Well, hello there! Once again, I have gone far too long without offering a reason for why I suddenly ceased posting on this page. The primary explanation is that this is a vanity project and I was, to put it mildly, too busy to find the time to do the research, writing, and occasional editing that makes this website worthwhile. Between work, family, moving house, another hip surgery, and the generic rigamarole of daily life with a small child, there simply wasn’t time left over for unpaid and under-read blogging. Yet there is a better answer here: I was working on some other academic projects that gobbled up the remainder of what little free time I had. Among those projects was a book, my first, which as of a few weeks ago, is now in review for publication with Hurst/Oxford University Press! The book is an outgrowth and update of my doctoral thesis, focusing on the Iran-Israel conflict and the political narratives that define and drive their competition. I will have more details as the publication date nears, but for now, you can check out the cover art and a brief description over on Hurst’s website. Sign up for their mailing list if you want timely notice on their newest publications, including my book once it comes out.
This is the part where I pledge, yet again, to get back to posting here with more frequency. I hope this will be the case in the weeks and months. There’s more than enough going on in the world today, particularly with Iran, to justify some independent and, at least in my view, levelheaded analysis. With so much on my plate, I can’t make promises, but I’ll do my best. In an age of 280-character soundbites, I think maintaining some degree of long-form focus on a singular and complex issue like Iran and its foreign affairs is important and necessary. This is not to say that there aren’t any good writers and researchers working on this topic already, but I hope to do what I can to provide even a bit more commentary on the edges. You never know what someone might find helpful or informative. Alright, enough with the self-veneration. Let’s get [back] on with the show.
Last we left off in February 2021, things weren’t looking so hot. Despite Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election and his assumption of office in January 2021, Iran-US relations had yet to show much sign of improvement from the historic lows reached during Trump’s final year in office. The U.S. was out of the JCPOA (a.k.a. the Iran deal), which while still nominally “in effect,” no longer served any discernable diplomatic or security purpose; Iran was systematically breaching its pledged commitment to the deal, enriching and stockpiling uranium to levels that put it within a stone’s throw of compiling enough fissile material for constructing a nuclear weapon; and the U.S. was imposing so-called “maximum pressure” economic sanctions — originally initiated by Trump as punishment for Iran’s nefarious behavior — on Iran for its misbehavior.
All those things are still true!
The first ten months of the Biden administration was a prolonged exercise in finger-pointing between Iran and the United States, with each declaring that it was the other’s responsibility to take the first step back toward restoration of the original JCPOA. The United States demanded that Iran descale its nuclear program back within the original deal’s terms before dropping sanctions. The Iranians, meanwhile, argued that the United States, having been the first to breach the agreement, should have to roll back sanctions and return to compliance before Iran does the same.
The Biden administration’s decision to insist on an Iran-first approach effectively eliminated the possibility of any engagement with Hassan Rouhani’s moderate/reformist coalition administration during its final few months in office. While it’s true that the unelected portions of the Iranian regime, namely Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, was reluctant to hand a political “victory” to Rouhani in the twilight of his regime — particularly as it planned a transition to a more hardline government in the 2021 presidential election (more on that in a moment) — the Biden administration didn’t exactly make it difficult for the Iranians to say no. Biden’s failure to show any sort of contrition or even bare acknowledgment of the missteps of the Trump administration in its handling of Iran relations and the JCPOA bolstered Iran’s argument for hardening its stance toward the West. From the Iranian perspective, the rationale was simple: if Biden was essentially maintaining the same “maximum pressure” sanctions as Trump and using them as leverage against Iran, then was there really any difference between the two men?
In mid-2021, Iranians went to the polls to “elect” a new president. In a severely restricted and highly orchestrated affair, they chose Ibrahim Raisi, a devout hardline cleric and consummate regime insider who had previously served in high-level unelected roles throughout the Iranian system, including as head of the judiciary. Even by the degraded standards of Iranian electoral politics, the 2021 vote stood out as especially undemocratic. The Guardian Council eliminated the vast majority of candidates, including all viable reformist and moderate politicians, making it easy for Raisi, who had been thoroughly defeated by Hassan Rouhani in the more open 2017 presidential election, to secure victory. Most Iranians voted with their feet, or rather without them, by choosing to stay home rather than cast a ballot.
Upon entering office, Raisi took his time in resuming negotiations. As expected, he installed a hardline cabinet that held little affinity for or experience in the West, a stark contrast to Rouhani’s cabinet which featured American doctoral degree holders than the cabinets of many European countries. After weeks of speculation, talks between Iran, the P4+1 (China, Russia, Great Britain, and France, plus Germany), and the United States finally began on November 29, 2021.
