Negotiations with Iran Are Back
And nothing good can come out of them. More likely, nothing at all will come out of them.
I had an essay for Mosaic last week about why sanctions won’t work with Iran. You can sign up for a free two-month trial to read it. But also, they do really good work. You should sign up for paid subscription. The core of the argument is that sanctions are an economic tool, but Iran’s three primary incentives are not economic—ideology, imperialism, and most importantly survival are the three primary ones. Economic strength helps with the other three, but not as much as nuclear weapons do. Give it a read.
Which brings me to the resumption of the negotiations. Following Iran’s presidential election theatre, the negotiations were paused. Now they are back on with the new administration. But they won’t be the same as the previous ones—including the ones conducted during the Barack Obama administration.
To use Bernie Sanders’s favorite phrase, let me be clear: The change of personnel following the June election does not mean a change in policy. In the United States, there is a permanent administrative bureaucracy, and there are elected and political-appointee officials who set the policy. Iran is the opposite. There is a permanent bureaucracy that sets the policy, and the bureaucracy goes all the way up to Leader Ali Khamenei, and there are “elected” officials and political appointees who administer the bureaucracy’s policies.
But the elected administrators still matter. The chief nuclear negotiator under the previous administration was Javad Zarif. When he became the minister of foreign affairs, Zarif mentioned that he had spent most of his adult time in the United States. He attended college in California and got his master’s there, and then he moved to Colorado to obtain another master’s degree and a Ph.D. at the University of Denver. Later, he served in several positions as a part of Iran’s delegation to the United Nations, eventually as the ambassador for five years. Zarif’s command of the English language is as good as anybody’s, and he understands the United States better than any other member of the regime. This gave him a strong advantage during the negotiations. If you are charitable, you would say that this made communications more effective. If you are not as charitable to the U.S. delegation headed by John Kerry, as well as the U.S. mainstream media, you would say that he was able to manipulate them.
The new team is anything but. I wrote a profile of the new negotiator, and, to my knowledge, it is the first one in English that heavily relies on Farsi sources and is worth reading, if I may compliment myself for a second. Unlike Zarif, there is no evidence that he is tactically flexible. There is enough evidence, however, to believe that he is an idiot, and that he is very much of an ideologue who would not make tactical compromises. If this proves to be true, then, we should expect either significant caves from the U.S. side or a breakdown of the negotiations. A third possible outcome, and a terrible one, would be that the United States would confuse that negotiations are not a means but an end to themselves and keep negotiating with Iran for the sake of negotiating, thus buying Iran precious time to move toward nuclear arms. It is also worth noting that, when the negotiations became public in 2013, it was Zarif who became the chief negotiator. When the sides returned to negotiating earlier this year, Zarif was missing, which shows a decline in Iran’s commitment to an agreement. Now, the chief negotiator has been relegated to the position of one of Iran’s several deputy ministers of foreign affairs, instead of the minister himself, again hinting at a lack of serious commitment.
What else has changed is that Iran’s program is much more advanced now than it was six years ago, when the JCPOA effected. Also, the Biden administration keeps talking about returning to the JCPOA, but, so far, it seems like they don’t mean it literally—and prudently. A significant clause of the JCPOA which imposes an arms embargo on Iran expired last year. Another clause expires in 2026, allowing Iran to install more advanced centrifuges. (The last one expires in 2031, allowing Iran to enrich more than 300 kilograms of uranium and at a higher grade than 3.67 percent, which is nuclear weapons territory.) The significance of the 2026 deadline is that there was no circumstance under which President Obama would have to live with the lifting of this restriction. If Joe Biden runs for re-election and wins it, it will be during his administration. Moreover, even if President Biden retires, many of the key people involved certainly have ambitions to remain in government should a Democrat succeed President Biden. For instance, would Jake Sullivan or Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman say no to being the Secretary of State? And you can go down the ranks from there.
But I don’t want to reduce this problem to the personal ambitions of patriotic men and women I disagree with. The larger issue at hand, one they certainly have in mind, is that, no matter who’s in office, the lifting of restrictions is a problem. And the lifting of restrictions five years from now is a bigger problem than eleven years from now, which was the case when the agreement effected.
Then there is the third change. The government of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had much less influence over the Obama administration than is the norm with close allies—and everybody is to blame here, including Netanyahu, Obama, and then-Speaker John Boehner, all of whom are responsible for damaging the precious non-partisan character of the U.S.-Israeli relations. Thus, despite his fierce objections to the agreement, his government failed to stop it. The new Israeli government is very much different. Soon after becoming the prime minister, Naftali Bennett said that his main objective was that there would be no daylight between the United States and Israel. So far, he has succeeded. Bennett is from the Israeli right. Traditionally, right-wing governments get along better with Republicans, and left-wing governments get along better with Democrats. Bennett’s government is on very good terms with the Biden administration. The two men seem to get along very well, but their national security advisers are especially on good terms. This is also true of Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair1 Lapid. This is all to say that ignoring Israel’s concerns won’t be as easy this time.
And then there is the biggest problem compared to last time. The United States entered negotiations with Iran in the 2010s with a Khamenei quite paranoid about the U.S. intentions who reluctantly signed on the agreement. I don’t know what is more extreme than paranoid, but Khamenei is there! He is not going to be as easily convinced this time, especially when his hand is much stronger.
