By Arab News
By Dr. Majid Rafizadeh*
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal was a product of the balance of power in 2015. At that time, it was unclear whether the Iranian regime would acquire a nuclear weapon in the next few months. Then-US President Barack Obama was willing for the deal to happen. The idea of Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry was that, if they agreed terms with Iran, then the regime could be managed, its foreign policy could be changed, and it would be a more moderate force in the region.
Those beliefs proved to be illusions as there are no moderates inside Iran. Instead, there are executions, arrests and hostages. There is no moderation in Tehran’s foreign policy either. In broad daylight, the regime in 2018 wanted to blow up an Iranian opposition rally in France, using a sitting diplomat. That diplomat was in February sentenced to 20 years in prison. Over the years, the Iranian regime had backed down from its involvement in the region, but with the money released by the JCPOA it developed a ballistic missile program and fired a missile with the slogan “Death to Israel” written on it. The US and the world have also seen the bloodshed caused by Iran-backed militias in the Middle East since the deal was signed.
But the balance of power has shifted. The strategic capacity of the Iranian regime has diminished. Large parts of its nuclear facilities have been lost or dismantled. More than likely, it will not be able to acquire a nuclear weapon any time soon. When the survival of the regime is at risk, it will resort to any act to maintain its hold on power. For example, in 1988, Iran was desperately looking for UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar to give him a letter from then-president and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei accepting Security Council Resolution 598 because the balance of power had changed.
The administration of new US President Joe Biden seems to be giving Iran incentives and is interested in diplomacy, but the primary basis of his work must be based on coercive diplomacy. Biden must show that the Iranian leaders’ idea that they can work better with the Americans because Donald Trump has gone is a childish perception and a kind of diplomatic dream.
Biden should not quickly eliminate the levers of US foreign policy created by Trump. He has announced that he intends to return to the JCPOA, but not the one that was negotiated back in 2015. We can get tough on Iran through smart diplomacy. In 2019, Biden outlined ways to crack down on Iran, including pressure plus diplomacy. Trump prepared the ground for this with his maximum pressure policy. The current president is now increasing the dose of diplomacy. Biden, while consulting with his partners, has never hidden that he believes the JCPOA to be a first step. For him, the agreement is a facilitator for the disarmament of the Islamic Republic.
The regime wants to negotiate, but it does not want to abort its missile program or its meddling in the region’s countries. The Americans have repeatedly said they do not want Iran to have an atomic bomb. Iran has lost its advantage in this area. However, it does not want to link a possible new JCPOA to its ballistic missile program and regional influence. It needs these as bargaining chips, hence its insistence on a return to the original deal. Given the positions that exist on both sides and that of the US Congress, it seems the Iranian regime will find it difficult to push its agenda through.
Sanctions are more than just an economic matter; they are a security issue for the Islamic Republic. One of the most important goals of Iran’s foreign policy is to try to get the US sanctions lifted. With the sanctions in place, the regime cannot maintain funding for its militias and all its forces inside and outside its borders, thus reducing its regional influence. Any compromise on behalf of the Iranian regime is considered a setback and a sign of giving in.
Iran considers its regional influence to be its winning card. Weakening Tehran’s influence in the region’s countries will directly impact the outcome of the JCPOA negotiations because the regime has always said that diplomacy without the support of power and bargaining levers cannot be successful.
If the regime does not give up its regional influence, it must abide by the global consensus against the Islamic Republic and any possible UN resolutions. The other solution for the regime is to bow to the new US demands. Its attempts to get the sanctions lifted, maintain its tight grasp on power, and prevent global consequences are the pieces of a puzzle the Iranian regime is trying to solve.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh