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What the State Department and the Media Get Wrong About the JCPOA

The US handles negotiations in the same way it handles its wars that cannot be won for lack of an objective.
Peter Isackson, Daily Devil’s Dictionary, Biden administration Iran nuclear deal, JCPOA Biden administration, Iran nuclear deal news, will US reenter JCPOA, Iran election 2021, US Iran relations, Antony Blinken Iran

Antony Blinken, Brussels, Belgium, 3/24/2021 © / Shutterstock

May 12, 2021 10:50 EDT

Just as President Joe Biden’s administration waited till the very last minute to define its position of vaccine patent waivers, imperiling the effective impact on a pandemic of whatever agreement is finally reached, it has played for time with the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This may prove costly because of Iran’s tight electoral calendar. The failure to act quickly with the current negotiation-minded regime in Tehran, which insists on returning to the accord from which Donald Trump withdrew, risks reinforcing the Iranian hardliners in the country’s June 18 election.

The quandary the Biden administration is dealing with may now have more to do with saving face than achieving an accord. In a New York Times article on the state of negotiations, reporters Steven Erlanger and David Sanger claim that American and Iranian leaders “share a common goal: They both want to re-enter the nuclear deal that President Donald J. Trump scrapped three years ago.” The easy path for a president who presumably represents everything Trump opposed would be simply to rescind the withdrawal. But Biden’s advisers appear to believe that returning to the old deal would make the president appear weak and unmanly after the virile performance by his predecessor who pleased his audience by taking a roundhouse punch at the hornet’s nest.

Can the US and Iran Compromise in Vienna?


The Times reporters describe the situation in these terms. If Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken can’t come home with what he termed in January a “’longer and stronger accord’ — one that stops Iran from amassing nuclear material for generations, halts its missile tests and ends support of terrorist groups,” the US appears poised to accept Trump’s fait accompli. Republicans routinely accuse Democratic presidents of being weaklings. They believe that US presidents must perform with brio and show their muscles. Like George W. Bush in Iraq, to avoid appearing weak, Biden needs a pretext for a photo-op declaring the mission accomplished.

According to Erlanger and Sanger, Biden “knows he cannot simply replicate what the Obama administration negotiated six years ago, after marathon sessions in Vienna and elsewhere, while offering vague promises that something far bigger and better might follow.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Bigger and better:

The magic formula required to justify any proposed project in the consumer society

Contextual Note

The Times reporters insist that more than a month of “marathon sessions” must be justified by a cry of victory. In the US, time is money. Even if the public has paid little attention to the negotiations, the journalists clearly believe that the time invested must be accounted for. Erlanger and Sanger see a high political cost if the administration fails to show a return on investment. After all, Biden is already facing the shame — coming from both Republicans and Democrats (including Hillary Clinton) — of canceling 20 years of blood and treasure in Afghanistan with nothing to show for it.

The journalists dismissively call the negotiations “five weeks of shadow boxing.” They deem the respective positions irreconcilable. The Iranians want to “be allowed to keep the advanced nuclear-fuel production equipment they installed after Mr. Trump abandoned the pact, and integration with the world financial system beyond what they achieved under the 2015 agreement.” The Biden administration, in contrast, insists on “an agreement on limiting missiles and support of terrorism.”

Colm Quinn, the author of Foreign Policy’s newsletter, offers a clearer picture, pointing out that both sides are playing coy for the moment, as is usual in serious negotiations, especially in this case, when Americans and Iranians are communicating exclusively through European intermediaries. Quinn leaves a strong hint that the two sides may be close to a return to the original deal. This contradicts the impression given by The Times journalists. Is this their way of building suspense by treating it like a diplomatic Super Bowl?

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If a deal is reached, The Times will be in a position to celebrate Biden’s “unexpected” accomplishment against such formidable odds. The Times, after all, has been going overboard to promote Biden as the new Roosevelt. To make their point, the authors cite American officials who “say it is not yet clear that Iran really wants to restore the old deal, which is derided by powerful hard-liners at home.” 

With a single verb, Erlanger and Sanger unwittingly reveal their incapacity or unwillingness to take some perspective and distance themselves from the US State Department’s point of view. “With Iran’s presidential elections six weeks away,” they write, “the relatively moderate, lame-duck team of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are spinning that an agreement is just around the corner.”

The verb is “spinning.” For The Times journalists, it goes without saying that Iranians spin, while Americans tell it like it is. After citing the Iranians’ optimistic contention that negotiations are “underway for some details,” the journalists don’t just assume the State Department’s position but blurt out their own emotive reaction: “Not so fast, Mr. Blinken has responded, adding that ‘Iran has yet to make an equally detailed description of what nuclear limits would be restored.’”

The rest of the article is remarkable for its uninformative incoherence, navigating around negotiating positions and areas of dispute that fail to differentiate between rhetoric and the description of the political reality on both sides. Lost in meaningless details, they make no attempt to clarify the underlying issues. They mix serious facts with anecdotal trivialities. To add to the confusion, they offer difficult-to-decipher statements in the passive voice, such as this one: “In two discussions in February, the Europeans urged American officials to start negotiating in earnest and lift some sanctions as a gesture of good faith toward Iran. Those suggestions were ignored.” Who ignored them and why?

At one point, the journalists mention “Iran’s pressure tactics.” But even when citing Trump’s 1,500 sanctions against Iran, they never suggest that sanctions may be seen as pressure tactics. The authors apparently seek to leave the impression not only that the negotiations are going nowhere but that the journalists themselves — like for example, the Israeli government — may be hoping they fail. Compare this lengthy Times article with a brief video interview with Trita Parsi, executive vice president of The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, where the viewer comes away with a solid idea both of what the stakes are on the two sides and a feeling for the historical logic underlying the current situation.

Historical Note

The rhetoric journalists use often reveals more about their unstated worldview than the content of what they write. Seizing on Blinken’s wish for something “longer and stronger,” the journalists echo it with their own “bigger and better.” This underlines the fact that Americans tend to see everything, even a supposedly delicate negotiation, in competitive terms. They multiply the comparatives, following the logic of marketers in the consumer society who always promise their product will provide “more and more.”

The parties of any serious negotiation should have a principle on which they can agree, an overriding objective they both wish to achieve. In this case, it could be identified as a crucial historical goal: the denuclearization of the Middle East. It might even imply a broader goal, like the denuclearization of the world. Although they refused to make it explicit, the Obama administration’s JCPOA strategy did contain the idea of normalizing relations between the US and Iran in such a way as to remove the temptation of a Middle East nuclear arms race. By integrating Iran into the global economy, the competitive pressure to match Israel or dominate Saudi Arabia thanks to a nuclear arsenal would logically disappear.

Instead of emphasizing that goal, Blinken publicly asserts, with The Times’ approval, that it’s all about getting an advantage and achieving more. There is a reason for that. Israel wants to maintain its own nuclear monopoly in the region, despite denying its existence. Because the US prioritizes Israel’s concerns, it effectively refrains not only from pursuing its own objectives but even articulating them in public. Reporting on the growing violence in Jerusalem and Gaza this week, The Times predictably notes that “neither side [is] prepared to make concessions the other would demand.” One more issue framed as a competition. Let the bigger and better man win.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

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

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