The historic nuclear deal that Iran and the P5+1 group of powers signed on July 14, 2015, marked its first anniversary amidst hopes and despairs. Designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief, the deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has made little progress, contrary to hopes for a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations and an ensuing period of calm and stability in the Middle East. The U.S. State Department, in a cautious statement, has termed the deal “fragile but working.” Some analysts claim that the deal has worked in that it has largely eliminated the dangers of war involving Iran, Israel and the United States, while others emphasize plugging “holes” to make the deal work. Viewed realistically, such optimistic notes hold little water, as the deal is gradually approaching its endpoint.
The fear of a possible collapse of the deal has been stoked by a flurry of anti-deal actions, such as the U.S. imposition of new sanctions against Iran last October, in response to Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles; the seizure of Iranian assets at the behest of the U.S. Supreme Court in April; the Iranian navy’s capture and brief detention of ten U.S. sailors who drifted into Iranian waters in January; or the threats to renegotiate the deal by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. At a more fundamental level, Iran’s expectations for a post-deal economic windfall or America’s expectations for a change in Iran’s regional behavior have not materialized, at least until now.
There are two principal reasons for the deal’s lackluster performance. The first is the ad hoc nature of the deal to address some short-term concerns and issues in U.S.-Iranian adversarial relations, while leaving a host of deeper political and strategic problems unresolved. The second reason is the gradual return of anti-deal hawks both in Washington and Tehran, who initially failed to scuttle nuclear negotiations, but are now relaunching their attacks to rip up the deal. Together, these two factors put the deal’s survival at serious risk.
The Deal’s Short-Term Goals
The JCPOA was more a marriage of convenience than an attempt to reset strained U.S.-Iranian relations. Both countries came to the negotiating table with diverse sets of interests and expectations that were hardly helpful in initiating and sustaining genuine rapprochement.
Iran, first and foremost, decided to negotiate with the Americans in order to help rebound its ailing economy. Reeling under crippling sanctions imposed on and off by the United States, the UN and the EU following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian economy was facing growing isolation and a resulting downward spiral. The situation took a dire turn in early 2012, after the United States and the EU imposed a new round of sanctions to completely cut Iran off from the global financial transactions system. Not only did they take a toll on the domestic economy, but the new sanctions also threatened Iran’s ability to financially and militarily support its Syrian and Lebanese allies—President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah. President Rouhani, who won the 2013 presidential election with the mandate to end the nuclear impasse with the West, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were determined to get the sanctions lifted to reintegrate Iran into the global economy and arrest economic decline. Together, they set a new example of realpolitik, only to be disappointed later.
So far, Iran has not received any major benefits from sanctions relief, primarily delayed or denied by U.S. policies to block Iran from dollar transactions and scare global banking institutions away from doing business with Iranian companies. Foreign business delegations are rushing to Tehran, but no significant investment accords have been signed, other than the recent $441 million joint venture between the French automaker Peugeot-Citroën and Iran Khodro. The U.S. Congress, on top of that, has passed a resolution to foil Boeing’s planned $25 billion passenger aircraft sales contract with Iran, an extra measure outside the realm of sanctions. There are new realizations in Tehran that the nuclear deal basically brought no change in U.S. behavior and attitudes towards Iran. Khamenei, in a nationally televised address in late March, complained of foot-dragging by the United States and urged the Americans to act on their promises.
For the United States, there were a slew of deep aspirations to be realized from a breakthrough with Iran. Chief among the aspirations was to change Iran’s regional behavior—from an enemy to a predictable competitor, if not a future ally. The second aspiration was that Iran, once a deal was clinched, would support a political solution to the Syrian Civil War: a change of regime in Damascus, in Washington’s political jargon. The Obama administration also hoped that normalization initiatives with Tehran would strengthen the Iranian reformist and moderate political forces. A change in domestic politics, facilitated by a reformist drive, may eventually bring about a change in Iran’s foreign policy orientations towards the West.
Washington, to its deep frustration, has noticed that it simply made a series of unfounded calculations about Iran. Just three months after the deal was concluded, Khamenei closed the door to U.S.-Iranian cooperation by imposing an outright ban on further negotiations with the United States, while Rouhani had hoped to engage the Americans to hammer out a solution to the devastating conflict in Syria. Khamenei has deep suspicions about the United States and he labelled Rouhani and other reformists as “naïve people” who failed to understand American machinations in the Middle East region. Furthermore, he ruled out cooperation with “evil” Britain or the “Satan” of the United States on regional issues. President Obama later admitted that he did not anticipate a quick change in the hostile relations between Iran and the United States. While the two countries are coordinating war efforts in Iraq to destroy Islamic State, but they diverge in Syria over the fate of the Assad government, Iran’s sole Arab strategic partner and a vital link to its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. Iran has also welcomed Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War, a policy the United States has accepted as a fait accompli, at best.
Deep and Irreducible Divergences
In reality, the lack of progress in post-deal U.S.-Iranian relations speaks of deep political, ideological and strategic divergences, which are not necessarily reducible, between the two adversaries. Tensions over missile tests or the imposition of a ban on negotiations with the United States are simply symptoms of such divergence, and they largely explain why Tehran and Washington are back on a collision course, and may be unable to avoid confrontations in the future. The JCPOA has paid scant attention, if any, to broadly reflect on compelling strategic issues that bedevil U.S.-Iranian ties, such as intimidating the U.S. military presence surrounding Iran; America’s military commitment to its traditional Arab allies, whom Iranians of all stripes castigate; and Iran’s strategic aspirations to claim the dominant status in the Gulf neighborhood and beyond. Amidst divergences, the only area where U.S.-Iranian interests perfectly matched and converged was the urgent need to jointly fight and destroy Islamic State.
Supreme Leader Khamenei probably thinks that normalization of ties with the United States would undercut the spirit and rationale of the 1979 Islamic Revolution; after all, the revolution was against American influence in and domination over Iran. The hardliners seem to be wedded to this fear more than Khamenei himself. In their attempts to foreclose possible avenues of cooperation with the United States, they cite a laundry list of injustices Iran has suffered at the hands of the United States and the UK, the most notable being the 1953 coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadeq, American support for Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran (1980–88), and the 1988 U.S. naval combat operations that destroyed Iran’s critical oil infrastructure on the Gulf coast.
Politically, Iran and the United States stand poles apart: the United States proclaims itself a free and open society, while Iran is led by a velayat-e faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) with strict adherence to Islamic rules, norms and values. The Iranian political system blends elected and unelected institutions, with the Supreme Leader having the final say on all state matters. Such political dissonances heighten security tensions in Iran—a prime reason propelling its nuclear program. That America poses a potent military threat to the regime in Tehran is never lost in Khamenei’s mind. Additionally, America’s efforts to arm, and its post-deal renewed commitments to defend, its Gulf allies, hamstring Iran’s strategic blueprint to steer clear of foreign threats and regional opposition. In that sense, the nuclear deal did not alter the strategic environment of the Gulf very much in favor of Iran. It was rather the Arab Spring that vastly expanded the Iranian sphere of influence, from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces are actively involved in combat planning and operations in Iraq and Syria, and Hezbollah’s war efforts to defend ally Bashar al-Assad have added new strategic weight to Iran’s regional influence—a development the United States cannot undo or roll back.