- Interview by
- Branko Marcetic
It was presumed Joe Biden would quickly restore the Iran nuclear deal, both a major campaign promise and a critical part of Barack Obama’s presidential legacy, upon taking office. Instead, a year and a half into his presidency, not only is the deal still to be renegotiated — it’s not clear it will be restored at all.
Meanwhile, Biden appears to be deepening US ties with Saudi Arabia and other regional adversaries of Iran as regional hostilities intensify. Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic spoke with Dr Trita Parsi, cofounder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, about what went so wrong, why, and how things could have been different.
What is the status of the Iran deal as it stands now?
For the last three months, the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran deal] has been comatose. It’s not been dead, it’s not been alive, it’s just been hanging by a thread. And the key issue has been the Iranian demand that Biden undoes Trump’s placing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the foreign terrorist organizations list. The Biden administration itself has admitted this is a symbolic thing, that it doesn’t actually have a real impact. Iranians also know it’s not going to change the way that countries trade with Iran. But because this has gone on so long, it’s become a position on which both sides have dug themselves in pretty deep.
The Biden administration now says it’s a demand outside of the JCPOA. But that is inconsistent with what they’ve said before. Antony Blinken had an op-ed in 2017 against listing the IRGC. Jen Psaki wrote an op-ed for the Hill calling it a political move to hurt reentry into the JCPOA. She connected it to a return to the JCPOA, and she did so quite correctly in my view, mindful of the fact that Mark Dubowitz of the [neoconservative] Foundation for the Defense of Democracies explicitly wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal saying that part of their strategy of creating a sanctions wall that ensures a future administration cannot go back into the JCPOA was to put the IRGC on the foreign terrorist organizations list. So to now suddenly divorce it from the JCPOA is inconsistent with what the administration has said before.
There is a chance that the JCPOA can be salvaged. But even if there’s a return to the JCPOA, and I support it, it’s important to know what it is and what it isn’t. It’s not a return to 2016. It’s going to be a return to a deal that neither side expects will last longer than two years. The previous JCPOA was viewed by both sides as an opening bid for a continuation of diplomacy in which they could start addressing other issues. It was a starting point for a different US-Iran relationship. This JCPOA will just be a pause, a two-year respite before the inevitable showdown that will happen in 2025. Neither side expects the JCPOA to survive a Republican presidency.
Is Iran merely hoping to give their economy a jumpstart in the short term here, before the GOP onslaught starts again?
I think their calculation is they’ll take whatever economic benefits they’ll take from this, and then prepare themselves. They’re not talking anymore about getting sanctions lifted. They want to use the two years to develop their economy in such a way so that once sanctions are reimposed, they will be more or less immunized from it. That’s exactly what they didn’t do after the JCPOA for understandable reasons, because they thought it would last. So their calculation is that even though this is nowhere near as good a bargain for them as the JCPOA was — is — it’s still worthwhile to make sure they get an economic windfall, restructure the economy, and prepare themselves for a Republican president.
From the Biden administration perspective, they negotiated this deal in the first place. They know exactly why this is such a valuable deal for US national security, no one needs to tell them. And even if they themselves don’t believe it’ll last longer than two years, that’s partly, in my view, their own fault, because they never seriously engaged in any conversations about creating mechanisms that would make it more difficult for all JCPOA states to leave the agreement.
Right now, if Iran leaves the JCPOA, it will have UN sanctions snapped back on within thirty days. That’s a mechanism that the US developed as a completely innovative mechanism — the snapback sanctions had never been put together before, because it meant that Russia and China had to agree to give up their veto. This was a mechanism put together to protect against Iranian cheating and make it as costly as possible if they did. No such mechanism exists for US duplicity or cheating. The US walks out of the deal, it pays no cost.
These are things that could’ve been changed, at least could’ve been discussed. But I never got the impression that the administration was serious about doing anything about it. As a result, once a Republican comes back into office, he or she will walk out of the deal as Trump did, or do what he did in his first year, which is to not walk out but to keep suggesting that he will, which is sufficient to ensure that all businesses leave Iran. Either way, the JCPOA dies.
Reentering the Iran deal was a major campaign promise from Biden. Has he gone about it the right way?
I think, from the outset, the strategy was the wrong one. The strategy that should’ve been pursued, which was the simple and more obvious one, is to just go back into the deal by executive order. That’s what he did with the Paris agreement, the Muslim ban, and the WHO [World Health Organization] on day one. Instead, what he chose to do was to negotiate a return, and, in that negotiation, start off by saying Iran has to take the first step even though it was the United States that left the agreement; talk about wanting to have a longer and stronger deal; make a demand of the Iranians that the United States would only go back into the deal if the Iranians agreed up front to renegotiate it; and use language that sounded as if the JCPOA disaster was Iran’s fault.
