Only Political Imagination Can Save the Iran Deal

by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

On Monday, Ambassador Nikki Haley gave a speech on Iran and the nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington D.C. think tank. Her speech was remarkable for many reasons, including her declaration that if President Trump “finds that he cannot in good faith certify Iranian compliance,” an outcome long anticipated, “that does not mean the United States is withdrawing from the JCPOA.” Rather, Trump’s move would give Congress a period of “sixty days to consider whether to re-impose sanctions on Iran” under the Corker-Cardin legislation.

In the subsequent question-and-answer period, Haley was quick to explain that she was not “not making the case for decertifying” but that if President Trump decides to do so, “he has grounds to stand on.” But the speech was most remarkable for demonstrating the dangerous lack of political imagination behind the Trump administration’s stumbling foreign policy.

It is unlikely Haley spent much time thinking about Iran prior to this year. Her confirmation hearing testimony given to the Senate in January was relatively restrained on the issue of Iran. At the time, Haley believed that it would be best to review the deal, rather than withdraw from it, as Trump had promised to do on his first day in office. The speech at AEI was ostensibly Haley’s personal report following her own review of the deal, particularly after her visit to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna in August.

To anchor her speech, Haley spent considerable time listing Iran’s past transgressions, presenting a timeline of events—such as the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage crisis and the Khobar Towers bombing—as part of Iran’s “quest to overturn the international order.” The timeline anchored the speech in an important way. It created what Robert Jervis calls the “psychological milieu,” the image of Iran as Haley sees it. Haley’s speech drew largely on Iran’s past behavior to argue a pattern, and she ignored the existence of the JCPOA as a clear break in the pattern. In short, Haley was able to present one image of Iran but could not adequately weigh the evidence that Iran could change in the future. She was unable to imagine a different Iran.

The Importance of Imagination

As Robert Jervis writes in his seminal work Perception and Misperception in International Politics:

A person is less apt to reorganize evidence into a new theory or image if he is deeply committed to the established view. Commitment here means not only the degree to which the person’s power and prestige are involved, but also– and more importantly– the degree to which this way of seeing the world has proved satisfactory and become internalized… Twenty-five years’ use of a number system with a base of ten makes it hard to imagine any other system.

Jervis teaches a counterintuitive lesson: to assess the reality of a transforming political situation, you need to exercise a degree of political imagination, a capacity to reorganize evidence to create a new image. This is where Haley fails as a diplomat. She is unable to imagine that Iran has the capacity for constructive action, which impedes her ability to catalogue and assess the facts on the ground that suggest the strong likelihood of continued moderation. Moreover, she questions the logic of those who have imagined that Iran can begin to behave more constructively. During the questions-and-answer session, she stated:

Everyone hoped this deal was going to make the Iranian government good people. But no one looked at the history of Iran, no one looked at all the past aggressions that they have shown and what we are saying is this deal doesn’t change all that, and this deal doesn’t change what is happening right now.

Haley’s lack of even basic thinking on the implications of withdrawal is perhaps best demonstrated by her deflection of a question by AEI scholar Michael Rubin, who asked “Did the JCPOA encourage and embolden the reformists in Iran?” Rubin’s question spoke to what Jervis calls the “operational milieu,” the world in which policies are carried out. U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal will obviously affect the direction of reformist politics in Iran. But Haley was unable to engage, replying “It is a great question, but I don’t have the answers to it.” She very immediately invoked her psychological milieu. “But what I do have the answers to is the historic nature of the Iranian regime,” she continued. “They are not going to change their stripes just because of a deal.”

It might seem quaint to suggest that the core issue in US-Iran relations is one of political imagination, rather than the harsh material consequences of proxy conflict and coercive legislation. But imagination is highly functional. It helps keep misperceptions in check and ensure that actors can respond appropriately to potential threats and opportunities.

Actors with Imagination

Encouragingly, there exists a group of American leaders who have exercised imagination to devise a vision for constructive engagement with Iran—business leaders. Today, numerous American Fortune 500 companies have established their commercial presence in Iran in the aftermath of the nuclear deal. These companies are defying the political atmosphere in Washington to reach Iranian clients and consumers, both because of the potential profits but also because the nature of their work required them to gain a first-hand understanding of Iran as an economy, polity, and society. When they engage in “market discovery,” businesses quickly learn that Iran is a rather normal country. For business leaders, the dissonance between the psychological milieu and the operational milieu has shrunk.

There was a time when the American foreign policy establishment was aligned with the business community in the project of imagining improved political relations with adversaries. It is ironic that Ambassador Haley gave her speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a thinktank that has long preached the gospel of free markets. After all, Haley’s insistence on the economic isolation of Iran is antithetical to the free-market vision that helped American policymakers imagine and enact constructive relations with longstanding ideological foes such as Russia, China, and Vietnam.

