Iran Nuclear Deal: One-time Event or Breakthrough?

by John Limbert

Tehran and Washington have apparently hired the same speechwriter to com­pose their public statements about the state of Iranian nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). In both capitals the proclaimed view is identical: the nuclear agreement is only a one-off event and has no larger implica­tions for U.S.-Iranian relations; there has been no break in the 35-year cycle of hostility between the two countries; the devil remains the devil, even if we had to make a deal with it; and the other side remains devious, domineering, and untrust­worthy and has not abandoned its long-time goal of doing (us) mischief.

There is even competition to outdo the other side in insisting that, because of this hostility, the JCPOA will remain a limited, unique episode. In his recent Iranian New Year’s message, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei denounced American “tricks” such as President Obama’s Persian New Year’s mes­sage to the Iranian people and his setting up a ceremonial Iranian haft-seen (tabletop arrangement of seven symbolic items) at the White House. He continued, “I am empha­sizing my point about the enemy; I mean the United States.” The nuclear deal, he insisted, has not changed that reality.

For its part, the U.S. has taken the same public attitude. President Obama’s National Security Advisor Susan Rice recently told The Atlantic reporter Jeff Goldberg:

The Iran deal was never primarily about trying to open a new era of rela­tions between the U.S. and Iran. The aim was simply to make a danger­ous country less dangerous. No one had any expectation that Iran would be a more benign actor.

The editorialists at Tehran’s conservative newspaper Keyhan could not resist calling Rice’s statement “only a small part of the increasing anti-Iranian rhetoric of the American officials in recent months.”

We get the point: both parties agree the U.S. and Iran were not friends, are not friends, and are not going to be friends. In Tehran, America is still the “great Satan” and “world arrogance.” In Washington, Iran remains the “world’s number-one sponsor of terrorism” with hegemonic ambitions to dominate the region. In her comments, Rice barely avoided saying “malign,” the U.S. military’s favorite adjective for Iranian actions.

Rhetoric vs. Reality

Despite these denials, the reality is different. In both capitals, “The lady doth protest too much.” Although officials will never admit it, there has been a drastic change in relations, and we are seeing interactions that a few ago were unthinkable. For 34 years, since 1979, the features of U.S.-Iranian relations were as follows:

  • The two sides barely spoke. Exchanges that did occur consisted of trading insults, accusations, and threats.
  • Attempts to change the relationship into something more productive foundered on suspicion, mistrust, diplomatic ineptitude, toxic domestic politics, bad timing, and bad luck.
  • Both sides nursed real and imagined grievances that festered and fed on themselves.
  • Without communication, small misunderstandings became major incidents. For example, when three young American hikers wandered into Iranian territory near Marivan, in Iranian Kurdistan, the episode, instead of being resolved quietly be­tween consular and legal authorities, became a major political issue that bogged down on both sides for over two years.
  • The P5 + 1 negotiators over Iran’s nuclear program were mired in fruitless positional bar­gaining, statements of maximalist positions, and endless haggling over peripheral issues such as the time and place of a next meeting. The Iranian representative took extreme measures to avoid meeting his American counterpart.
  • Both sides convinced themselves that it was somehow more important to be “tough” than to be smart.

Like it or not, the above stalemate is breaking. The changes over the last three years have been profound, even as both sides deny that any change has happened. Washington and Tehran have discovered that saying “yes”—hard as it is—will not cause the sky to fall. Even those who beat their chests the hardest—such as the infamous “Mr. Bigmouth” in Tehran and those promoting hysterical Iranophobia in the U.S.—will have to admit, to their dismay, that things have changed.

Beyond the legal and scientific details of the nuclear agreement, negotiating and signing it was a major achievement. Both parties had to set aside beloved maximalist rhetoric if they wanted, in Washington’s case, verifiable limitations on Iran’s nuclear program and, in Tehran’s, relief from international economic and financial sanctions. Most of the ar­gu­­ments against the agreement were not about the strengths and weaknesses of its con­tents. Instead, opponents criticized the entire process of diplomacy, stressed the evil and deceitful nature of the other side, and demanded a surrender instead of a nego­tiated agree­ment. On one side, opponents condemned the deal as “worse than Munich,” recalling the 1938 agreement with Nazi Germany that has come to symbolize selling out and the futile appeasement of ag­gres­sion. On the other, opponents called the deal “worse than Turkmanchai,” recalling the humiliating 1829 treaty between Czarist Russia and Qajar Iran that cost the latter valuable territory and her very sovereignty. The com­parisons, if not accurate, were very powerful for both parties by evoking memories of past degradation and defeat.

Evidence of Progress

Whatever people think of the nuclear agreement, the process of negotiation, and the whole subject of engagement, they will have to admit that, despite their denunciations, things are not the same now as they were just a few years ago. The following events, for example, would have been inconceivable.

  • American Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister M. Javad Zarif are in constant communication and are meeting regularly on issues related and unrelated to the nuclear deal;
  • American Secretary of Energy Ernest Muniz and his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi are in regular communication to resolve questions about the technical issues of the JCPOA;
  • The above contacts are described as “positive” and “productive,” adjectives not heard in an American-Iranian context for over three decades;
  • Lower-level officials are also in contact, and exchange email messages directly—something unheard of just a few years ago;
  • These exchanges have shredded Washington’s dubious “no-contact” policy that forbade American officials from dealing with their Iranian counterparts;
  • Iranian officials are able to have contacts with American counterparts—even Zarif and Rouhani with President Obama—with the apparent backing of the supreme leader, who fulminates publicly against any hint of rapprochement with the U.S.

