Talking Won’t Solve the Iran Problem

The Biden administration has made clear its intention to talk with Iran. Since every negotiation has to have an endgame, consider both parties to the proposed conversation and what they intend to get.

Before the election, Biden told a journalist he wants to "build on" the JCPOA with a new agreement to “tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as we address the missile program.” He also talked about Iran’s human rights record and its “destabilizing activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region.” At that time, Mr. Biden said the only way to negotiate a new deal was to return to the old one. And in February 2021, as president, he said Iran would have to come back into compliance with the 2015 deal in order to have the U.S. ease sanctions.

So, the American negotiating goals are:

  • A return of Iran to the terms of the 2015 JCPOA
  • A new and longer agreement
  • No Iranian nuclear weapons
  • No Iranian ballistic missile program
  • Iranian respect for human rights
  • A halt to “destabilizing activities” -- presumably in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and the Gulf
  • An end to threats to Israel’s existence (one of “our partners in the region”)

For which we will pay with trade and good relations. It is the Obama deal writ larger, and Biden is prepared to sweeten the pot, to get his conversation.  

According to one report,  the U.S. will ask Iran to stop only some of its nuclear activities, in exchange for some relief from U.S. economic sanctions. The new American proposal is, “more than anything, about trying to get the conversation started” said an “insider.”  Reuters reports, “A senior Biden administration official declined to discuss details. ‘We have been clear that we are ready to pursue a mutual return to the [Iran deal],’ the official added. ‘We have also been open that we are talking with our [international] partners… about the best way to achieve this, including through a series of initial, mutual steps.’”

But why would Iran agree? The mullahs have their own end game. It includes:

  • Keeping the current JCPOA with its sunset clauses that kick in in 2025. Iran has been cheating on its commitments since 2002, but even if they hadn’t, the JCPOA gives the Islamic Republic a legal pathway to nuclear weapons capability.
  • Exercising their position as the “go to” power in the region and expanding the reach of Shiite governance to areas with Shiite majorities or large minorities. The Iranian-sponsored Houthi war against Sunni Saudi Arabia, as well as support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and militias in Iraq are parts of the plan. This is what Mr. Biden calls “destabilizing activities.”
  • Managing control of the population of Iran to ensure that government resources are spent expanding the reach of Shiite governance (see above). This is what Biden calls “human rights violations.” Repression at home and abroad may ultimately be a losing proposition for the Mullahs, but not yet.
  • Threatening Israel -- and the United States -- is a matter of religious honor, but it is also a means of achieving regional hegemony.  

The U.S. has misunderstood the nature of the whole, entire process. It is the bazaar, only not quite. Traditionally, you go to the bazaar looking for a rug. The shopkeeper has a rug. You want to spend this and he wants you to spend that. Likely you will spend more than you intended, and he will get less than he intended. But okay, it’s only money. On the other hand, if you are looking for a rug and he wants to sell you a camel, you aren’t likely to agree on a price. No matter how much you offer, the camel won’t become a rug. No matter how low he goes, the camel won’t become a rug. Game over.

Unless you decide to take the camel.

Which is what the Obama administration did. While Obama thought it was negotiating constraints on Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, Iran was negotiating a mechanism for pursuing that precise capability without the U.S. going to war. That’s why there is no agreed upon text and no U.S. Senate ratification of the JCPOA -- which is a treaty. (Perhaps the biggest mistake of the Trump administration was not sending the text to the Senate, putting an end to the charade.)

The Iranians are now turning the tables -- they want to talk about America’s unacceptable activities. In an interview recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, “If the U.S. passes the test of [the JCPOA], which doesn’t seem very likely, then we can consider other issues. But I don’t think the U.S. would be prepared to discuss those issues. Is the U.S. ready to reduce its arms shipments to the region?”

The new multi-year, multi-billion-dollar deal with China is an indication that not only can Iran find an oil partner, but also that China no longer fears U.S. retaliation for breaking sanctions.

Obama was fleeced in the bazaar and Biden is currently throwing away any leverage remaining from the “maximum sanctions regime” that had constricted Iran’s ability to spend money on nefarious activities. 

Whatever the administration’s endgame, it is unlikely to succeed, and no amount of talk will rescue it.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center and Editor of inFOCUS Quarterly.

Image: Markusszy

You can find the MeWe post for this article here.