Babylon the Great’s Clueless Diplomacy Won’t Stop a Nuclear Iran

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, speaks to the press in front of  the Palais Coburg in Vienna on Dec. 27, 2021.

The United States’ Clueless Diplomacy Won’t Stop a Nuclear Iran

A new nuclear deal will strengthen the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps without derailing the regime’s long-term ambitions.

March 25, 2022, 8:00 AM

The Iran nuclear deal of 2015 is dead. It has lost all meaning. What Iran has achieved since then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 is irrevocable. Iran has mastered nuclear processes and developed novel ways of defending its nuclear sites.

More notably, Iran cannot and will not give up on a national project it has so heavily invested in over many decades and paid for in treasure and in blood. It is an issue of self-esteem, statecraft, ideology, and threat perception. Even with the best of intentions and the strictest of commitments, the old nuclear deal cannot be sustainably revived; it will be unstable. Whether an agreement is signed in Vienna or not is of little consequence.

Reaching arrangements on nuclear technicalities is important, but it will be incomplete if not anchored in a pertinent political setting. The conflict is not technical; it is political. Miss the politics and the technical arrangements wobble; address the politics and the other details will follow. The rot started to set in long before Trump’s withdrawal; the political climate shifted when Iran did not feel that sanctions were truly lifted and the United States became increasingly frustrated with Iran’s regional behavior and its missile program. Neither side had to withdraw for the spirit of the deal to eventually fizzle out.

At present, the United States does not have an overarching, coherent policy on Iran; it proceeds piecemeal without a political foundation. “Putting Iran back in the box” is unachievable; it will not begin to solve the problems that a nuclear Iran exemplifies.

The 2015 deal was achieved because it was part of wider, albeit vague, political considerations. Today, the political context is completely different, and negotiations are proceeding as if it is still 2015, when both parties were more willing to trust each other and anticipation for cooperation on broader issues was more evident. Seven turbulent years later, those budding early hopes have been irretrievably dashed.

When an agreement on the nuclear deal is reached, a likely possibility, it will be an absolute win for the Iranians, not different from the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and a triumph for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Americans long believed that the struggle for power in Iran was between extremists and moderates, or between fundamentalists and reformists.

That is simplistic; the real, often inaudible, struggle has been between the IRGC and the official state and its military. The military defends the state; the IRGC defends the revolutionThe tension between them is palpable. It’s not unlike the strain between Joseph Stalin’s “socialism in one country” and Leon Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” in the Soviet Union.

The IRGC was formed to counter the influence and power of the regular military and to protect the Islamic system from intrusion and coups. It often challenges the regular armed forces, and its intelligence arm does not always see things the same way as Iran’s primary intelligence agency.

A deal for Iran is not the endgame but a station on a long journey of confronting its enemies and buttressing its power.

The 2015 deal was between the world powers and the Iranian state represented by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The IRGC was not properly present in those talks. It did not like the deal. Sometimes its criticism was vocal and loud; other times it was guileful and insidious. It had to go along with the deal, because that was the wish of the supreme leader, who did not take a strong position for or against but allowed the deal to go through, waiting for it to collapse. Surreptitiously, and sometimes overtly, he was on the side of the IRGC.

With the Vienna process, the Iranian domestic balance of power was beginning to shift, intensified by displeasure with the flimsy economic returns of the original deal, U.S. withdrawal from it, Israeli attacks on nuclear sites and scientists, and the expansion of the IRGC’s reach in the region. The IRGC had always had its eye on fully taking over the nuclear file from the state; Vienna provided the opportunity and the push, and the U.S. administration has been an unwitting partner in that effort.Read MoreA New Iran Deal Means Old ChaosRussia’s ‘Eleventh-Hour’ Interference in the Iran Deal

The United States has unknowingly helped the IRGC prevailU.S. faltering on reversing Trump’s withdrawal from the deal and stuttering on lifting the sanctions catapulted the IRGC into a central position. Contemplating removing the group’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization is not a last-minute afterthought; it is a natural progression of the Vienna talks. Iran was allowed, with little U.S. resistance, to determine the form, structure, agenda, calendar, pace, and the level of participants in the talks to suit its goals—an incredible feat.

The United States started on the wrong foot. It showered the Iranians with gratifying gifts: removing the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen from the State Department terrorist list, pressuring the Saudis to unilaterally end the war there, reassessing U.S. military sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, quietly rolling back support for the Abraham Accords by downgrading them and reverting to the old much-tried and tired discourse on Arab-Israeli peace, lifting a handful of sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector as evidence of Washington’s good faith approach, withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq, and withdrawing shambolically from Afghanistan.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan was a pivotal moment. It demonstrated to Iran that the United States will leave under pressure, is ultimately helpless in an asymmetrical war, is incompetent in its flight, does not rescue even its closest cohorts, would leave the field to its declared enemies, and could be desperate enough to rely on tiny Qatar to bail it out and represent it with the Taliban, whom the United States has fought for 20 years. It is naive to believe that all of these factors were not noticed by the Iranians and have not played a central role in shaping their approach to talks in Vienna.

