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Javad Zarif in Bucharest, Romania on 11/09/2016 © Gabriel Petrescu / Shutterstock

Iran Is Not North Korea

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Ali Vaez, the Iran project director of the International Crisis Group.

The US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal, was one of the most controversial decisions of President Donald Trump in 2018. By reneging on the 2015 agreement, which the United States had voluntarily supported and endorsed through UN Security Council Resolution 2231, Trump sparked uproar across the world and angered US allies in Europe.

It is believed that the JCPOA subjected Iran to the most intrusive and thorough inspections and verification regime applied to any country undefeated in war. The agreement was the outcome of a sophisticated diplomatic effort, laying the roadmap for specific restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and how steps taken by Tehran would be reciprocated through the lifting of international sanctions against the country.

Now, the United States is no longer part of the nuclear agreement, while Iran has opted to remain in the deal and see if the European Union can salvage it. All US sanctions that were lifted as part of the JCPOA are now back in motion, and the international companies that had flocked to Iran following the signing of the JCPOA are packing their bags and leaving a market of 80 million people.

The US government is pursuing a “maximum pressure” policy on Iran, and its ultimate goal is to alter what it believes is Tehran’s malign influence in the Middle East and compel it to act as a “normal country.” Iranian officials have made it clear that they will not negotiate with the US while under pressure and have not signaled any change in their regional policies. This is what paints a grim picture of the future of Iran-US relations, undermining all efforts under President Barack Obama to bridge the divide between Tehran and Washington.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Ali Vaez, the Iran project director of the International Crisis Group, about the unilateral de-certification of the Iran deal and what this means for Iran-US relations.

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: The United States has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal and imposed hard-hitting sanctions against the Iranians. Is President Donald Trump looking for an all-out confrontation with Iran? Why are tensions escalating between the two countries?

Ali Vaez: I doubt President Trump is seeking a military confrontation with Iran. He seems primarily driven by rolling back his predecessor’s achievements, delivering his promises to his base and proving his mastery of the art of the deal. For the latter reason, he actually seeks renegotiations with Tehran, not just to achieve a better and a broader deal, but to prove he can outmaneuver Obama and the wily Iranian negotiators.

That motivation, however, does not seem to be widely shared within his administration. The majority in his national security team appear keen on significantly weakening Iran to at minimum contain it and at best to topple its regime. National Security Adviser John Bolton has been an avid advocate of both regime change and bombing Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, too, has been talking about the need to restore deterrence against Iran by bloodying the regime’s nose.

Ziabari: The Iran deal was an agreement between seven countries solely addressing Iran’s nuclear program. Iran was complying with its commitments under the agreement — as testified by the International Atomic Energy Agency — and curbed its nuclear activities significantly. However, the US has pulled out of the accord, citing Iran’s regional policies and voicing anger at its “malign influence” across the Middle East. Is Washington’s logic in departing from the nuclear deal warranted?

Vaez: In the immediate aftermath of the nuclear deal’s conclusion in 2015, I used to say that “the good news is that we have a nuclear deal, but the bad news is that we only have a nuclear deal.” The agreement was a narrow transaction that didn’t change the broader context of enmity between Tehran and Washington. So by definition, it was not a stable accord, absent further progress in resolving other issues — from disagreements over regional policies to Iran’s ballistic missiles program.

However, the best way of addressing those issues was to build on the nuclear deal, not to destroy it. By reneging on the only agreement that the two countries have been able to negotiate since the 1979 hostage crisis, the Trump administration killed the modicum of trust that had been created as a result of the deal’s implementation. It also cut off all channels of communication between the countries, which were truly valuable in helping the parties gain a better understanding of one another and avoid unintended escalation.

Ziabari: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently said in an interview with BBC Persian that Iran should listen to the United States if it wants its people to eat. Will the US be able to force Iran into accepting its demands through the imposition of harsh economic sanctions?

Vaez: I would argue the only thing that Iranian leaders deem more dangerous than the sanctions is surrendering to them. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has always believed that if you demonstrate that pressure works, it will not alleviate pressure, but invite more coercive policies. The fact that the US has moved the goalposts and imposed the same sanctions that were lifted following the nuclear deal, with which Iran is still complying, has further demonstrated the unreliability of US policy in the eyes of the Iranian leadership. I doubt there will be any negotiations before the US steps back from its maximalist demands.