This unprecedented level of contact has prevented the inevitable misunderstandings and setbacks from becoming debacles that could sink the agreement and the whole process of engagement. In January 2016, the new atmosphere led to the quick release of captive American sailors whose boats had gone into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf. While opponents of the deal in the U.S. were screaming “hostage crisis” (and probably wishing for a repeat of the1979 fiasco that helped end Jimmy Carter’s presidency), Kerry could call Zarif, and Zarif apparently could get the authorities to move Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Navy to do the smart thing. A few years before there would have been no one to pick up Kerry’s call.

The April 22 meeting between Kerry and Zarif in New York provided another illustration of a new reality. The statements of the two were models of professionalism in a setting where countries have serious differences.

KERRY: As President Obama has said, as Secretary [of the Treasury] Jack Lew has said, and as I have said, and we have said it repeatedly, the United States is not standing in the way and will not stand in the way of business that is permitted with Iran since the JCPOA took effect…

But I want to make clear the United States is committed to doing our part as we believe it is in our interest to ensure that the JCPOA…is in fact working for all participants.

ZARIF: We will continue to have differences with the United States. Our dif­ferences are very serious in a good number of areas. We will – but we have decided together with the P5 + 1 to address this issue and we want to show that P5 + 1 and Iran have been able to resolve a very serious difficult issue through negotiations, and I believe we should take the necessary steps in that regard…

KERRY: The foreign minister is correct: there are differences and some of them are obviously serious differences. Those have to be the subject of future discus­sion. But it’s important for people to understand that an agreement is an agree­ment, and we need to separate, even as we are working to resolve those other differences.

As both governments continue to issue statements that the nuclear agree­ment has changed nothing and the two sides remain sworn enemies, it is clear that much has changed. Now both sides have de­cided, after 35 years of exchanging empty rhetoric, to take a different path: to acknow­ledge disagreements and deal with them through contact, discussion, and engagement. Those changes, despite the official denials, are a very big deal.

John Limbert is Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. He served 34 years in the Foreign Service, including 14 months as a hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran.  He has recently authored Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History for the US Institute of Peace.

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  1. Thank you for stressing the positive side of the encounters between the two countries. Indeed, although a great deal has been made of the 1953 coup on the one hand and the hostage crisis on the other, the importance of both issues has been somewhat exaggerated. As a number of books by those involved in the events of 1953 (most notably Ardeshir Zahedi, the son of General Zahedi who came to power after toppling Dr. Mosaddeq, and the Shah’s son-in-law) have pointed out, the issue was not quite as straightforward as has been made out. There was a great deal of discontent regarding Dr. Mosaddeq’s policies in Iran among the military and the clerical establishment, and although the CIA and the MI6 planned the coup that failed on 16th August 1953, it was the military coup carried out by Iranian generals backed by Ayatollah Boroujerdi that succeeded to topple Mosaddeq on 19th August.

    Similarly, the accounts provided by those involved in the hostage crisis show that it was not planned and executed by Ayatollah Khomeini or the Iranian government. Prime Minister Bazargan’s government actually resigned due to the hostage crisis. It was a part of a domestic conflict between the religious zealots and leftist activists, which got out of hand, and Khomeini and the clerics made use of it to crush the left and consolidate their position.

    Even despite all the accusations of bad faith after the JCPOA by each side against the other, in fact, the JCPOA has already produced many positive results in just three months since its implementation. It has stopped any possibility of Iran manufacturing a nuclear weapon in the foreseeable future, and as pointed out in the article the contacts between Iranian and American officials have meant that the issue of American sailors who drifted into Iranian waters was resolved quickly and amicably.

    On the Iranian side, most of the sanctions have been lifted and although European banks are nervous about dealing with Iran due to possible US action, nevertheless, attempts are being made to resolve that problem. Iran’s links with European banks have resumed. Iranians have gained access to at least some of their blocked assets, and many Western and Asian countries have expressed willingness to invest heavily in Iran. Iran has been able to resume her oil exports to almost pre-sanctions levels. So the glass is certainly more than half full.

    This does not mean that some people on both sides are not still trying to undermine the agreement, and some bizarre rulings by American courts in seizing parts of Iranian assets have certainly not helped win Iranian trust. Both Iranian and American officials should make every effort to make sure that the JCPOA is implemented fully and gains enough momentum that the next administration will not be able to undo it.

    The situation in the Middle East has changed a great deal compared to a few years ago. The scourge of terrorism and insecurity across the region pose major threats to both the United States and Iran. It is time for both countries to put past grievances behind them and start cooperating on pressing issues in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. During the remaining months of his term, President Obama should push GCC countries to reach agreement with Iran and Iraq over a regional security system that would also help resolve other regional problems. Turning back or standing still is no option.

  2. “Both parties had to set aside beloved maximalist rhetoric if they wanted, in Washington’s case, verifiable limitations on Iran’s nuclear program and, in Tehran’s, relief from international economic and financial sanctions.”

    The false equivalency here (and throughout the article) makes me uncomfortable. Washington got its “verifiable limitations on Iran’s nuclear program,” but Tehran has yet to experience “relief” from sanctions – at least, not as far as I’ve been able to learn to this point. Are European banks now at ease over still-existing sanctions or still cautious about dealing with Iran for fear of falling afoul of them? Have Iran’s long-frozen assets been thawed and released to them?

    Most of all, for whose benefit are these supposedly faux hostilities? The Iranian National Guard and the idiot-dominated American Congress? If so, it would be nice to have it confirmed.

  3. think the nuclear deal could prove to be a “breakthrough” and this is but one reason the ISRAEL LOBBY is working so hard to wreck it.

  4. Watch for the Zioentity so-called Israel and its agents in the “entangled” U.S. to do all in their inhuman power to torpedo and sink the JCPOA and/or any further indication of cautious rapprochement between Iran and the “land of the free (not).”

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