We Shouldn’t Defend the JCPOA at the Expense of the Iran Deal

by Esfandyar Batmanghelidj

On the two-year anniversary of the agreement, U.S. supporters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, including many former Obama administration officials, are admirably working to defend the deal through media appearances and coordinated statements. Their message that “diplomacy works” is an important one at a time when America’s global leadership seems in doubt.

However, the rhetoric in Washington defending the JPCOA remains problematic, because it pursues the preservation of the deal in a way that undermines the unfolding detente between Iran and the international community.

On Morning Joe, former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, noted that the Iran deal has eliminated the “existential threat” posed by a nuclear Iran, echoing similar language used by Secretary Kerry and other members of the Obama administration to support the deal since 2015. Similarly, Colin Kahl, another former Obama administration official, has argued in a piece in the New Republic that “If Trump exits the agreement, the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran—or a major war to head off that outcome—would increase.” Moreover, these risks of escalation are amplified when deal supporters argue that Trump is already in breach of the Iran deal, and that these breaches are part of a concerted effort by hawks to bait Iran into conflict.

Although they seek to demonstrate the efficacy of the JCPOA, these arguments also work to confirm the demonization of Iran peddled by those opposed to the deal. The diplomatic triumph of the JCPOA is cast as directly proportional to an Iranian threat described in nearly essentialist terms. For example, the argument that the collapse of JCPOA would immediately prompt Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon suggests that it’s impossible for Iran’s leadership to choose any other strategy in response to a US withdrawal from the agreement. The argument gives the US full agency to tear up the deal but denies Iran any agency to choose not to proliferate. It also ignores the importance of the other parties to the JCPOA.

Relying on the received wisdom of Iran’s perennial threat to underscore the importance of the JCPOA is perhaps the most politically palatable way to defend the deal in Washington. But it also demonstrates that the talking points around the JCPOA have not significantly advanced in two years. The stagnant rhetoric also reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how the other members of the P5+1 see the JCPOA.

What American deal supporters and opponents alike fail to recognize is that the JCPOA and the Iran deal are not the same thing. The difference is best described through the lens of basic game theory. Whereas the JCPOA was just one “round,” the Iran deal describes an ongoing “game.”

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

When focusing on the JCPOA alone, American deal supporters find themselves essentially defending the agreement as the unlikely outcome of a situation akin to the traditional prisoner’s dilemma. They suggest that although both the US and Iran had reasons to defect in the “game” of the negotiations to win the upper hand, the two sides decided instead to choose mutually beneficial cooperation—what the Iranian’s called aptly the “win-win” solution.

But this conception of the JCPOA completely misses the full scope of the game that Iran, Europe, Russia, and China are currently playing. The JCPOA is not the final payout of a prisoner’s dilemma-type game. It is rather just one round, which marks the beginning of a long chain of iterated negotiations that can be collectively called the “Iran deal.” As we have seen since July 14, 2015, Iran has been engaged in a multiplicity of new negotiations in both political and commercial spheres. That Iran is successfully engaging in an integrated game with numerous actors also shows that Iran deal supporters in Washington are misconstruing the agency of Iran as a rational player in the game.

When actors enter into an iterated game, the incentives around defection or cooperation change completely. If one side knows that defecting in one round of a game is likely to lead to punishment in the next round, the cost of defection goes up. Rational actors are expected to cooperate more often in games with a large number of iterated interactions. For Iran, reciprocating any American escalation would mean defecting from the constructive path it has taken with other players in the international community. On this basis, not only is the argument that Iran will necessarily reciprocate American escalation dubious, but it also ignores the fact that the costs of escalation for Iran are much higher now, particularly because Iran is cooperating fruitfully with so many other actors in the international system.

A tendency towards cooperation is evident in the quick warming of ties between Iran and other global powers over the last two years. The JCPOA launched a new “game” in which an expanding pool of players could adopt strategies of mutual cooperation, leading to positive outcomes. This includes everything from relaxed visa requirements and educational exchanges to the much-heralded commercial contracts from the likes of Boeing, Airbus, and Total. As the wider Iran Deal continues to fulfill its promise in each successive round, trust builds and the optimal strategy of mutual cooperation is reinforced.

The risks of defending the payout of the round while harming the overall game are clear. By using the risk of escalation, proliferation, and conflict to justify adherence to the JCPOA, its supporters in the United States are undermining both the logical and empirical basis for a more cooperative political strategy from Iran. The “deal-or-war” narrative makes it harder for Americans to see the JCPOA as anything more than an exceptional political concession from Iran rather than an instance of an increasingly clear pattern of rational and constructive behavior. In this sense, JCPOA supporters are deploying arguments that could even give further credence to the popular American conception of Iran as a country that can only act as a rogue state, regardless of the particular government in power or the tenor and type of policies that the government consistently adopts in consideration of myriad internal and external incentives.

Remember Europe

Finally, American supporters of the JCPOA need to be careful not to undermine European advocacy around the wider Iran deal. The approach taken by JCPOA supporters in Washington overstates the centrality of the United States to the success of the Iran deal at large. As Federica Mogherini reminded her American counterparts in comments this week, “The nuclear deal doesn’t belong to one country, it belongs to the international community.”

No doubt, if the U.S. pulls out of the agreement, domestic political forces in Iran could interfere with President Hassan Rouhani’s agenda for international engagement. But the multiplicity of actors involved in subsequent rounds of the Iran deal mean that Iran will retain strong incentives for cooperation with these other players even in the face of US escalation. This is why the Europeans have chosen to advocate for the Iran deal in Washington on the basis of the moderating impact of political and commercial engagement.

American deal supporters need to make sure their advocacy remains consistent with this message, which ultimately reflects the more salient explanation for the continuing success of the JCPOA. Harping on fears of a regional conflagration further conditions American politicians to think Iran cannot see the horrendous costs, now rising, of such a political failure, and this conditioning could thereby undermine receptiveness to the empirical evidence of moderation offered by the recent European experience with Iran.

Ultimately, game theory teaches us the importance of trust. Those who supported the JCPOA as it was being negotiated clearly trusted their Iranian counterparts to stick to their word. The defense of the deal should better reflect this spirit.

Photo: Ernest Moniz (Idaho National Laboratory via Flickr).

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.