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Iran’s nuclear gambit

As the US seeks to salvage the nuclear deal with the Iran, experts discuss what it could mean for the incoming regime

By Hammad Sarfraz |
Design: Mohsin Alam
PUBLISHED June 20, 2021

As Iran’s conservative camp tightens its grip on power, a growing number of experts fault the United States for pushing politicians in Tehran away from meaningful engagement with the West. In fact many observers believe US policies – particularly during president Donald Trump’s term, may have even provided the much-needed lifeline to the clerical regime.

Shortly after abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPAO), commonly known as the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump slapped the country with stringent economic sanctions that were aimed at pushing the Islamic Republic to the brink of collapse.

Looking back at the former president’s decision, which has been described as the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy in Washington’s policy circles, experts believe it did very little to help the US. “Trump’s sanctions complicated matters further – particularly Iran’s nuclear program,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, Associate Fellow at International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), and former director of the Non-Proliferation Programme.

Speaking over Skype from Washington, the former Foreign Service Officer said the sanctions on Iran brought no benefit to the US; rather, they were counter-productive. The move, which was rejected by allies and adversaries alike, weakened Washington’s already waning authority in the world.

Fitzpatrick, who has also served as acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Non-Proliferation said Iran has been under pressure over the past four years. “But it has survived and thrived. The idea that the US sanctions have brought it to the brink of collapse is just false. Iran has found ways to overcome the sanctions. It is certainly suffering but it is not on its knees.”

Politically, he said, the country is a largely coherent nation state. “There are many disagreements among different segments of the society but generally they are supportive of the Islamic Republic. Many of Iranians wish they had a different type of leadership, but they are not seeking to overthrow the clerical rulers,” he added.

The redoubled sanctions and the economic hardship that they brought, allowed the clerics to weave a narrative that blamed the West for Iran’s suffering and, observers believe, provided them means to exonerate themselves for domestic failures.

When asked about the possible changes in the manner in which Tehran conducts business with the West and particularly US after the presidential election – which has gone in the favor of the conservative head of judiciary and a protégé of the country’s supreme leader, Fitzpatrick said: “Probably, the election will result in a kind of consolidation politically in Iran. Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who will assume the office of the president in August, will have the full support of Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, as well as the support of the hard-line factions within the regime. With that support, he will be able to get more done than the outgoing administration. Perhaps more importantly, if the nuclear deal is revived, the new government in Iran will benefit from the sanctions relief that will accompany that restoration. So, even though the current administration will negotiate the deal, the next government will benefit from it.”

While the revival of the nuclear deal looks more likely now than it did four years ago, Fitzpatrick, like many other experts on US-Iran relations, said he was not sure if Tehran is committed to the agreement. “No, I’m not sure about that at all. Iran certainly wants the relief that would come with restoring the deal. But they don’t want to make any compromises.”

Iran, he said feels that they have been burned by Trump’s withdrawal from the deal which they had been adhering to. “They distrust the United States mightily and they want all sanctions lifted upfront. So far, Iran has stayed with the all or nothing approach. And if they maintain this position, then there won’t be a deal and Iran’s relationship with the West will further deteriorate. We might witness more conflict in the Middle East as Israel might take some steps to retard Iran’s nuclear programme,” he cautioned.

Fully aware of their political fortunes, the new administration, experts say, would want to break free of sanctions, and for that, they will do everything possible to revive the nuclear deal. Not only that, victory for a hawk like the conservative head of judiciary will enable the government to claim credit for any and all financial benefits coming out of the revival of the 2015 nuclear pact – which may be finalized before the current government checks out.

With economic hardship palpable at home, Fitzpatrick said Iran will end up making compromises and the deal will be restored. “Reviving the nuclear pact is in the interest of both parties. But there is a possibility that it won’t, and we must be ready for that. If they don’t make compromises, and if the deal is not restored, Iran will continue on the path of escalatory behaviour and it will spark further action by Israel,” he warned. A revived agreement would mean the new government walks into office with the tough sanctions, which have slashed oil exports, lifted. And that, observers say, will allow the incoming administration to start its term with fresh revenues.

Ties with the US

While the deal will allow Iran to conduct business with the rest of the world, it does not promise the restoration of ties with the United States, which the religious rulers in Tehran have labeled as the ‘Great Satan’. And the election of Ebrahim Raisi, who is said to be very close to Khamenei, means that the new president will clearly advance the ailing top cleric’s domestic and foreign policy agenda – without questioning it.

When asked if Iran takes the US seriously, Fitzpatrick said: “It sees the United States as a major adversary and knows its power in the financial and military realm.” However, sometimes, the former US diplomat said, Iranian leaders are seen dismissing the possibility that Washington would take military action to enforce its demands because they believe the US is a waning power and wants to extract itself from the Middle East. “This is a profound misreading of US intentions and determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

To President Joe Biden, who appears to be interested in reviving the signature foreign policy achievement of Barack Obama, his boss for eight years, Fitzpatrick said: “I think the president and his team have realized they will not get a quick deal with Iran. They need to stay the course and be patient. And show flexibility -- where they can.”

