The Iran Deal Is Already Falling Apart

The Iran Deal Is Already Falling Apart

Its long-term goals are out of the question.

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.

The Next Phase

In the past year, the nuclear deal has yielded few positive and more inauspicious outcomes. Admittedly, there are now few or no bellicose statements from Israel or the United States against Iran—that “all options are on the table” to deal with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions—though there has hardly been any letup in Israeli air assaults on Hezbollah convoys or fighters in Syria. Some Iranian military personnel have also fallen prey to Israeli attacks. Iran has honored its commitment to the JCPOA and is free to conduct oil business with external parties, but transactions through international banks remain at the mercy of the United States. The expected foreign investment is not pouring in. Instead of experiencing “concrete results” from the deal, average Iranians are expressing frustration that U.S. actions are preventing deals with interested foreign parties—a prime obstacle to revamping the economy.

Iranian hard-liners—the conservatives and the IRGC in particular—are banking on the deal’s failure to make a strong political comeback after their defeat in the last parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections held in February. They are pressing home the point that the United States could never be trusted, a point they expect to capitalize on in the upcoming presidential election in 2017. The growing power of the IRGC, in particular, may eventually cast a negative shadow on the deal, in case the deal remains a deal in name only. The IRGC is the real driver behind Iran’s proactive foreign policy, with the Foreign Ministry mostly playing a supporting role, including in Iraq or Syria. Rightly or wrongly, IRGC generals, who directly report to the Supreme Leader, consider the United States a spent power in the Middle East and generally have the stomach to stand up to American challenges, deal or no deal.

Actions by powerful insider interests in Washington go a long way to make Iranian hard-liners more hostile toward the United States. Hawks in Congress, AIPAC and other business interests are often irrationally anti-Iran, mainly because of their concerns for Israel and for domestic political gains. They refer to Iran’s support for Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the anti-Israel statements that Iranian leaders frequently make. But Iran’s anti-Israel postures are primarily for domestic political consumption, and in order to prove that Iran is not just a Shia power, as often alleged, but a Muslim power. Iran hardly poses an existential threat to Israel.

Former Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon, while criticizing Netanyahu as a “fear-monger,” has recently admitted that “in the foreseeable future, there is no existential threat to Israel.” But the American hawks’ preoccupation with the “Iran threat” has strong potential to derail the deal and push the United States down the road to dangerous collisions with Iran. And this seems more likely to happen, as the deal enjoys no significant American public support. A Gallup poll conducted last February found that only 30 percent of Americans approved of the deal, and that a meager 14 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Iran.

The U.S. strategy, it seems, is to deny Iran benefits from the deal, force it to renege on its commitments to the deal and then use Iran’s breach of obligations under the deal to impose more unilateral sanctions. This will simply strengthen the hands of Iranian hard-liners, who view the deal as an ineffective agreement with the West, giving them much-needed political ammunition to go after the deal. Having seen no benefits from the deal, they are likely to pursue a more assertive foreign policy, often creating tensions with the United States, while stopping short of scrapping the deal altogether, to avoid being blamed for its collapse. The Iranian public will hardly see any point in an unsustainable post-deal rapprochement with the United States. The reformists under President Rouhani would stand alone and be weakened politically. A shift from impaired diplomacy to heightened tensions and hostility is more likely to occur.

The deal, in short, is an imperfect measure to address some immediate concerns, not a long-term framework to resolve deep strategic and political divergences between Iran and the United States. Their return to a period of renewed hostilities should surprise no one.

Mohammed Nuruzzaman is associate professor of international relations at Gulf University for Science and Technology in West Mishref, Kuwait.

Image: Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a meeting. Tasnim News Agency/Hamid Malekpour, CC BY 4.0.