What this did was crush whatever little confidence and goodwill existed between Iran and the United States. Iran stayed in the deal for three years, while the United States had exited and reimposed sanctions. For the first year, the Iranians didn’t even reduce their obligations to the JCPOA — they were fully compliant. For the second two years they started to reduce their obligations, and they were not in full compliance, but they were still part of the deal. If the Iranians had quit the deal, the United States wouldn’t have stayed in for half a split second.
They waited three years for Biden to come in and just rejoin. Instead, what Biden did sent a signal to the Iranians that if Biden wants a renegotiation, and he is going to use Trump’s sanctions — which Biden opposed, but has still not lifted an inch — as leverage, then Iran needs its own leverage. So even though Iranians restarted elements of their program under Trump, the way it accelerated under Biden is significant.
Some of the most problematic things Iran has done in terms of undoing limitations under the JCPOA happened under Biden, not under Trump. For instance, they started enriching 60 percent enriched uranium. Iran never had 60 percent enriched uranium before. It didn’t even have a stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium as long as the JCPOA was in place.
What it means is that even though the breakout capability of Iran in January 2021 was still either the full twelve months or very close to it, rather quickly, the breakout capabilities started to diminish to only weeks, and now it’s considered to be somewhere around ten to twelve days. That happened under Biden. And part of the reason is that you had people associated with the Biden administration writing op-eds saying it would be a strategic mistake for Biden not to use the leverage Trump had created — and by that they meant the maximum pressure sanctions — to negotiate a better deal.
In essence, that’s the same position as Trump’s. Trump, too, said he wanted to negotiate a different deal and that he wanted to use those sanctions to get a better deal.
On top of that, the reformists were now completely delegitimized by not only Trump leaving the deal but by Biden not returning to it. They had nothing to show for it, which made it rather easy for the hard-liners in Iran to cheat and steal the elections. As a result, we now have a hard-line government in Iran that has the same chip on its shoulder of wanting to get a better deal than [former Iranian president Hassan] Rouhani got, a negotiation led by one of the strongest opponents of the JCPOA.
Now, the Biden team would say, “That’s not that easy because there were developments in the Iran program, they had more advanced centrifuges, etc. If we had gone back into the deal, how can we afterwards have leverage to ask them to undo those things?” I think it’s a legitimate question.
But if we had gone back in, you’d have the moral standing of having returned to the deal, you’d have the leverage of being able to use snapback sanctions, because that’s something only a JCPOA member country can do, and you wouldn’t have to deal with any of these massive expansions of the program on the Iranian side, which was prompted by you not returning back to the deal. So if you think you have more leverage now by not going back into the deal, clearly you’re sadly mistaken.
What explains this hard-line bargaining position? Is it domestic political concerns, or did they genuinely think they could get more out of Iran?
I think it’s a combination. On the one hand, to be fair to the Biden administration, JCPOA is obviously very important, but when he comes in, he’s dealing with major crises. As a result, he probably didn’t see the JCPOA as being a top priority. But that, in my view, doesn’t mean choosing a bad strategy is justified.
I think it’s important to keep in mind, it’s a different thing for a second-term president like Obama. Keep in mind that the freedom and the political risks Obama was willing to take were far greater in the second term than what he was willing to do in his first term.
Given the political challenges he saw domestically, at least the political folks around Biden didn’t want him to end up with a conflict with [former Israeli prime minister] Bibi Netanyahu in the first months of his presidency. It took three months before the US was ready to negotiate, during which time they were consulting with the Saudis, the Israelis, and the Emiratis — three countries in the world that opposed the JCPOA. Put yourself in the paranoid position of the Iranians and you can see how badly that looks to them. I think what the administration was genuinely trying to do was to reduce those political costs by doing that outreach, but it cost them tremendously.
But there is that other element of — I don’t know if I would call it greed, or the desire to be able to outdo your predecessor — but I think there are people in the administration who genuinely believe it would be better for them if some elements of the JCPOA could be modified. And look, countries renegotiate things all the time. It’s understandable the administration would think about these things.
Where the logical leap doesn’t work for me is to essentially say they want that to be done up front. There seems to be a complete lack of understanding of how few reasons Iran has to trust the United States. The United States just walked out of the deal, reimposed sanctions, crushed Iran’s economy, and before it goes back into the deal, it wants a guarantee from the Iranians that the deal that the United States itself has not adhered to, the Iranians would agree to renegotiate and make it stronger and better for the United States. That’s quite an ask.
