by Dina Esfandiary
The war of words between Iran and the US is nothing new. But this year, the Trump and Rouhani administrations took the bickering to another level. As the United States threatened Tehran with action, it also called upon the rest of the international community to join it in isolating Iran. But the United States stands alone, as Iran continues to implement the deal. For Iran to continue winning the PR war and prevent international isolation, it must continue implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal.
On September 25, National Security Advisor John Bolton warned Iran that “The days of impunity for Tehran and its enablers are over…Let my message today be clear: We are watching, and we will come after you.” Before him at the United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) yearly event in New York, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sang a similar tune.
But Iran wasn’t their only target: Europe, Russia and China were also in the spotlight. The night before, the newly renamed P4+1 announced that they would set up a new payment mechanism to help Iran reap the promised benefits of the nuclear deal, despite U.S. withdrawal. Pompeo was “disturbed and disappointed” to hear this. As a result, the administration put the rest of the P4+1 on notice and threatened their nationals and companies with sanctions should they continue to deal with Iran.
Meanwhile, President Rouhani highlighted Iranian compliance to the deal, despite not receiving the deal’s promised economic dividends because of the United States. He also pushed for dialogue with the rest of the international community, including the United States if it would return to the deal.
The result: a more rational, peaceful-looking Iran facing an increasingly isolated, belligerent United States.
When the Rouhani administration decided to remain in the deal after the U.S. pull-out to see whether the rest of the parties could deliver, it placed a bet that its continued implementation would garner continued goodwill. Rouhani wanted to change the perception of Iran as an aggressive, expansionist power. Already last year, in this same forum, Rouhani capitalized on U.S. threats to leave the deal by highlighting Iran’s compliance and its belief in multilateralism.
Today, Iran’s position is stronger.
The United States has walked away from a deal that accomplished what it set out to: curb Iran’s nuclear program. It alone has returned to a policy of isolating Iran through sanctions. This couldn’t be more glaring than during the UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting chaired by Trump during the General Assembly. The United States intended to call Iran out for its nefarious activities but instead faced a barrage of criticism from countries successively stating their support for and commitment to the deal. The irony was not lost on President Rouhani, who gleefully thanked the UNSC for its support.
Rouhani stated that Iran would continue to implement the deal “as long as it was in its interest to do so,” injecting doubt that it would stay if the rest of the P4+1 isn’t able to deliver on its promises of increased trade with Iran. But U.S. financial and economic reach makes it difficult for the P4+1 to firmly deliver on the political commitments it made to uphold the deal. But it’ll still be in Iran’s interest to remain in the deal.
By negotiating and implementing the nuclear deal, Iran has shown that it can be a viable interlocutor. It has shown that it can be reasonable, even when faced with constant belligerent rhetoric. It has shown that it wants dialogue with the rest of the international community and that this very dialogue succeeds in bringing about change in its behavior. In short, without doing anything beyond respecting the commitments it made in 2015, Iran is winning the PR war.
Although this won’t deliver Tehran the economic gains it was promised—a more complicated conundrum to resolve—it will work wonders for its foreign policy and its continued emergence from international isolation. It will ensure that the United States won’t be able to build a coalition, beyond the few token Gulf Arab states and Israel, to isolate Iran. And when the whole world isn’t on board, isolation is impossible. After all, even if in an odd turn of events, the Europeans were to change their minds and jump on board the sanction-Iran bandwagon, Russia and China wouldn’t. And as long as Russia and China don’t, then Iran has someone to turn to for trade and political relations.
But if Iran were to leave the deal, then Trump would likely achieve his goal of unifying the world against Tehran.
If there’s anything this year’s UNGA has demonstrated, it’s that Iran must remain in the 2015 nuclear deal, despite the United States. Although not as tangible as the promised economic benefits, the boost to Iran’s image and its ability to withstand efforts to isolate it will be worth it.
Dina Esfandiary is an International Security Program Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a fellow in the Middle East department of The Century Foundation, and an adjunct fellow in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East Program.