President Joe Biden has said he seeks to return to the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as a first step to put the lid on Iran’s nuclear program and decrease regional tensions.
His incoming Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during confirmation hearings that the United States will return to compliance with the JCPOA if Iran does. Blinken added that the Biden administration aims to use the JCPOA as a platform to “seek a longer and stronger” agreement with Iran that would also address Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region and its missile program.
As the Biden administration pursues new negotiations with Iran, it should do so with a keen understanding of Iranian strategic decision-making and what spurs Iranian flexibility and obduracy. The key to any broader deal will be to find areas that address U.S. national security concerns that do not infringe on what Iranian officials regard as vital to their country’s survival.
Two seminal events since the 1979 Islamic Revolution are often cited as examples of how the Islamic Republic reacts to massive foreign pressure: the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 and the negotiation of the JCPOA in 2015.
Why Iran accepted a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq War
The Iran-Iraq War began on September 22, 1980, amid revolutionary chaos in Iran. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein launched a surprise aerial assault on ten Iranian airfields days after declaring as “null and void” the 1975 Algiers Agreement, which divided up control of the strategic Shatt al Arab waterway between the two countries. Saddam now laid claim to the entire river and sought to conquer additional territory in Iran’s southwest and in the Persian Gulf. A devastating eight-year war ensued that saw hundreds of thousands killed on both sides, hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, and Saddam using chemical weapons to sadistic effect against Iranian soldiers, civilians, and Iraqi Kurds.
The nascent Islamic Republic found little support internationally, in part because it was holding U.S. diplomats hostage. The country’s isolation was underlined by UN Security Council resolution 479, which simply called on Iraq “to refrain immediately from any further use of force.” The resolution called for a ceasefire and not a withdrawal of Iraqi troops, even as they were occupying Iranian territory. It was only after the tide of war changed in 1982 and Iraqi troops were on the retreat that the Council passed a new resolution, 514, calling for a withdrawal of troops to internationally recognized boundaries. Iraq, which until that point had demanded Iranian recognition of Iraqi sovereignty over the Shatt al Arab waterway, welcomed the resolution.
However, in Iran, an intense debate ensued at the highest echelons of the revolutionary government. Hashemi Rafsanjani, then speaker of parliament and commander in chief of Iran’s armed forces, led the camp arguing for continuing the war into Iraqi territory. His side ultimately won over Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder and first supreme leader, and Iran’s leaders decided to invade Iraq. The aim was to capture strategic Iraqi territory and secure leverage for a more favorable peace settlement, which would include reparations from Iraq.
The war would drag on for six more bloody years. By 1987, the United States directly entered the conflict and, in what became known as the Tanker War, destroyed half of Iran’s surface warships. On July 20, 1987, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 598, which called for troop withdrawal and a ceasefire under articles 39 and 40 of the UN Charter, making it binding. It also left open the possibility for punitive measures for non-compliance by including a statement that the Council would meet again “to consider further steps to ensure compliance with this resolution.” This was believed to be threatening a UN arms embargo, which the United States was seeking against Iran.
Resolution 598 precipitated the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Over the preference of hardliners in Tehran who sought to continue the war, Khomeini accepted its terms, which he said was “deadlier than swallowing poison.” Iran’s acceptance of the resolution is sometimes cited as an example of it caving to massive pressure. However, the reality is that while Iran did compromise, it only did so after meeting its bottom-line security interests. It did not surrender the Shatt al-Arab or any other territory to Saddam, and only accepted a peace deal after pressing its advantage in Iraq for six years.
The Iran-Iraq war also shaped the national security policy of the Islamic Republic in the decades to come, especially the creation of its ballistic and cruise missile programs. Bereft of adequate means to retaliate against Iraqi scud missiles during the war, Iran has since pursued these weapons as core means of deterrence against would-be aggressors. If the Biden administration seeks to constrain Iran’s missiles, it needs to consider the role they play in Iran’s national security.
Today, no one in the Iranian political spectrum entertains the idea of giving concessions on Iran’s missile capabilities. At most, as one analyst wrote in the reformist Shargh newspaper in 2018, Iran can agree to some missile limitations if the West gives advanced military aircraft in return as a substitute deterrence weapon. Hossein Salami, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards summarized the consensus position in Iran on the missiles issue, stating: “Missiles are defensive assets and a key element of our deterrence power and we can never accept to disarm ourselves of deterrence capabilities.”
Lessons of the JCPOA
The cycle of escalation and negotiation that led to the JCPOA in July 2015 is similarly instructive for how much pressure Iran is willing to bear. Throughout the nuclear crisis, which began with the exposure of previously undeclared Iranian nuclear facilities in 2002, Iranian officials made clear early that their bottom line was to operate a limited civilian nuclear program on Iranian soil, which would include uranium enrichment and the nuclear fuel cycle infrastructure.
Iran signaled its openness to a JCPOA-like deal for the first time in 2005. In March of that year, Iran’s nuclear negotiators made an offer to the “EU3” (the UK, France and Germany) that would have sealed off Iran’s uranium and plutonium pathways to a bomb. Like the JCPOA, the proposal stipulated that Iran would cap uranium enrichment at five percent, convert its enriched uranium stockpiles into forms that would make further enrichment impossible, and take steps to ensure it could not separate or reprocess plutonium from the spent nuclear fuel of its Arak heavy water reactor.
However, the 2005 Iranian proposal was rejected at the behest of the George W. Bush administration, which insisted that Iran cease uranium enrichment entirely. Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign secretary at the time, later said of this episode: “Had it not been for major problems within the US administration under President Bush, we could have actually settled the whole Iran nuclear dossier back in 2005.”
What ensued was eight years of dramatic escalation. Iran massively expanded the size of its nuclear program, while the United States created an unprecedented multilateral sanctions regime. By 2012, there was widespread talk of war breaking out. The turning point only came in 2013, when the Obama administration signaled a willingness to accept limited enrichment in Iran in return for a heavily monitored and scaled back Iranian nuclear program, starting a diplomatic process that led to the JCPOA.
President Biden cannot now expect Iran to surrender to a worse deal than the JCPOA. Likewise, the United States cannot expect Iran to surrender its missiles, or other measures vital to its security. This means approaching issues outside the JCPOA in a regional lens focused on win-win outcomes. On missiles, efforts to lock in limits on range or halt transfers to proxy groups are more likely and more achievable than efforts focused on rolling back a key conventional deterrent. Across the region, there is a comparatively easy win-win on Yemen—Saudis extricate themselves from a quagmire, Yemen gets humanitarian aid and an end to bombing and Iran can play a role in an end to the conflict. The Biden administration can start regional negotiations there and build them out.
Sina Toossi is a Senior Research Analyst at the National Iranian American Council. He tweets @SinaToossi.