Iran’s head of the Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, warned the other day that his country expects the next US President to put the implementation of the nuclear deal “at risk”. “Regarding US presidential elections, we believe the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) may have more difficult days ahead, and I do not rule out the possibility that the new US president may put its implementation at risk. In that scenario, Tehran would take calculated measures, and we would not give an emotional response. We are patient,” Salehi said at a conference in London on September 15. The same tone will be amplified when President Hassan Rouhani arrives in New York for the annual UN meetings this month.
Next year, we may be in time to see one very complex diplomatic game: While Iran is expecting to come under pressure, it may opt for a more vigorous implementation of its favored policy of defiance and escalation covered with a thick layer of nice words. Tehran has mastered the language of international law and will certainly seek to gather more support in the global diplomatic theater. Tehran will root all its arguments in law-abiding language and will continue to walk the fine line of breaking the very law it parrots, but in a lawful way, so to speak.
On the other hand, the next US administration may be focusing on ways to find the proper approach to build enough global support for its policy. Hopefully, the new US strategy will be to pressure Iran to change its domestic and regional policies in a way that furthers positive economic and political behavior.
The next round, if we assume the US will follow this strategy, will be the period that will determine if the JCPOA will face an extreme stress test, ending with the deal’s collapse, or it will be the period in which Iran will go through some changes that will be reflected in its foreign policy.
We argue here that the issue is not the JCPOA in technical terms or within its literal text. All the region’s countries accepted the deal albeit with a hesitancy, not because of its terms, but because of its predictable impact. Until today, the argument against making the collapse of the JCPOA an objective is still valid. The main three points raised to defend the deal are: 1) Moving to undo the nuclear deal, as a strategy cited by some hardliners in Congress, will elicit substantial global pushback and will give Tehran the proper argument to amass support; 2) The collapse of the deal will not lead to the same pre-deal dynamics when Iran was globally isolated; and 3) A retreat from the deal now will play in the hands of Iranian hardliners and may end with Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb and pushing the situation in the region towards a dangerous escalation.
Conversely, a more sophisticated approach could be debated to reach a plan by which the JCPOA 10-year freeze is used not to normalize ties with Iran, hence fueling its intransigencies, but rather to fill in the holes of the current administration’s approach.
These holes were caused as a result of exaggerating the hoped-for constructive impact of the deal on Tehran’s policies by Washington strategists. This, in turn, was due to an overall naïve attempt by the Obama Administration to devise a new strategy in the Middle East as a whole. The approach was ill-conceived, based on multilayered errors, and had to resort to its “technical” success in transactional terms for self-justification. But this could not cover the fact that “the strategy” was thinned by realities into merely a technical deal.
The JCPOA will bring Iran one day. But this effect, as seen now, and as will mostly be seen during the 10-year freeze, is for the worse. Yet, in the view of many in Washington, this does not justify the rush of some political forces in Washington to shoot down the deal. The rush, in their view, will have limited chances for gaining traction globally, and if it does, the support will not produce the previous kind of pressure.
But this does not support the advocates of preserving the Obama administration’s approach either. This approach did not lead to blocking Iran from close coordination with Russia. It did not get Tehran to defuse regional tensions or restrain its support for terrorism. And it did not enhance the relatively moderate or pragmatic forces there.
One of the points that may be proposed is a strict separation between objectionable Iranian behavior and the JCPOA. While the separation may have been wrong during the period of the nuclear talk, now we are left with a signed deal anyway. The point of departure has been altered either we like it or not.
The field of Iran’s behavior has to be seen realistically, analyzed thoroughly and be allowed to propose its own counter measure. The main field of the JCPOA behavioral impact could be detected in several spots in the Middle East.
It is important to see first how the current administration has handled this particular point – Iran’s behavior in the post-JCPOA period.
