by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj
With such a vibrant economy and society, it is hard to be anything but optimistic about Iran in the long term, even in the recent dark days. Iran’s challenges have always been about prospects in the short term, lurching as it has between domestic and foreign crises. Concerns about the short term have shaped the thinking of foreign stakeholders, who have held off on investments or engagements because of fears of political or economic turmoil. Similar doubts have also crowded the thinking of Iranians themselves, who respond to turmoil by making self-serving decisions, which often prove costly for society down the line. In this way, Iran’s circumstances have been about opportunities delayed, about a widening gulf between short-term pain and the promise of long-term prosperity.
As they look back at the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), many Iranians see that its promise was wrapped up in the expectation that such a “grand bargain” would help Iran bridge the gulf between the circumstances of today and the prosperity of tomorrow. Iran, by both making and receiving careful concessions in the course of multilateral negotiations with the world powers had in effect brought forward the time horizon for its own bright future.
Today, the gulf is widening again. In a rare instance of transparency, Trump administration officials openly refer to their Iran policy as an “economic war.” Sanctions are no longer being used as tools of coercive diplomacy, but of economic destruction. Worse still, the operative logic of the most recent sanctions is to create a “sanctions wall.” For the first time, the United States is applying sanctions for the express purpose of making previous sanctions more difficult to lift. This was declared intention of designating the Revolutionary Guards a foreign terrorist organization.
The recent decision to revoke the oil waivers—which does nothing more than remove what proponents of the “significant reduction exemptions” had themselves described as a “humanitarian channel” in which oil revenues flowed into escrow accounts—will place unprecedented economic pressure on Iran, just as intended. The effects of such mounting pressure have been plain to see.
In the last few days, I have spoken to several friends and colleagues in Iran. With each call, the individuals on the other end of the line feel so much farther away than they did even just a few weeks ago. On Tuesday, I was discussing the ramifications of the oil waiver issue with an Iranian journalist. He asked me what Iran’s government could do in response. I instantly felt the responsibility to offer an answer, a ray of hope. But my answer was so obviously unconvincing, with even my Persian falling short as I tried to formulate the pitiful sentences, that I felt embarrassed. Not because of the answer itself, but because suddenly the fiction of shared experiences was made clear.
For the last few years, those of us who deal with Iranian interlocutors on a regular basis could find some joy and motivation in the idea that our lived experiences were converging. More outsiders could engage Iran and more Iranians could engage the wider world. But the reality of political and economic isolation is just that—a deep and pervading separation that makes it clear that although all sides were poised to share the dividends of the JCPOA, only one side will truly bear the costs of its collapse.
Power and the People
Iran’s halting push for nuclear and ballistic missile technology has generally been understood in the context of a regional-security dilemma. Facing huge asymmetries in military power, Iran has sought to develop the means for its own defense.
But it is unclear if the security dilemma is a salient formulation in a period in which a historic non-proliferation agreement has become something of a political curse for its Iranian stewards and a source of abject disappointment for the voters who brought those political leaders to office.
In many respects, the political prospects for the JCPOA were always going to be judged by a simple formula—would Iran appear more powerful with the agreement or without it? In this sense, the state visits, foreign investment, cultural exchanges, and other dividends of diplomacy were meant to provide a spectacle of power, a font of pride, that would displace those grainy images of centrifuges in their neat rows or the footage of missiles emblazoned with political slogans.
The dividends of diplomacy never really materialized. Today, appearing “powerless” is the ultimate political liability for the Iranian state and its leadership. Iran has been made to look weak as trading partners make risible efforts to protect commercial ties in the face of U.S. pressure. The Rouhani government has been made to look weak, out-maneuvered by a shambolic Trump administration. Most troubling, the Iranian people feel powerless as their standard of living is eroded by forces outside of their control, even the forces of Mother Nature herself.
These circumstances give new meaning to the notion of “power hungry.” It is not Iran’s elites who are power hungry. They enjoy ample power. It is the Iranian people who crave power. There seems to be a belief among some in Washington that this hunger—perhaps even literal hunger—will drive the Iranian people to seize power from the elites.
But I foresee a different scenario. Recent surveys have shown a marked increase in the number of Iranians seeking “retaliation” in the face of U.S. violations of the JCPOA. There is genuine anger and frustration among large swaths of the public, directed both at the United States and at the Iranian establishment.
These emotions cannot remain undirected—and Iran’s imperfect democracy offers the channel. Routine elections present Iranian politicians the opportunity to respond to this hunger for power by co-opting it. Just as the disempowered in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the United States have voted for politicians who obsess over expressions of power, so too might Iranians choose to displace their own powerlessness by investing their political capital in a “strongman.”
In such a scenario, the decision to revitalize or expand the nuclear and ballistic missile programs is no longer about calibrating regional security or asserting sovereignty against the West. The centrifuges and missiles themselves become symbols of power, a kind of spectacle around which people can rally. At some level, this is the basic rally-around-the-flag effect that many have been warning about. But this effect has yet to be turned into the sine qua non of domestic politics in Iran. Even under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there remained a fundamental technocratic orientation of the government.
For this reason, non-proliferation must be re-conceived as a political project in the post-JCPOA era. Within the context of the JCPOA, the empowerment of the Iranian people was always seen as a secondary outcome of the agreement’s non-proliferation achievements. In a striking illustration, the Trump administration has been messaging its intention to “support the Iranian people” more vociferously, if disingenuously, than the Obama administration and other parties to the JCPOA ever did.
On one hand it is encouraging to see Democratic Party candidates seek to break with the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy and throw their support behind a multilateral agreement. And yet it is discouraging to see these candidates articulate their intentions towards Iran exclusively within the paradigm of the JCPOA and its ability to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. This fixation on non-proliferation overlooks the fact that in the course of the coming political season in Iran, the JCPOA will likely become too toxic to serve as the crux of a reoriented US policy on Iran, even if the policy of diplomatic engagement with the West remains viable and even if Iran technically remains in compliance.
What if Democrats pointed to their readiness for a deeper reckoning with the failure of the JCPOA? Would it not be so much more meaningful for a Democratic candidate to declare, “We let the Iranian people down when we reimposed sanctions on them while their government was still in compliance with the JCPOA. Our mission should be to restore trust so that Iranians can count on America to honor its obligations.”
Earlier this week, President Hassan Rouhani gave an important speech in which he underlined that he is a “man of negotiation” but emphasized that negotiations are impossible until the United States essentially shows Iran due respect. As American proponents of engagement with Iran look to the future, they must recognize that the failure of the JCPOA was not encompassed in the decision of the Trump administration to withdraw, but rather in the set of cascading institutional failures that allowed the administration to drastically shift the nature of U.S. policy towards Iran, as well as towards the remaining parties of the JCPOA, without paying any real political cost. The Democrats, and all who care about the integrity of American foreign policy, must reckon with these failures. A willingness to do so is far more important than reentering a moribund deal as a matter of political reflex.
Until American policymakers can conceive of relations with Iran as something more than a set of tactical accommodations designed to address threat perceptions, they are unlikely to solve the question of Iranian proliferation decisively. Proponents of engagement must make sure that they are building a bridge to help Iranians cross from short-term turmoil to the long-term prosperity they have been regrettably denied. Non-proliferation is just one pillar of this bridge.