How Iran Is Twisting Reality to Get What It Wants

It's not just centrifuges that they're spinning.

For years Iran has been a formidable challenge in the nuclear realm—a fact that has not changed since the deal. When Iran finally began to negotiate seriously over its nuclear program in 2013, it was only in order to lift the biting sanctions; indeed, nothing had changed in terms of its military nuclear ambitions, and Iran continues to advance its program where it can (for example its long range missile program, and R&D on advanced centrifuge models). All the while, Iran profusely denies ever having pursued a military option, despite the definitive IAEA report released in December 2015 that deems otherwise.

In the post-deal period, Iran continues to try to squeeze more concessions from the West—to ensure improvement of its economic situation beyond what was agreed to in the nuclear deal, in return for the minimal nuclear concessions that it made. In this effort, Iran recruits the power of the word: the steadfast and stubborn narratives that Iranian leaders promulgate with rhetorical acumen. Iran forever paints a slanted picture of reality that glosses over its aggressive regional behavior, gross human rights violations, and missile and nuclear advances, presenting itself as a virtuous and stellar international player that faces a relentless Western bully.

After months of negotiations with the P5+1, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has perfected the art, and become a master of this game. The most recent examples appear in his op-ed in the Washington Post, and interview with Robin Wright in the New Yorker. In the April 20 op-ed, Zarif notes the “artificial crisis over my country’s peaceful nuclear program,” depicts Iran as the only state seeking to eradicate “militant extremism” and complains that everyone mistakenly focuses on Iran’s “indigenous defensive capabilities” while ignoring massive military buildups in other regional states. When he refers to Iran’s “stable, safe and healthy environment for our citizens and for those visiting,” one can only imagine what the many Iranians who have been incarcerated, tortured and executed for their religious beliefs or sexual orientation would say in response. And as far as its military nuclear program, no matter what evidence is produced, Iran deems everything a lie and fabrication.

In addition to the false narrative that Iran churns out at every turn, another one of its well-known rhetorical tactics is to turn the tables. Whatever the West says about Iran, Iran hurls back at the West, employing a rather crude form of mirror imaging. So, for example, in the April 25 New Yorker interview, Zarif claimed that Iran had upheld its end of the nuclear deal, but that the United States had not, quoting a Farsi saying: “First, prove your brotherhood, and then ask for inheritance.” Every question posed about Iran’s problematic behavior was answered with an example of someone else’s bad behavior. Even when asked about the Holocaust cartoon contest to take place in Tehran, Zarif swiftly retorted: “Why does the United States have the Ku Klux Klan?” A former spokesman for Iran’s nuclear negotiating team (now at Princeton University), Seyed Hossein Mousavian, presented a particularly sharp mirror image in a recent op-ed entitled “U.S. Torpedoing the Nuclear Deal Will Reaffirm Iran’s Distrust.” In his view: “For Iran, the JCPOA was a criterion for judging whether it could trust the West to cooperate on other issues. If the United States faithfully abides by its commitments under the deal, then the view of Iranian leaders toward broader negotiations would be positively affected.” So the burden of proof is on the United States; America, not Iran, must prove its trustworthiness.

Against this backdrop, current Iranian accusations that the United States is not providing Iran with the economic boost it was counting on come as no surprise. In attempting to squeeze more concessions, Iran adamantly claims that it has upheld its end of the bargain meticulously, while accusing the United States of bad-faith behavior and of shirking its commitments. These accusations were predictable from the start, because the tactic has been employed so many times before. It is what Iran has claimed for years vis-à-vis its NPT commitments, even after its work on a military nuclear program was confirmed by the IAEA, and it is the exact pattern that Iran followed in the early stage of negotiations with the EU-3, from 2003–05.