Although this precedent was not specifically invoked, the Trump administration appeared to hope that its “maximum pressure” campaign would lead to Tehran making choices similar to Gorbachev’s. The maximum pressure campaign, its advocates calculated, would lead to an economic collapse that would threaten the survival of the Islamic Republic’s leadership. Either the ayatollahs would sacrifice their foreign adventures for the sanctions relief needed just to retain power, or the Islamic Republic would actually fall and be replaced by a more rational regime recognizing how cooperating with the United States was in its best interests. Despite the Biden administration’s desire to revive the JCPOA, its unwillingness to drop sanctions related to Iran’s regional activity indicates that it too seeks to modify Tehran’s behavior in this realm. Trump, though, did not succeed in modifying Iran’s regional behavior, and Biden does not seem likely to either. This is because the situation Gorbachev faced that led him to see retreating from regional conflicts in the Third World as being in Moscow’s interests is very different from the one that Tehran now faces, thus leading Tehran to make a very different calculation about whether to continue or end its interventionism in the Middle East.
There are those in Washington who may believe that it was American containment and Western economic sanctions that drove Gorbachev to change Moscow’s foreign policy. These may have played a role, but Gorbachev—just like Brezhnev’s short-time successors Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, and even Gorbachev himself initially—could have continued Brezhnev’s interventionism in the Third World indefinitely. This was certainly Washington’s expectation from him at first. What drove Gorbachev to change course, though, was not so much Western pressure as his own grandiose ambition to revive the Soviet Union. Further, he did not undertake this project because he was a born-again democrat or capitalist, but because he saw it as necessary in order to make the Soviet Union stronger in a world where it was falling behind.
Furthermore, at that point in time, Gorbachev’s hope of attracting foreign investment and trade meant that he had to seek it from the West. China was not the wealthy country it is today. Except for Kuwait, America’s wealthy Gulf Arab allies only began the process of normalizing relations with Moscow during the Gorbachev years and were not then willing to invest in the Soviet economy. And the USSR’s allies were not the kind that provided resources to Moscow but drained them away from it instead. Gorbachev’s decision to alter Soviet foreign policy by doing what was needed to improve relations with the West in order to pursue his ambitious domestic goals, then, was rational. Unfortunately for him, his domestic reform plans were not rational, and instead of strengthening the Soviet Union, they contributed to its downfall.
But if it was a poorly designed domestic reform project that undermined Gorbachev, neither Khamenei nor any hardliner who will probably succeed him is likely to undertake a similar project. Indeed, as the Iranian writer Akbar Ganji noted, Khamenei is determined not to make the same mistakes that Gorbachev did. Instead, he admires Vladimir Putin and shares with him the fear of American-inspired “color revolutions” aimed at overthrowing their regimes. Khamenei, then, is too distrustful of American intentions to turn to the United States for anything beyond sanctions relief in exchange for abiding by the JCPOA. And unlike the USSR under Gorbachev, Iran has other options for economic partners besides the West. In March 2021, China agreed to invest $400 billion in Iran over a twenty-five-year period. China along with others have also been buying Iranian oil for many years now in defiance of American-backed sanctions. Iran has also been able to evade sanctions with the help of several countries, including Turkey, Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government, the UAE, Oman, Malaysia, and Russia. Thus, while Gorbachev’s ambitious domestic goals and the lack of viable partners besides the West for implementing them encouraged him to withdraw from the Third World, Khamenei neither seeks ambitious domestic reform efforts nor is unable to find economic partners outside the West that might induce him to change his policy toward the Middle East.
The situation that Tehran now sees itself in vis-à-vis the United States, then, is more similar to the one that Brezhnev saw the USSR as being in during the 1970s: an America that is pulling out of unsuccessful military ventures wants not just a nuclear arms accord with its adversary, but for that adversary to refrain from pressing its advantages in the places that Washington does not want to be involved in. Like the Soviets in the 1970s, the Iranians now do not see the United States as being either willing or able to enforce such terms—and so Tehran sees no reason to accept them. Washington, of course, seems to think that its ability to either increase or decrease the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran should provide Tehran with sufficient incentive to change its regional behavior or suffer inordinately if it does not. But even though Tehran would like sanctions relief, the Supreme Leader Khamenei along with the Revolutionary Guards have demonstrated that they are determined to continue Iran’s regional policies even if this means that sanctions continue. Indeed, Iranian conservatives may actually find the continuation of American-backed sanctions useful not only for justifying the continuation of their own undemocratic rule, but also in the hope of exploiting the unpopularity of Washington’s secondary sanctions on other countries limiting their desire to trade with Iran. Many of America’s allies in Europe and Asia have bought Iranian petroleum in the past and would continue to do so except for increasingly aggressive U.S. secondary sanctions, which they resent.
Maybe one day Iran will have a new leader, or even a new government, that—like Gorbachev—prioritizes domestic economic development and sees hostility toward America’s Middle East allies as well as deep involvement in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen as counterproductive to this ambition. The United States, though, is unlikely to be able to hasten that day through maintaining strict sanctions on Iran and trying to force others to abide by them too—especially since there are already so many willing to help Tehran evade them. Nor does Washington appear to be in a position either to force or persuade Tehran to change the regional policies that America and its allies do not like.
Washington, then, must carefully calculate how best to navigate the current nuclear arms control/regional conflict nexus with Iran. Attempting to link a U.S. return to the JCPOA to changed Iranian behavior in the Middle East could backfire not only through failing to change Tehran’s regional policies, but by making it more likely Iran will actually acquire nuclear weapons. Much of the discourse about the Iranian nuclear accord in Washington as well as in the capitals of America’s Middle East allies treats an American return to the JCPOA as somehow being a concession to Tehran. But policymakers in Washington and elsewhere need to ask themselves these questions: First, is Iran more likely to obtain nuclear weapons if it is abiding by the JCPOA and subject to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), or if the JCPOA breaks down altogether and there are no IAEA inspections or other constraints on Iran’s obtaining them? And second, is Iran’s regional behavior likely to be more of a threat now when Iran does not possess nuclear weapons or in the future if it does acquire them?
It should be patently obvious just from posing these questions that the United States and its allies are far better off with the JCPOA than without it—especially since reviving the JCPOA does not prevent the United States and its allies from acting to counter Iran’s regional policies that they find threatening. As others have done, the United States can also cooperate with an adversary in areas where it has an interest in doing so while competing with it in others where their interests are opposed.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.