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.