In her opening remarks, Haley praised Arthur Brooks, president of AEI, and named-checked his book The Conservative Heart, which expounds in part on the free-trade gospel. In a lengthy section on how billions “threw off the chains of tyranny and poverty by copying [the] American way,” Brooks declares “The ideals of free enterprise and global leadership, central to American conservatism, are responsible for the greatest reduction in human misery since mankind began its long climb from the swamp to the stars. This remarkable progress has been America’s gift to the world.” Unfortunately, Iran has no place in Haley’s conservative heart, its 80 million undeserving of the liberalization that the United States has bestowed to billions.

Even Some Iran Deal Supporters Lack Imagination

Even those who support engagement with Iran may be illustrating a similar lapse of imagination. For several months, the prevailing argument among Iran deal supporters for preserving the agreement has been that withdrawal from the agreement would drive Iran to proliferate and drag the U.S. into war. These claims have reached a fever pitch as the North Korean crisis has escalated, and Ambassador Haley herself drew parallels between Iran and North Korea in order to underscore Iran’s threat to U.S. national security.

Should Trump decide not to re-certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, the argument that U.S. abrogation will lead to war will no doubt be made across the Hill. The argument is tactical and it may prove sufficient to persuade Congress to exercise restraint and preserve the JCPOA. But even if the argument succeeds in preserving the deal, it will nonetheless reinforce the psychological milieu that casts any Iran policy as either a step forwards or backwards on the path to war. Meanwhile, the European Union, Russia, and China are on a completely different path, hewing closer to the operational mileu, and watching American political fixations with bewilderment.

The rift between the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 might be explained by American sympathies for the dominant view of Iran in Jerusalem or Riyadh. But the explanation is insufficient when considering that the political strategy of Haley and others in the Trump administration is absolutist. It is certainly possible to address American and regional security interests within the framework of détente. But in Haley’s paradigm, past security threats render the idea of détente politically inert.

This absolutism suggests that for those in Washington agitating against Iran, the real instance of non-compliance that matters may not be Iran’s alleged non-compliance with the nuclear deal. Rather, they are concerned that Iran’s present reality—as a country on the path to normalized relations with the international community, with millions of tourists, with global companies investing, with resurgent art and culture, with a galvanized political discourse—is non-compliant with the regressive image of the country first conjured in the fateful days of the hostage crisis. In short, Iran today is not what the American policy establishment has long imagined. Yet, American politicians, who have seen countries change drastically and proudly declared themselves responsible for those transformations, refuse to give themselves license to imagine anything new about Iran.

Those who wish to protect the Iran deal need to open a new front in their advocacy. So long as the American political establishment is committed to seeing Iran only through its history, a durable push for a new and reconciliatory policy will be impossible. To win in the present debate, deal supporters need to posit a radical, encompassing, compelling vision for the future. The perception of the JCPOA is not the issue. It is the perception of Iran that matters above all else.

Photo: Robert Jervis (Wikimedia Commons)

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Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

Esfandyar has spent the last 5 years working on projects related to "business diplomacy" between the West and Iran. He is the founder of the Europe-Iran Forum, the leading annual gathering for business, government and civil society leaders committed to Iran's economic development, and the executive editor Bourse & Bazaar, a digital business publication with a focus on Iran. He is a graduate of Columbia University.



  1. Who cares if Trump himself cannot decide if Iran is complying? There are professionals involved in watching Iran. Haley is making noise for her own self gain.

  2. This piece suggests that Haley’s views are shaping the U.S. stance on Iran, not that she’s only presenting a stance being dictated by the National Security Council and its staff. (Maybe that’s true, maybe not.) In any case, she seems to be crafting a loophole for the USG: opening the possibility that de-certifying the JCPOA won’t entail flouting the will of the G5+1.

  3. While she remembers Iran’s past actions, she forgot the US interference in Iran and the CIA sponsored coup in 1953 and shooting down an Iranian civil airplane and killing 295 civilians 40 of them are children, along with supporting Saddam Hussain when he used chemical weapons against the Iranian cities!.

  4. I quit reading when the author agreed with Haley that Iran in the past has been on a quest to overturn the international order. That’s poppycock. Or horsepucky? Whatever.

  5. Don- about the Iranian hostage situation: The government was not the hostage taker it was students. The government provided me with the what the students were doing so I organized a rescue attempt which failed because of a freak wind change.Then there were people telling all kinds of lies about Iran for their own agenda like Haley is now.

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