The new powers in Iran wanted, just like the Taliban in their negotiations with the United States in Qatar, two things: time and a shielding diplomatic cover. Just like the Taliban, they got them. The IRGC got valuable time from the United States in return for just turning up in Vienna. The Taliban used time to prepare to capture Kabul under the protection of diplomatic negotiations that ended U.S. military attacks. In Vienna, the IRGC employed time to charge forward in the nuclear file and harass U.S. presence in the region by attacking U.S. targets in both Iraq and Syria under the cover of talks that bestowed protection from U.S. military strikes and a ceiling to Israeli military attacks.

The U.S. administration refuses to acknowledge that it has been taken for a ride and persists in advancing brighter narratives. 

Iran did not even have to negotiate directly with U.S. officials. What the United States got in return is not evident. Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban, and the Iranian nuclear project had its most remarkable growth and is now largely under the patronage of the IRGC. The U.S. administration refuses to acknowledge that it has been taken for a ride and persists in advancing brighter narratives.

Tehran has a clear, comprehensive, and consistent strategy. From early on, it said it was not interested in negotiations; the United States unilaterally left the 2015 nuclear deal, and it has now to return and lift sanctions. It is unclear what the American strategy is. Stressing the primacy of “diplomacy,” inserting the Europeans in the talks when Washington constantly called for direct engagement with the Iranians, waving vague “deadlines,” and threatening “other” or “all” options, in case the talks fail, does not make a strategy. There is no more talk of a “longer, stronger, broader” deal, of Iran’s missile program or its regional activities.

Iran had the backing of Russia and China, both of which pretended to be impartial parties in step with the Europeans but were, in fact, developing a ubiquitous strategic alliance with Iran that goes beyond the nuclear issue. They exuded optimism and bonhomie that kept discussions going, which was what Iran wanted. The Americans believed that Russia and China were as concerned with Iran going nuclear as themselves; that is not the case. They may not be much pleased with a nuclear Iran, but their geostrategic priorities lie elsewhere—in their faceoff with the United States.

They want a seat at the table, but their calculations have to do with other issues. The United States did not make best use of the historical mistrust between Persians and Russians that goes back centuries; it actually made their reconciliation easier by being oblivious to the new emerging ties between the two countries. Iran is scrambling to take advantage of the Ukraine crisis to further its own interests, such as selling its much-yearned-for oil at current high prices, and Russia is less forthcoming in its support of the West now, as shown by the apparent stalling tactic of linking the deal to sanctions on Russia.

Having made the most out of and exhausted the talks, Iran is ready to move to the next stage of its strategy and sign a deal that allows it to continue with its plans under new boundaries and with plenty of opportunities.

A deal for Iran is not the endgame but a station on a long journey of confronting its enemies and buttressing its power. It is not important by itself. The nuclear deal is of lesser concern than other factors—the survival and security of the regime and the capacity to project regional leadership, ascendancy, and supremacy. Kicking out U.S. forces from the Middle East and restricting U.S. reach feature prominently in Iranian plans.

Iran is also building and supporting parallel institutions across the region to compete with traditional state structures inherited from the West. Where this vision will end is not entirely clear; it is a work in progress. The IRGC in Iran, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, various militias in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories, the Houthis in Yemen, and others elsewhere—these are parts of the same project and are integral to IRGC strategy. They are obliquely present in Vienna.

There are two insurmountable black holes in the American approach to Iran’s nuclear issue: If Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the Iran deal was “catastrophic,” as his successor Joe Biden’s team keeps on reminding us, then why didn’t the new administration unilaterally and immediately stop and reverse what it views as a calamitous policy?

Surely, a catastrophe should not be allowed even one extra day with or without negotiations. The Americans were concerned about appearing weak, but do U.S. concessions at the start of talks project more American weakness than added concessions down the line? A little more time under sanctions may have, in fact, suited Iran’s plans.

Iran has often calculated that the daily benefit in advancing its nuclear program outweighs the daily suffering from sanctions.

Iran has often calculated that the daily benefit in advancing its nuclear program outweighs the daily suffering from sanctions. Paradoxically, the early lifting of sanctions might have provided the leverage that the sanctions themselves have clearly failed to do, as Iran was openly committed to abiding by the 2015 deal. If the United States had moved quickly to rejoin the deal and lift sanctions, Iran would have had to rapidly acquiesce and comply. The balance of power would have still favored the state, away from the IRGC, for which reviving the old deal was not the highest priority.

The Biden administration appeared to be suggesting that Trump’s withdrawal strategy was fine until negotiations were concluded; it did not seem to have a better alternative to replace it with. Trump consistently argued that withdrawing from the deal and imposing further sanctions were a path to talks.

The much-maligned Trump policy is exactly what Biden’s people have championed: sanctions until Iran comes to the table and negotiates a new deal. It is absurd that what the U.S. administration considers to be its most commanding leverage with Iran (sanctions) is at the same time a crucial component of what the administration itself considers to be a defective and dangerous procedure that achieved the opposite of what it intended and is responsible for Iran’s nuclear advances.