The average American doesn’t have such a detailed knowledge of the wrangling over the Iran deal, so this may not seem as galling to the public as it really is.
One of the unique things that Obama brought to the presidency that is sorely missed is to have a president who spent part of his childhood outside the United States, which gave him a far superior ability to understand how others perceive it. There is a tone deafness in going to the Iranians after they have three years waited for the United States to return to and not quit the deal, and put that demand onto them up front, without doing anything in terms of trust-building.
If Biden didn’t want to do an executive order, he could have released Iranian money that had been frozen in South Korea and other banks. There was an IMF loan that Iran wanted to get for COVID use, and Trump had blocked it. Biden condemned it. Yet he didn’t lift it.
When Obama came in, he spent the first three months of his presidency changing the language and tone vis-à-vis Iran. The minute he became president, he reached out to Iran, talked about how America would extend its hand if Iran unclenched its fist, and talked about a relationship of mutual respect, which is a code word the Iranians kept on using back then. A lot of what he did was to change the atmospherics, to make them more conducive to diplomacy.
Biden did none of that. None. And I think part of the reason why he didn’t is because he wanted to assure the Israelis and Saudis and the Emiratis that just because Biden would go back to JCPOA would not mean he would be friends with Iran. Because that’s the key thing those states are concerned about, the idea the United States would have a new potential partner in the region and what that would mean for them and their own issues with Iran, which are legitimate.
What is the mood in Iran right now toward the deal?
People have lost hope. The economic situation is disastrous, people have no faith whatsoever in the political elite, this last election was a sham and people did not participate in it. This talk of JCPOA vs. non-JCPOA has been going on so long. I think people still want the JCPOA in place — they want the sanctions lifted and to be able to breathe and live — but I think they’ve learned a lesson from last time, which is you only get disappointed if you actually allow yourself to be hopeful. If you don’t, you’ve made yourself immune to being disappointed. So there’s a state of almost apathy, and there’s a focus on the immediate problems: the mismanagement of the regime, the corruption of the government, and the environmental problems Iran is suffering from.
So it’s been something of an inward turn?
Not inward by desire. But one thing that has happened, which is highly problematic in my view, is that what the foundational theory of the reformists was that much of Iran’s problems will be resolved if Iran can resolve its problems with the United States. To do so, it has to give something to get something. Everything is not America’s fault; Iran has also made many mistakes.
The theory was dismissed by the hard-liners, but nevertheless, with Rouhani coming to power, the population essentially had spoken its word. They wanted it to be tried. That’s what he promised he would do. And it turned out that it actually did work. After two and a half years of really intense negotiations, there was a deal. It was a good deal for all sides, it was a genuine compromise, it was a multilateral agreement, and it was quite an astonishing achievement.
Then Trump pulls out, and the reformist theory starts to crumble a bit. The reformists say that Trump is just an aberration. But then Biden comes in, the vice president of Obama, and he doesn’t go back into the deal. And then it no longer is Trump who is the aberration. It’s Obama that’s the aberration. The entire theory of the reformists falls apart. In the eyes of many, this was a vindication of what the hard-liners were saying, that the United States would never come to terms with Iran, and even if it makes an agreement, it will betray it.
What is your read of the feeling among the Israeli elite? On the one hand, a series of senior officials have expressed regret over the death of the Iran deal. On the other hand, the Israeli government is ramping up its assassinations of Iranian scientists and saber-rattling. What’s going on here?
Under Netanyahu, he completely controlled and owned Israeli messaging on Iran and tolerated no exceptions. Whenever there were exceptions, they were done in climax of conflict with him. So it was only senior officials, and mainly from the Mossad and the Shin Bet, senior people on their way out, saying Netanyahu is very messianic, this is crazy, etc. But other than that, you didn’t hear anything from others, even though people who were talking to the Israelis knew very well there were nuances in Israel.
Once he’s out, that’s when you start to see everyone admitting this was a stupid mistake, this was going to be dangerous, etc. But it has not changed [Israeli prime minister Naftali] Bennett’s policy in a different direction. He has continued to oppose the JCPOA, but he has not picked a public fight with Biden as Netanyahu did.
Netanyahu did it probably because he saw a value in diminishing the Democratic Party. Netanyahu’s theory for some time has been that the foundation of support in the United States is no longer the Jewish community, because it tends to be too progressive. Instead, it’s the evangelical Christians. So undermining the Democratic Party was not a side effect, it was a feature of his approach.