Initially, the hope was that these talks would progress fairly rapidly toward a restoration of the JCPOA. Perhaps, a few naive optimists wondered, they might even expand on and enhance the previous agreement to further constrain Iran’s nuclear program or reign in its malign behavior. Naturally, these dreams evaporated almost immediately upon the parties’ arrival in Vienna. The Iranians showed up with surprising new demands, making it difficult for negotiators to find areas of shared understanding. Further complicating matters was that, in contrast to the original JCPOA negotiations, the United States and Iran were no longer talking directly to each other. Instead, they communicated through European intermediaries shuttling between the two camps in Vienna.
Slowly, Iran and the United States worked their way toward something resembling an agreement, which, according to most observers, looks unsurprisingly similar to the original JCPOA.
The most significant remaining issue involves the legal status of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. In 2019, the Trump administration designated the IRGC, an official branch of Iran’s military and a significant force in Iranian politics and economics, as a foreign terrorist organization. The move was unprecedented. It was the first time an official branch of a government or military had been hit with that label, which prompted a series of automatic sanctions and threats of secondary sanctions for any group or entity providing the IRGC with material support. As part of the final agreement, the Iranians want the label removed, but the Biden administration appears hesitant to give in, perhaps because doing so could prompt political backlash from hawkish Democrats, not to mention Republicans, who are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to paint Biden as weak ahead of the 2022 midterms this November.
To state the obvious here, yes, a deal — any deal — that convinces Iran to rein in its nuclear program will produce a far better immediate future than an alternative “no deal” scenario. If precedent is any indicator, Iran will likely adhere to the terms of the agreement, as long as it feels that the other parties, including the United States, are doing so as well. Leadership may have changed in Iran, but its near and medium-term objectives — economic and diplomatic reintegration with the rest of the world — have not. They will gladly take the opportunity, however precarious, to lessen tensions with the West and create some breathing space for economic development.
Yet from a narrative standpoint, I think it’s almost irrelevant at this stage whether or not Iran and the United States can overcome these final hurdles to reach an accord. There is no goodwill left here. For Iran, the resurrection of the JCPOA will not restore the lost trust in the West following Trump’s unilateral declaration to withdraw, nor will it repair the goodwill that the Iranian populace once felt toward the United States. No one will be dancing in the street this time around.
To make matters worse, there is no reason to believe that this deal has any staying power. As part of these negotiations, Iran has demanded guarantees that the United States won’t simply repeat its unilateral withdrawal again at a later date. They won’t get any. Regardless of whatever language the Biden administration manages to insert in the text, these words are just a fig leaf to provide some logical rationalization for the Iranians to place faith in the diplomatic process. Biden’s commitment won’t be worth much to the next Republican president, particularly if Trump runs and wins again in 2024.
A rewarmed JCPOA will not be a cause for celebration in the United States either. At best, Biden will have spent significant time, energy, and political capital just to arrive back at square one with the Iranians. They’ve greenlit a sequel that no one asked for or wanted to see. Even if they can implement the agreement and get Iran to scale back its nuclear program to pre-2019 levels, what comes next will prove a much more difficult challenge.
For Iran, it’s less the sanctions relief itself — which is essentially a United States legal transaction — that matters than it is their expectations beyond the negotiations and ratification of a deal. A central promise of the JCPOA, whether or not it was ever explicitly stated in the talks, was that it would open the doorway to foreign investment in Iran. Throughout the spring and summer of 2016, a host of European and Asian trade delegations made their way to Tehran to explore possibilities for economic cooperation. Will that happen again this year, assuming a new deal is signed by then? I’m not so sure.
Financial investments are not charity. Investors inject money premised upon the idea that the return will exceed the initial investment. In terms of attracting foreign investment, this requires confidence that money that crosses into Iran will ultimately, at some stage, be able to come back out. Iran already has enough problems in this regard thanks to its highly opaque, inefficient, and corrupt economic sector, which many experts have long cited as a reason for foreign investment hesitancy. It stands virtually no chance with the threat of sanctions looming on the horizon. The United States is only two and a half years and one election away from a potential return to Trumpian politics. With that Sword of Damocles hanging over the country, what sort of homo economicus would be eager to park millions of dollars in Iran for the long-term?
If the 2015/2016 JCPOA negotiations and implementation felt like the beginning of a new era for Iran and the United States, the current moment feels much more like the end of one. I still believe that both sides will find a way to get to “yes” on the Iran deal revival, simply because the alternative is too uncertain and unpleasant to entertain, but neither will walk away feeling good about what they achieved. Where things go from here is difficult to say, but I don’t see a lot of avenues leading to sunshine and flowers. Most likely, the US and Iran will muddle through to the next round of elections, or perhaps that long-awaited leadership transition in Iran will shake things up enough to provide some kind of opening. There is always the temptation to hope the situation will improve, but with the vibes this bad, there is also the possibility that it might still get worse.