Ziabari: The US sanctions this time around are more extensive and comprehensive than ever. Even though the stated goal of the sanctions is to pressure the government, it is mostly ordinary citizens who will suffer. What do you think about the human toll of US sanctions?

Vaez: There is plenty of evidence in sanctions literature about how they affect the lower-income and more vulnerable strata of society more than those with access to the government’s rents. In fact, what the Trump administration neglects in its own rhetoric is how the Revolutionary Guards has become more powerful and more entrenched in the country’s economy in the past few years, when Iran was subject to international sanctions.  As multinational firms left the Iranian market, they filled the gap and embezzled billions in the process of skirting US sanctions through smuggling and other shell games. The same phenomenon is happening again.

Those who don’t have access to food and medicine are not the political elite, but ordinary Iranians. What US sanctions will do to Iranian society in the long run could resemble what they did to Iraq, tearing its social fabric apart, which eventually came back to hunt the US and its interests in the region.

Ziabari: Before the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed, Iran was under the most stringent UN Security Council sanctions, as well as restrictive measures by the European Union. This time, it’s only the United States that is sanctioning Iran. Why should other countries follow America’s lead and stop doing business with Iran or buying its oil?

Vaez: Many countries don’t want to comply with unilateral — and, in their eyes, unjustified — US sanctions. But they can’t dictate how their companies should calculate their risk-benefit. When the choice is between the Iranian market and the much larger US market, most companies face an obvious choice. In fact, America’s preeminence in the global financial system has rendered the dollar almighty and provided the US with a potent tool to dictate its wishes to others. But overusing this tool and doing so without building an international consensus could, in the long run, weaken its utility as other countries will start to develop mechanisms that would be immune to US pressure and conduct transactions that are denominated in other currencies. In fact, the Europeans have already started developing a special purpose vehicle (SPV) which is a mechanism that is designed to preserve a certain degree of trade with Iran by undercutting US sanctions.

Ziabari: Do the hostile rhetoric and economic measures by the Trump administration against Iran leave any room for reconciliation and rapprochement with the Iranians? Is this administration determined to mend the flawed relations between Iran and the United States after four decades, or is it simply interested in undoing the achievements of Barack Obama and promoting unilateralism?

Vaez: I doubt the administration would be able or willing to change its tone. The president seems to believe that his strategy with North Korea, which was based on maximum pressure and tough rhetoric, would work with Iran. But Iran is not North Korea. It has a raucous domestic political scene that would crucify any Iranian politician who advocates negotiating with a president who has continuously insulted the Iranian political system. While the risks of engagement with the Trump administration are high, its benefits are uncertain as the president appears mercurial and, therefore, it would be unclear whether he would stick to any new agreement.

Ziabari: Some critics of US foreign policy say the United States has resorted to double standards by imposing draconian sanctions against Iran and should instead place sanctions against Israel and Saudi Arabia for the very same reasons it has sanctioned Iran, including human rights violations. What’s your take on that?

Vaez: Double standards are common place in foreign policy as the balance between values and interests is always difficult to strike. The US has ways other than sanctions to convince its allies to improve their behavior. The problem with the way this administration conducts its regional policy is that it closes its eyes on the wrongdoings of its allies and, at times, even helps them cover it up. That is why it has zero credibility within Iranian society. Its efforts to demonize Iran have reached obsessive levels, even rendering cooperation with European allies who share some of US concerns about Iran’s foreign and domestic policies difficult.

Ziabari: What’s next for the United States when it comes to its Iran strategy? What happens if Tehran refuses to negotiate under the current circumstances and defies the sanctions?

Vaez: I fear we are entering a particularly dangerous phase. If, by mid-2019, sanctions prove as effective as the White House is hoping them to be, I fear the Iranians will start retaliating, either by reviving their nuclear program or targeting US assets in the region. That would add more fuels to the fires already raging in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, while increasing the risks of a direct confrontation between Iran and the US.

If sanctions are not as effective, then my concern is that US allies in the region, namely Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, might try to provoke a confrontation between Tehran and Washington, so as to weaken their regional adversary at the hands of the US. The fact that there will be elections in both the US and Iran in 2020 means that both sides might welcome a limited confrontation that would distract attention from troubles at home.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.