Secretary Blinken seems to be aware of the problem here. Last week, he said that the United States is considering alternative options. According to The Hill:
"We still believe diplomacy is the best path forward for putting the nuclear program back in the box that had been in under the agreement, the so-called JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]," Blinken added. "But we were also looking at, as necessary, other options if Iran is not prepared to engage quickly in good faith, to pick up where we left off in June, when these talks were interrupted by the change in government in Iran."
Well, for what it’s worth, I would like to inform Mr. Secretary that Iran was never negotiating in good faith to begin with. But the mentioning of “other options” is rather interesting. The Obama administration always said that all options were on the table, but what really scared the other side was the Israeli option. Iran never passed the 240 kilogram red line Israel had set.
This time around, the United States is not less credible about the threat of the use of military force than the last time—it is not possible to be less credible to be fair. The United States has hit Iran’s proxy forces four times during the Biden administration, compared to the zero strike against the regime’s forces in the period between the Ronald Reagan administration and the Donald Trump administration’s killing of Qassem Soleimani.
But the Israeli side is even more credible this time. Recently, reports suggested that Israel has set aside 1.5 billion dollars to attack Iran. To make matters worse—and this is another factor that has changed—the regime has lost all legitimacy. If there were ever hopes that an attack would rally the people around the flag during the negotiations under Kerry and Zarif, it has evaporated, many thanks to the JCPOA, in fact. For years, the regime blamed U.S. sanctions and played the reformists vs. hardliners game to deter blame for the economic conditions inside. After the JCPOA was enacted, under the self-proclaimed reformist Hassan Rouhani administration, things got much worse, and the people gave up on the regime entirely.
And then there is the last part. Having a nuclear weapon is meaningless if you cannot deliver it to its destination. Do we know for sure that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon already? No. We have strong confidence that Iran has not tested a nuclear weapon—despite the suspicious occasional earthquakes that have some believe there have been underground tests. But Iran might already have nuclear bombs, as far as we are concerned—and if anybody with access to classified intelligence wants to tell me what’s up, one way or the other, I won’t say no! Iran has quite low-quality delivery systems. Their ballistic missiles are not very accurate.2 They don’t have stealth bombers that could penetrate Israel’s or Persian Gulf Arab states’ airspaces without being shut down. And their submarines and ships are also easily detectible. So even if Iran acquires the bomb or a warhead—or if it already possesses some—it is not the end of the world as the United States or Israel can attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and neutralize the weapons as long as Iran doesn’t have delivery capabilities, given that they have information regarding the location(s) of those weapons.3 This all means that a key to success against Iran is access to good intelligence, in which we have made almost no investment, but Israelis have excelled.4 This makes strong ties with the Israeli government and a mutual trust crucial to the success of any Iran policy.
Let me end with what I started. The problem with diplomacy with Iran is that, so far, the United States has threatened many of Iran’s interests through economic pressure, but the regime’s core interest is survival, which the regime believes depends on nuclear arms, and the United States is yet to threaten that. Without such a threat, we are only talking about different tactics to buy time for a strategy that will eventually result in failure. And we should absolutely be prepared for what to do when this strategy arrives at its inevitable result.
I here laid out the current chessboard, and it looks to me that the chances of reaching an agreement that extends the sunset clauses of the JCPOA are very grim. And letting Israelis take care of the business for us is also a dangerous proposal that would rock the international order further at a time when it is quite fragile. Besides, when the Israelis attacked Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007, they kept it a secret—as was right for them to do so. If the United States had done such a thing, the embarrassment could have led to a Syrian uprising which, combined with U.S. support, could have toppled the Assad regime and prevented the catastrophe that was the Syrian Civil War. If Israelis attack Iran, they will likely keep it a secret again, as is probably right to do. If we do it, then we will have the option to decide whether we would like to exploit it further or not.
If you find this all interesting, please forward it to your friends, and you can just simply link to it. I’ve kept it unlocked.
I have a few friends named Yair, and they will kill me if I don’t point out that the correct pronunciation is Yah-eer. The a in Yair is pronounced as in cat, and then add an ear.
I am not blind to the fact that an inaccurate missile that targets Tel-Aviv but instead lands in Haifa or Amman is still hardly reassuring.
The main reason that we did not do such a thing with North Korea was not primarily North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons but the threat of the North Korean artillery posed to Seoul, which is home to ten million people, including over 100,000 American citizens.
Our human intelligence capabilities is a topic for another discussion, but it is a very unfortunate one. It is quickly inching towards nonexistence. Often unsaid about the our initial failure in Iraq is that we knew very little about how much the country had changed since we cut relations after the invasion of Kuwait without investing in on the ground intelligence. For instance, Condoleezza Rice said that she had never even heard of the “faith campaign” that Saddam Hussein started after losing the war in 1991, but the campaign had a huge effect on the population, driving too many toward Islamic fanaticism and the subsequent insurgency. The most [in]famous alumnus of the faith campaign is a deceased insurgent we know as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. An evidence for such an intelligence failure is that, on the even of the invasion in 2003, there were four U.S. nationals in Iraq. Assuming all were spies, that’s hardly reassuring. And I have very little doubt that the situation is much better regarding Iran.