iran is not serious about those talks succeeding, and they are raising prospects of a plan B to step up pressure on the Iranians. But in this period of uncertainty, many in Washington are misreading the signals out of Tehran and enacting a self-fulfilling prophecy that can doom diplomacy.

A recent piece for Foreign Policy by Dennis Ross blames a “loss of Iranian fear” for Iran’s expanding nuclear program. He argues diplomacy can only succeed if this fear is restored and the Biden administration applies “pressure far more effectively.” For Ross, this would come in the form of making it clear to Iran that it “risks its entire nuclear infrastructure” if it “makes a diplomatic outcome impossible.”

Ross rings the alarm bell about Iran’s nuclear expansion, which is undoubtedly a proliferation risk, but ignores any mention of the U.S. policy that led to this situation. Iran was fully complying with the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), until the Trump administration reneged and pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign of severe economic sanctions. Even then, Iran remained in line with the deal’s terms for one more year and only began reducing compliance with its nuclear restrictions after Europe failed to abide by its commitments in the deal in the face of U.S. secondary sanctions.

The U.S. and Iranian governments are at a critical juncture in their long-running feud. After months of delay, Iran’s new conservative presidential administration has said it will return to negotiations over restoring the 2015 nuclear deal on Nov. 29. This comes as the U.S. government and its allies have grown increasingly concerned that Iran is not serious about those talks succeeding, and they are raising prospects of a plan B to step up pressure on the Iranians. But in this period of uncertainty, many in Washington are misreading the signals out of Tehran and enacting a self-fulfilling prophecy that can doom diplomacy.

A recent piece for Foreign Policy by Dennis Ross blames a “loss of Iranian fear” for Iran’s expanding nuclear program. He argues diplomacy can only succeed if this fear is restored and the Biden administration applies “pressure far more effectively.” For Ross, this would come in the form of making it clear to Iran that it “risks its entire nuclear infrastructure” if it “makes a diplomatic outcome impossible.”

Ross rings the alarm bell about Iran’s nuclear expansion, which is undoubtedly a proliferation risk, but ignores any mention of the U.S. policy that led to this situation. Iran was fully complying with the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), until the Trump administration reneged and pursued a “maximum pressure” campaign of severe economic sanctions. Even then, Iran remained in line with the deal’s terms for one more year and only began reducing compliance with its nuclear restrictions after Europe failed to abide by its commitments in the deal in the face of U.S. secondary sanctions.

The track record of maximum pressure was a uniform failure on all fronts, and for U.S. President Joe Biden to revert to threats and increased pressure at this stage would be fatal to diplomacy.

The track record of maximum pressure was a uniform failure on all fronts, and for U.S. President Joe Biden to revert to threats and increased pressure at this stage would be fatal to diplomacy. The Biden administration is careful to not appear weak or accommodating to Iran, but in doing so it is sending the wrong signals. Ahead of the next round of talks, the United States must not misread Iranian posturing.

Rather than increased pressure, which created this mess to begin with, U.S. confidence-building measures at this stage would increase political space in Tehran for those who want a deal and argue there is a difference between the policies of the Trump and Biden administrations.

While many in Washington believe Iran has delayed negotiations as an excuse to advance its nuclear program and slowly kill the JCPOA, there is ample reason to believe the strategy of Iran’s new conservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, has more to do with Iranian domestic politics. Raisi has not ruled out the JCPOA but seeks to appear shrewder and less eager than his moderate predecessor, Hassan Rouhani.

The rise of a hard-liner critical of the JCPOA like Raisi was in important ways baked into the goals of the Trump administration’s Iran policy. Former President Donald Trump, by reneging on the deal even as Iran was complying and imposing “maximum pressure” to force its capitulation to far broader U.S. demands, humiliated Iranian moderates who staked their political capital on trusting the West. While Trump’s approach failed to change Iran’s foreign policies and strategically backfired by causing Tehran to massively expand its nuclear program, it did empower anti-JCPOA hard-liners in Iran, a publicly stated goal of Trump’s Iran hand Elliott Abrams.

It should be no surprise that Raisi is now playing hardball on the nuclear file in comparison to Rouhani. While Rouhani contended a deal to revive the JCPOA was at hand in his final weeks in office, Raisi’s administration has predictably gone out of its way to appear more uncompromising.

