The Associated Press offers an update on the standoff between the US and Iran over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran deal, from which Donald Trump as president spectacularly withdrew the US in 2018.
Trump committed an act of pure will, with no serious legal argument related to the terms of the agreement. In the culture of international diplomacy, that usually signifies a betrayal of trust or an act of bad faith. In the democratic and free market tradition, the idea of a contract depends on the recognition of theoretical equality of status between the contracting partners. In real geopolitics, however, the hegemonic position of the United States means that acts of bad faith will always be permitted. It is a privilege of hegemonic power. Such acts will also be resented.
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Just as Trump made a point of undoing anything associated with the Obama administration, many people have expected that US President Joe Biden would follow suit, seeking to overturn everything Trump so deliberately sabotaged. The AP article reminds us of Biden’s campaign promise to “seek to revive the deal,” while noting that the new administration insists “that Iran must first reverse its nuclear steps, creating a contest of wills between the nations.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Contest of wills:
A competition between two parties of approximately equal strength based on their refusal to agree on anything until one subdues the other by imposing a solution designed to narrowly avoid a catastrophe with uncontrollable consequences
Many cultures feature the proverb, “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” A logical corollary of the proverb would be: Where there are two wills there is no obvious way. But as Gary Grappo, in an article on Fair Observer, explained this week, this contest of wills is not limited to Iran and the US. There are a number of other wills involved. And where there are several wills, the way will be extremely obscure. Or, just as likely, there will be no way at all.
Grappo, a former US ambassador and the current chairman of Fair Observer, reminds us that there is the will of the other signatories of the original agreement, essentially the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the European Union. In normal circumstances, faced with the prospect evoked by the Iranians of returning to the agreement they signed in 2015, the signatories would simply reaffirm their good faith, which has never wavered. But even if they were to express that intention, for the multiple reasons Grappo lays out in his article, the Biden administration is itself caught in the trap Trump knowingly laid out for future administrations. Because of its status as hegemon — aka the international bully who imposes the rules of the road in the name of democracy and civilized values — the US cannot allow itself to meekly admit that Trump’s obviously failed “maximum pressure” policy on Iran was an irresponsible mistake and a violation of the very idea of the rule of law. It’s a question of pride, but also of pressure from both rational and irrational voices.
The situation contains two major absurdities, which everyone is aware of but no one dares to speak about. Grappo correctly reports that Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan “have promised that the US will consult with … regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia before making decisions or taking any action.” This could make sense if “consult with” amounts to nothing more than informing those nations of the state of negotiations. If it implies involving them in the discussion or seeking to accommodate their positions, there are two reasons to see this as wishful thinking, if not dangerous folly.
The first is that if the debate is truly about Iran’s military nuclear capacity, the insistence that the Israelis have a role in the debate is patently absurd. Israel has accomplished — totally illegally and with the benediction of the Western powers — exactly what the JCPOA is designed to prevent Iran from achieving. Israel is a nuclear power that, at the same time, denies its status as a nuclear power. In a rational world, a renegotiated treaty in which Israel has its say would require the dismantling of Israel’s nuclear capacity. No intelligent and informed diplomat on earth could imagine Israel accepting that condition.
The second absurdity concerns Saudi Arabia. Grappo evokes the need to address the question of “terrorism, terrorism financing, human rights, religious persecution, etc.” If Saudi Arabia’s interests were taken into account, the logical consequence of this would be to examine and eliminate the kingdom’s obvious practice of all those evils. The Saudis remain the heavyweight champions of Middle East terrorism. It was Saudis, after all (possibly with the complicity of members of the royal family), who engineered and executed 9/11, the only direct attack on the US since Pearl Harbor. For decades, the Saudis have been spreading Wahhabi jihadism globally, contributing to the rise of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. And who — other than Trump — can forget that it is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who kills journalists working for The Washington Post and is not averse to imprisoning or killing anyone else who too publicly opposes his regime?
And yet, on the subject of Israel and Saudi Arabia, Grappo tells us that “President Biden and his team will have to find a way to ensure that these governments’ concerns, fears and interests are taken into account.” If this has any meaning, that certainly means that there will be at least two wills too many in the contest
A former diplomat, Gary Grappo understands the thinking, positioning and maneuvering that must be going on within the Biden administration. He has presented a true and realistic account of the dilemma it is faced with. But the picture he paints is one of such a confusion of wills that imagining any solution with a reasonable chance of success requires believing in a world of diplomatic hyperreality — the equivalent of a stage play, where wills simply exist as the speeches characters express and never translate into concrete acts with consequences.
The representation of geopolitics as a spectacle of hyperreality may please the media, who thrive by presenting it in living color. It keeps the pundits who depend on it for their livelihood talking and writing. It may even distract the public’s attention for short periods, as it once did for Roman emperors. But history has its own laws that will consistently undermine even the most solidly constructed examples of hyperreality.
Wills are not the only forces at play here. Underlying the quandary of how the US might return to the JCPOA is the evolution of global power and hegemony over the past three decades. It began with an earthquake: the collapse of the Soviet Union.
During the Cold War, the US could do pretty much anything it wanted in the so-called “free world,” knowing it was admired (for its dynamic economy), respected (for its power) and feared (for its might). Recent events have seriously reduced the level of admiration of the US across the globe. The actions of two presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, have seriously diminished respect for American power globally. Waging war on the basis of an obvious lie (Bush) and conducting foreign policy on the basis of whims and threats alone (Trump) have significantly reduced the credibility of any “reasoned position” the US takes to justify any action. Finally, the long series of military fiascos since the Vietnam War, along with two economic fiascos in the past 12 years, have transferred the fear people used to have of US might to a fear of the inadvertent catastrophes its policies provoke.
Barack Obama’s strategy with the JCPOA made some sense. It consisted of betting on the idea that a loosening of constraints would naturally provoke an evolution within Iranian society toward a less paranoid vision of the West and of America in particular. It would encourage what optimists like to think of as “the better angels” of the Iranian people. It also meant leaving the Middle East quagmire behind, a feature of Obama’s Asia Pivot. The process worked in a unified Vietnam once the US abandoned its mission to save the country from communism. The problem with such a strategy today for some people, including members of Congress, is that it scores no hegemonic points. And that is intolerable.
*[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.