Moving forward, he pointed that there will be some roadblocks. “One of them is the sanctions that the Biden administration has indicated, will remain in place. Iranians were irked by the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a powerful arm of the Iranian military as a foreign terrorist organization by the Trump administration.

The Biden team, Fitzpatrick said, is reluctant to remove that designation but in the end, they might have to. “The IRGC is involved in so many aspects of the Iranian economy. So, sanctioning the IRGC means that many elements of the economy cannot engage in trade with the world and that would impede the implementation of a restored JCPOA,” he explained.

In a statement following the designation, the Trump White House claimed the move would “significantly expand the scope and scale of Washington’s maximum pressure on the Iranian regime.” Even with an administration full of hawks, Trump’s decision was met with opposition from within his own camp. Some of his national security aides said it would trigger retaliation by Tehran against American troops and intelligence officers.

“But hopefully the Biden administration will not have to reverse that decision. The IRGC is despised in the United States and across much of the world – so maybe that sanction will remain in place,” said Fitzpatrick.

Experts have said Biden, unlike his predecessor, presents an opportunity and a challenge for the rulers in Iran. The challenge is the hardline leaders in Tehran will no longer be able to use Washington as an excuse or distraction to cover their domestic repression, economic failures, and regional aggression. The opportunity, they say, is normalisation of ties and relaxation in sanctions.

Despite the deal, in Iran, he said, the leaders will continue to use the United States as a fierce potential opponent. “They won’t leap into a detente with the United States. They will continue to have a very weary relationship with Washington, making some tactical deals where it is in their interest.”

When asked if Iran would make the negotiation process easy, Fitzpatrick said: “I don’t think they will make the process easy. But they will agree to restore the deal and they will have to make some compromises.”

Were the sanctions a waste?

The heavy sanctions that were imposed on Iran by president Trump have in many ways had the opposite of the desired effect. The political landscape in Iran changed significantly after the former US president doubled the sanctions. The clerical leaders in Tehran were able to blame Washington for the country’s myriad of problems and that has contributed to political victory of the conservatives.

Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi was quick to say the conservatives in Iran need to thank Trump for their victory. “Most expect that the hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi will "win," and if he does, he will owe a debt of gratitude to Donald Trump,” he wrote in a piece for Responsible Statecraft, a publication of the Washington-based think tank where he serves as the Executive Vice President. In an email, Parsi allowed the Express Tribune to quote his recent article. “Trump's maximum pressure strategy were a carnage of the Iranian middle class — the core constituency favoring greater political openness and improved relations with the West,” he explained.

The former president’s sanctions, he said, weakened and discredited moderate forces in Iran and shifted the balance in favour of hardliners.

Commenting on the efficacy of the sanctions, Fitzpatrick said: “I support sanctions that have a purpose. They are powerful and valid when they are lifted once the adversary has changed its behaviour. If you don’t lift the sanctions when the other side has complied, then you have undermined the whole basis of having done it.”

What if diplomacy fails?

According to experts, both United States and Iran want to revive the deal. If diplomacy fails, Fitzpatrick explained, Washington has other means at its disposal. “I don’t want to talk about the conflict that will ensue but let’s be realistic, the US and Israel have the intelligence, military, and cyber capabilities to retard the nuclear programme.”

With every sector of its economy crumbling, Iran generally has very limited options in this complex equation. From the Middle East Institute, which is the oldest Washington-based institution dedicated solely to the study of the region, Alex Vatanka, a senior analyst, and the director of the Iran program said, “Both sides clearly want a deal for various reasons that each have to reach a deal. Iran needs the sanctions lifted; the US wants to contain Iran’s nuclear program and open up space to deal with other foreign policy issues.”

Vatanka said Iran’s supreme leader sees the US not as a foreign policy question, but a power that wants to remove him from office. “Khamenei therefore will be willing to act irrational and pay a high price for his own political sake at the expense of the interests of the Iranian nation,” he explained from Washington where he is based.

The contempt for Washington, he said, is very public in Tehran. Two years ago, the supreme leader called the US government "the most abhorred" in the world and said some European countries could never be trusted. Such statements have regularly made headlines in Iran and the West during Trump’s four years.

Now, Vatanka said, there are more chances of Iran relying on diplomacy than any form of confrontation. “There is an ongoing risk that Iran can explode in a public anger as big as 1979.”

Khamenei and clerics, Vatanka said, need money to keep the regime together; moderate some of the public anger and pay for Tehran’s various regional adventures. “That’s why status quo does not work for him, and he needs a new deal to get the flow of cash going again,” he said.