Some in Washington probably thought, “What’s the hurry? Let’s leave the Iranians to stew more under sanctions.” That was a mistake. Iran was hurting and openly admitted that, but it was not stewing. Washington forgot that the mullahs have been under sanctions for more than 40 years but have hardly changed their political comportment. There were no indications that further pressure would produce the desired results.

Recent film footage from Tehran does not display misery and desolation; it certainly confirms more prosperity than, say, Baghdad or Cairo. Meanwhile, suffering is celebrated and is of an exalted value in Shiite Islam, not dissimilar to Christ on the cross for some Christians—this is not well understood by those calling for more or longer sanctions.

Lifting U.S. sanctions is important for Iran, but it’s not the most urgent task, except for a thin wedge within the ruling elite. When Tehran engaged in Vienna, it had a complex scale of interests and practices that determined its conduct. The United States had a simpler goal: stopping Iran from acquiring a bomb, which is most of what the talks were about. Tehran’s nefarious conduct in the region and its ballistic missile program could be discussed at a later date.

The other black hole is the Iranian demand for “guarantees” that a nuclear deal will not suffer a Trump-type cancellation. In the Middle East, it is ordinarily seen as peculiar that a democracy such as the United States can reverse public pledges through sheer personal whims. That type of conduct is more associated with despots and dictators.

The agreements that are reached with America are presumed to be institutional, not personal. The “no guarantees” school would have validated and legitimized the repeal of past commitments and rendered future undertakings meaningless and governed by private impulses. It would have allowed a future Arab leader, under various pretexts, to decide to withdraw from peace treaties with Israel, irrespective of legal niceties.

For the Iranians, the absence of guarantees echoes that a nuclear agreement signed with the United States does not have sufficient American political backing for it to be enduring, hence Iran has to tread carefully and be extra cautious in giving up material assets as it tests the fortitude of U.S. compliance to a deal, which could undermine the agreement.

If the United States is unable to give guarantees, then without question, Iran will not be expected to give them as well.

Perhaps the most severe hazard of not allowing Iran the assurances it seeks lies in a different place. If the United States is unable to give guarantees, then without question, Iran will not be expected to give them as well. This means that if circumstances arise when Iran feels the need and can swiftly acquire the capability to go fully nuclear, it can do so without technically rescinding its obligation to the new nuclear agreement, as it includes no guarantees of nonwithdrawal.

Iran could withdraw without breaking the agreement—a ludicrous outcome. Iran would not leave abruptly à la Trump; it would creep toward the exit with minimum clatter. A no-guarantee clause; the precedence of Trump’s withdrawal; interpretations of texts; accusations of noncompliance; the expertise to neutralize future sanctions; the deepening of ties with Russia, China, and regional parties; and possible Israeli attacks that Iran will claim are U.S.-approved may all contribute to the justification of Iranian withdrawal from the agreement.

If estimates of Iranian progress in their nuclear project are true, the West might not have the necessary time or motivation to gather its wits and resources to confront such a prospect. Further talks may frustrate, and other options could turn obsolete. In essence, the nuclear agreement will unravel, permitting Iran additional time and cover to pursue its goals.

Agreements work when the politics in which they are embedded is right; that was what happened in 2015, despite the fragility of the milieu. The Oslo Accords between the Israelis and Palestinians, though dissimilar in nature, is a vivid example. They were signed 30 years ago, were supposed to conclude in five years, functioned for three years, and, when the politics changed, went into deep freeze, never reaching their final destination without any party formally withdrawing from them.

As the Oslo Accords clearly reveal, accepting an agreement and not repealing it does not guarantee that it will be implemented. A deal in Vienna may suffer the same fate if the politics is left to fester.

The Iranian nuclear program was launched in the 1950s with the help of the United States. Western cooperation ceased only following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. When Iran, irrespective of what regime is in power, looks around and sees itself fenced in by a nuclear Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel—and further afield the United States, the United Kingdom, France and North Korea—it wonders why it has been left out.

As a proud nation and an ancient civilization, Iran feels a profound cultural imperative not to be excluded from the nuclear club. The problem for the region and the world may not be a nuclear Iran but its behavior, which, puzzlingly, is not subject to the agreement.

Indeed, there will always be historical trajectories invigorated by profound psychological narratives and intense collective self-awareness that cannot be reversed through violence or diplomacy—only delayed.

If a deal is finally sealed at long last, U.S. and Iranian officials are likely to leave the talks in the same emotional state—buoyed by disparate cultural references.

After the Iranians sign an agreement in Vienna, what may echo in their minds on the flight home to Tehran is a well-known Islamic teaching attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, loosely translated as: “a believer should not be stung two times in the same spot.” And, as they exhale a sigh of relief on their way back to Washington from the Austrian capital, the Americans may be humming along with the singer Kelis: “You might trick me once; I won’t let you trick me twice.”

Both will be disappointed.

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