To draw a fair picture representing this administration’s approach we have to go back to Secretary John Kerry’s last visit to Saudi Arabia on August 24. While there, Kerry discussed with Saudi leaders a proposal to end the Yemen war. The US proposal was based on talks with the Omanis to shape a process that could be acceptable to all parties, particularly after the quasi-failure of the UN approach. The Saudis gave an initial green light for the general line of Kerry’s proposal. After all, the approach correctly emphasized negotiations and has avoided any objectionable specifics.
On September 7, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon arrived in Muscat to be present in an Omani pre-arranged meeting with the Houthi rebels and the Saleh party (the General Popular Conference) to discuss the Secretary’s ideas. The meetings went on for two days.
Here is how the Iran-supported Houthi Spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam commented on the meeting: “We did not receive any official US proposals. Shannon talked about general ideas which do not differ in essence from those discussed in Kuwait [in the failed UN talks]. What changed are the titles and the appearance. There were no changes in the content and no written papers were submitted to us.”
The reason we cite this story about Yemen is that it gives an idea about the approach of this US administration to Iran in the post-JCPOA era. There have been two tracks proposed in this regard: either deal with the regional conflicts, in which Iran is deeply involved, through “the heads”, which are the Saudis and the Iranians, or try to de-escalate their conflict from the bottom up until reaching the proper temperature which allows for a fruitful top-down approach. We have seen an attempt to implement the bottom-up approach in Syria, then we have seen it again in Yemen through the attempted Omani talks.
But this approach risks being lost in mountains of detail and hundreds of regional groups and agendas (in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen). Local conflicts in the Middle East are details-maddening indeed.
But this is how the current US administration chose to deal with Iran’s regional behavior. Moreover, this approach lacks any ability to gain traction, not only because it is based on bottom-up logic, but because it lacks any ability to pressure the parties. Burkina Faso could as well intermediate to solve the Yemen war.
If we place this example in the context of the US approach to Iran under the new administration, we will see the obvious need for pressure points as much as for a correctly conceived diplomatic approach, a top-down approach, not the other way around.
Outlandish strategies like shooting down the JCOPA may only lead to longer Iranian defiance, potentially a nuclear bomb, and certainly more escalation in the Middle East. A different approach should be tried first.
The key to understanding internal political power trends in Iran is to focus on the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). Iran’s “Rambo”, General Qassem Suleimani, who was recently touted as a potential candidate in the next presidential elections, has based his political image on his military operations in Arab countries as the head of the IRGC’s elite Quds Forces. The role of Iran’s regional adventures is important in fueling Tehran’s hardliners. This role is backed by feverish effort to develop Iran’s missile arsenal, contrary to UNSC resolutions.
Without focusing on the IRGC, and more specifically without focusing on removing its image as the undefeated musketeers of the revolution, the pragmatic camp in Iran will not be able to push back against the IRGC or criticize its economic role. Every possible method for weakening the IRGC should be tried. And one of the key ways to do that is to foil its regional adventures.
It is not likely that Suleimani will run against Rouhani. But the issue is not here. The issue is simply devising a strategy to fill the apparent gap in the Obama administration’s approach to Iran and expediting any favorable changes within Tehran as a result of the JCPOA, all the while preserving the 10-year freeze. If we continue at the current rate, this grace period will pass quickly and we will be left with a more defiant Iran. The only difference is that it will be only a few weeks within reaching a nuclear weapon and with a developed missile arsenal.
To sum up, what we propose for debate in the area of how to deal with Iran is a multi-layered strategy which is based on the following points: preserve the technical transaction with Iran; confront the IRGC’s regional adventures; preserve the still-standing, though limited, sanctions regime; focus on the issues of Iran’s record in supporting terrorism and violating basic human rights; show a firmness that defiance and intervention will have real consequences; and offer some realistic ideas in order to open a constructive dialogue between Arab and Iranian leaders at the level of the governments of both sides.
If we reflect on all these points we will find one single common factor: The IRGC. And this is precisely where the minds should focus on.