Does Biden have a plan?

President’s Joe Biden’s chief negotiator Robert Malley has been instructed to forge a compromise with both Iran and the hawks at home. It appears that the US president will make every possible effort to rescue the deal his predecessor scuttled two years before leaving office. While it became Trump’s signature foreign policy achievement, it has been Biden’s mission since getting back into office, to restore the 2015 pact in some form – if not entirely.

Experts said Washington is bent on offering Tehran a Goldilocks-style deal – which means just enough relief to motivate Iran to return to the pact and not as much that it abandon’s the US presdient’s offer, leaving him exposed to political assaults at home by hawks who supported Trump’s actions.

In a two-hour- interview over Zoom, Dr Hooshang Amirahmadi, a former presidential candidate, compared the US government to a rudderless ship. He said the Biden administration has no plan other than restoring the deal his former boss negotiated with Tehran six years ago.

“All he wants is to restore former president Obama’s foreign policy legacy. There is no policy, no objectives, and clearly no plan,” said Dr Amirahmadi, a professor and former director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University.

For a country like the US, Biden he said, is negotiating from a position of weakness. “The US looks weaker when it appears to be begging to sign a deal with an adversary as weak as Iran,” said the Rutgers professor who has been a presidential candidate thrice.

At one point during the interview Dr Amirahmadi bluntly said the US needs to present only two options during the negotiations: war or peace. “And certainly, Iran cannot afford to go to war with the US,” said the 74-year-old Iranian American academic and political analyst.

He said the regime in Tehran has stopped taking the US seriously because Washington has presented itself as a spineless nation. Dismissing the nuclear pact as a useless item, he said it did not help the US. The only item that made some sense, he said, was that it prevented Iran from producing a bomb for a certain number of years.

“What difference does it make if they make a bomb? Let them invest heavily into their military and nuclear programme. The US should encourage them to invest more in such misadventures and eventually Iran will collapse,” he said. Contrarily to what most people expected, he said the Soviet Union collapsed because the US was able to exploit its internal weakness – its economy.

Based in New Jersey, Dr Amirahmadi claims, he has offered several US governments advise on Iran. “They have been weak in the decision making on Iran which is why we are still embroiled in this mess.”

Iran, he said, is a complex nation and its leaders have no vision other than converting the country into a pure Islamic state. “They don’t think beyond that. The sanctions and the economic collapse do not hurt them or their cause. They never made Iran on the basis of economics. They made Iran based on religion,” he explained.

Dr Amirahamadi, who at one point during the interview admitted that his views lean towards a more hawkish policy, said the West needs to stop giving chances to Iran. “By continuing these no gain no pain negotiations, the world has allowed the clerics in Iran to maintain the status quo,” he said.

“Why does a country with such military might and economic power need to bend before a weak and instable nation like Iran?” he questioned.

The problem with the US foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran, he said, is that there is no policy. “To create a policy, you need to understand the dynamics of that country. Unfortunately, the policy makers in Washington do not understand the fundamental issue. “Iran is not a democracy; it is a theocracy, and it operates like one.” The country, he said, is moving towards a more conservative system of government that will protect and advance revolutionary ideas. And the election of hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi, who is safely poised to become the next president of Iran, experts say, will cements those plans.

Dr Amirahamadi, who advised former president Bill Clinton on Iran and even raised funds for Biden, said when it comes to Iran, US politicians have a very weak understanding. “Their thinking is very imperfect, and they don’t listen to people who understand Iran.”

Referring to a discussion he had with former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, the Rutgers professor said: “Bob’s observations about Biden are right. For decades, Biden has been wrong on every foreign policy and national security issue.”

When asked what will change in Iran after the election, Dr Amirahamadi bluntly said: “Only the president.”

More conservative, the former presidential candidate said, will be installed in key positions. “Ultimately, they will start reversing the actions taken by the moderates.”

Raisi, who is set to be Iran’s next president has openly threatened during the debates that he would arrest all moderate leaders and open investigations into the manner in which they ran the country. According to Dr Amirahamadi, the ailing top cleric in Iran will declare another revolution after the election.

“They will blame the liberals and then say the revolution needs to the be steered back. So, nothing comes out for the Iranian people. At best there will be a bit of a redistribution of wealth. They will take bits from the rich and give it to the poor. More tough talk, more religion, more theocracy, and that’s all that will change,” said Dr Amirahamadi.

Under Iran’s political system, the president has a significant role in the domestic and foreign policy of the country. However, in all state matters, it is the country's top religious cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who calls the final shots. Despite the lowest turnout, many Iranians believe the election has been engineered in a way that will only help Raisi, the 60-year-old cleric, who has served as a prosecutor for most of his career, secure victory. The soon to be former chief justice has presented himself as the only candidate who can fight corruption, and that experts say, may have appealed the beleaguered voters in Iran.