Bennett had a very different calculation, which was about how to keep his coalition together. And for that he could not afford to fight publicly with Biden, so he never did the stuff Netanyahu did publicly. But privately, the Israelis continue to oppose the deal, as well as what we have seen in the last couple of months, which is coinciding with the three months of the JCPOA being in a coma: a very significant increase in Israeli assassinations and operations in Iran. It’s clearly embarrassing Iranians, and I would say surprising many observers, myself included, because it shows that Israel likely had this capacity for quite some time, but, for reasons not entirely clear to us, didn’t exercise it.
Now, however, it is exercising it. It thinks it serves its interests at this point, whether it’s to spread panic in Iran, divisions within the regime, if they truly believe this will set back the nuclear program. The last one I’m not so convinced about. Danny Citrinowicz, a former Israel Defense Forces intelligence operator, argues that, similar to other things Israel has done in the past, these create problems for the nuclear program but don’t change its direction or trajectory.
If the deal dies, what are the chances of staving off war?
I wouldn’t say that war is inevitable, but clearly war is getting closer and closer. Because it’s not just about the nuclear program per se but all those other things happening in the region, in which the administration is going for a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, combined with American security assurances to the Saudis and Emiratis. There’s an effort to create an Israeli-Arab-American NATO in the Persian Gulf. And I believe the administration chose to prioritize this over the JCPOA. Because when it came to the issue of delisting the IRGC, I think the key reason why they didn’t is because it would jeopardize these other talks.
So I suspect they chose the latter over the JCPOA, which means they chose to continue what Trump had started with the Abraham Accords, rather than go back to what Obama had started with the JCPOA. It also means that instead of going for an arms control agreement that reduces the pathway for Iran to get a nuclear weapon, they’re using an arms agreement in which they’re going to be increasing military spending, arms sales, and military collaboration between these different countries targeting Iran. In what universe does that bring security in the long run? And how does it serve US interests, outside of the interests of arms manufacturers?
What are the risks in pursuing this security agreement?
Instead of creating a structure in the region in which you essentially divide the region, the organizing principle is to contain one or two countries. That doesn’t provide security, ultimately. It makes it so you cement conflict, but you try to make sure that conflict doesn’t spill over.
Meanwhile, you have an actual opportunity to resolve conflict. It’s called the Baghdad dialogue. It’s what the Iraqis are doing — they’re bringing all these different countries together. I’ve compared the Abraham Accords to the Baghdad dialogue. The Abraham Accords and what the administration is doing right now are a completely unimaginative formula packaged in a lot of fluff and claims of imagination.
At its core, it’s a continuation of already four-decades-long US policy, which is organizing the Middle East around containing Iran. Back in the 1990s, it was called “dual containment,” and it was organizing the region around containing Iran and Iraq. Biden officials themselves have said that that approach itself has been a source of conflict in the region, which it is. That’s what Europe did after World War I. After World War II, they understood there had to be integration in Europe for there to be peace, that Germany had to be integrated rather than isolated. And in Europe, there were seventy-plus years of peace and prosperity.
We have the opportunity, however challenging it may be, to be able to resolve these tensions through diplomacy and engagement of these different countries. In fact, the minute countries realized that the United States was leaving the region militarily, they started intensifying their own diplomatic efforts, because they realized it really increases the cost of conflict if the United States is not there. The US regional presence was an inhibiting factor for regional diplomacy.
Instead of continuing with that, we’re going for this old formula of dividing the region in different pacts and organizing around containing a country. The Baghdad dialogue compact is not organized against anyone. It’s organized for everyone.
I point you to Jared Kushner’s own document, which explicitly states that any reduction in tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a threat to the durability of the Abraham Accords. Let’s unpack that. That means in order for Israel and Saudi Arabia and the UAE to continue to have enough strategic incentives to collaborate and have relations and all jointly forget about Palestinian suffering, there needs to be a threat from Iran. Otherwise the whole house of cards falls apart. You have to sustain and fuel tensions between the Arab side and Iran to ensure there can be peace between the Arabs and the Israelis. That is not a peace agreement. That is locking in conflict on one side of the Middle East so you can have a fake peace on the other side.
A recent Intercept report revealed the Department of Homeland Security’s own intelligence concluded that striking this deal would fuel anti-American terrorism.
Exactly, because at the end of the day, the Abraham Accords do nothing to deal with the Palestinian issue. It’s almost an unfair accusation, because it’s been explicit that it’s not trying to resolve the Palestinian conflict. It states that it’s moving beyond the Palestinian conflict, which is a nicer way of saying we’re sweeping it under the rug. This would be the equivalent of African states normalizing relations with South Africa during the 1980s and pretending that there was no longer apartheid.