The JCPOA was Rouhani’s signature achievement, and its revival under his watch could have restored his legacy and the fortunes of Iran’s moderate political camp. For this reason, ascendant hard-liners ensured Rouhani could not finalize a JCPOA revival and engineered Iran’s June presidential election to ensure no moderate could seriously challenge Raisi. But this does not mean they do not want to restore the deal, and the sanctions-lifting that comes with it, albeit in their own way.

Unlike Rouhani, Raisi is a protege of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is immensely distrustful of the West and was always suspicious of the United States living up to its end of the JCPOA. Just before Rouhani left office, Khamenei made sure to publicly contradict him on the negotiations that began in Vienna to restore the JCPOA, saying the United States had not “moved one step forward” in the talks.

After the sixth round of Vienna talks ended in June, Rouhani said a deal was possible if his negotiators were given authority to finalize it. He said agreement was in fact possible as early as March, and he blamed a law passed by the hard-liner-dominated Iranian parliament mandating nuclear expansion for undermining his diplomatic efforts.

This is the critical context that Ross misses about Iran’s nuclear development in the past year. The parliamentary law was the result of a strategy by Iranian hard-liners to prevent a deal under Rouhani, not an attempt to kill the deal and gain permanent threshold nuclear status.

In July, Rouhani said “the opportunity had been taken” from his administration to restore the JCPOA and that Iran had lost “four, five, six months” on getting U.S. sanctions removed. Around the same time, Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, detailed to the Iranian parliament what he said was a “framework” agreement reached in Vienna. According to Zarif’s report, the United States agreed in Vienna to lift all sanctions that violate the JCPOA and to annul Trump-era sanctions on Khamenei’s office and the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Zarif told the parliament he was “hopeful” that Raisi would complete the negotiations at the start of his term.

Raisi was never going to immediately pick up where Rouhani left off and go straight back into the deal. Assuming he would shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Iranian politics.

Raisi, of course, did not heed Zarif’s advice. Instead, he has differentiated his administration’s approach to the JCPOA as much as possible without ruling out a return to the deal altogether. This is the critical factor that U.S. and other Western policymakers must not lose sight of. Raisi was never going to immediately pick up where Rouhani left off and go straight back into the deal. To think Raisi would have done so is to fundamentally misunderstand Iranian politics.

What Raisi has done instead is act within the guidance set out by Khamenei. Over the past year, Khamenei repeatedly has said Iran is in “no rush” to get back in the JCPOA.

While Raisi is now differentiating himself from Rouhani’s approach through delaying a return to Vienna, it is a leap to assume that Iran is now finished with the JCPOA. None of the rhetoric or actions of Raisi’s government suggest Iran is abandoning the deal. His foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has been careful to not appear overeager about the negotiations, but at the same time he has emphasized the goal being that “all sides without wasting time and in the shortest amount of time possible return to their JCPOA commitments.”

The fact is the JCPOA is necessary for Raisi’s economic vision to be successful. Raisi is currently riding high in public opinion polls, but this can rapidly change if negotiations fall apart, and Iran’s economic outlook becomes bleak. While Iran has weathered the twin blows of maximum pressure and the COVID-19 pandemic, with its Central Bank saying Iran is now out of recession, it cannot deepen its economic relations with the outside world so long as U.S. secondary sanctions are in effect. For Raisi, maximizing the economic potential of Iran’s recent entry in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and leaving a positive legacy for himself requires the lifting of U.S. secondary sanctions.

Ross’s suggestions, if pursued by Biden, would eliminate the remaining prospects for reviving the JCPOA and lock the United States and Iran in a dangerous escalation cycle. The JCPOA was a high-water mark for what can be achieved diplomatically in nuclear nonproliferation, and its revival is a core U.S. national security interest.

At this stage, a U.S. gesture of good will, in the form of freeing frozen Iranian assets abroad for the purchase of humanitarian goods, can help break down the wall of distrust between the two sides and give Raisi a path to coming back into full JCPOA compliance while saving face. 

Sina Toossi is a senior research analyst for the National Iranian American Council.

  Twitter: @SinaToossi

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