Why the Nuclear Agreement Failed to Lead to a Broader Opening Between Iran and the United States?

Many in Iran and the United States’ political establishments hoped that the 2015 nuclear agreement would pave the way for a broader opening between Tehran and Washington.

Many in Iran and the United States’ political establishments hoped that the 2015 nuclear agreement (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)) would pave the way for a broader opening between Tehran and Washington. They believed that the nuclear negotiations and its result, the JCPOA, should not be seen merely as a nuclear matter, but as an agreement that formed the final chapter of an almost four-decade battle over regional order and Iran’s place in that order.

In Washington, the Obama administration hoped that it could use the nuclear agreement to resolve the future conflicts with Iran, and in Tehran, the Rouhani government hoped that the JCPOA would lead to normalization of relations with the United States.

Similarly, the nuclear agreement raised extravagant expectations among analysts. Some observers described the nuclear agreement as the new state in the relations between Washington and Tehran, saying that “after containing Iran for four decades, Washington had come to terms with the idea of Iran as a regional power,” and “the JCPOA marked the end of US efforts to uphold an order in the region based on Iran’s exclusion.” But unfortunately for the optimists, the JCPOA did not enable the two sides to open a new chapter in their long-term hostile relationship due mostly to a number of internal and regional factors acted as setbacks to Iran-US rapprochement.

From the onset of his presidency, Hassan Rouhani and his supporters considered the JCPOA to be the first step in a grander plan to normalize Iran’s international relations. But internal opposition to the accord has emerged immediately, because important elites have objected to the conditions that would make Iran a member in good standing of the international community, including curtailing the country’s ballistic missile program and terminating its aggressive regional policies.

Complicating the plans of the Rouhani administration was the policy of provocations in the waters of the Persian Gulf instituted by the naval branch of the Revolutionary Guards (NEDSA) against US forces patrolling the Persian Gulf. NEDSA boats repeatedly harassed American warships by maneuvering and firing rockets nearby. More specifically, in January 2016, NESDA units seized two American riverine boats with ten personnel aboard who were held overnight and broadcasted their surrender on national TV to humiliate Washington.

The regime’s provocative behavior and its wreaking havoc across the region were tolerated by Washington while Obama was in office due to the belief that the nuclear agreement not only will prevent Iran from seizing control over nuclear weapons but will also moderate Iran’s policies.

From outside, Israel and Saudi Arabia, two of Iran’s regional rivals have emerged as the leading opponents of the nuclear agreement. They viewed the US-Iran dialogue, and resolving the nuclear issue diplomatically, as Washington’s accepting Iran as a regional power at their expense, and the end of US efforts to uphold an order in the region based on Iran’s exclusion. It was an accurate calculation from the part of Iran rivals because the JCPOA tipped the balance of power in favor of Iran and raised fears in Israel and in the Kingdom that this scenario will lead to a situation that ends their strategic value for the United States.

The Arab allies of the United States concluded that Washington would no longer be committed to containing Iran and worried that it would turn away from them. With the Arab world in free fall, it reasoned, a containment strategy against Iran was unsustainable, and the nuclear deal would make it unnecessary. To signal that the United States did not fundamentally change its approach to the region, the Obama administration signed large arms deals with Arab allies. Although, that created a bigger problem and disappointed the JCPOA supporters in Tehran who believed that Iran had given up an important asset only to see the conventional military gap with its regional rivals widen. Tehran responded by doubling down on its missile program.

The Israeli opponents of the deal argued that the missile tests are a clear indication that Iran did not abandon its nuclear goals, and the JCPOA is not strong enough to prevent Iran from commencing a clandestine weaponization. Iran, the charge continued, would also use the nuclear agreement to expand its regional ambitions.

However, the nuclear agreement was, in fact, a ploy for a greater cause. Israel was convinced that Iran, which emerged as one of the winners of the nuclear negotiations, would seek to impose its own regional order, particularly if it comes to terms with the United States. In this new rivalry for the future of the region, the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu viewed “Iran’s gains as a loss for Israel,” as one observer noted.

To ensure Iran’s continued isolation, Israel continued depicting Iran as a global threat and pressured US officials to take action against Iran. In conjunction with Israel, congressional Republicans mounted an unprecedented but ultimately an unsuccessful campaign to derail the deal. Still, the Israel lobby and its congressional patrons have not abandoned their effort to limit the economic benefits of the deal to Iran by discouraging international companies from doing business with Iran. The ultimate aim of the pressures was to trick Iran into quitting the nuclear agreement unilaterally which would cost Iran the support of other P5+1 signatories.

Israel’s efforts to challenge the opportunity of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran bore no result while Barak Obama was in office. However, things have changed dramatically when Donald J. Trump was elected as the President of the United States who openly blessed the Israel-Saudi anti-Iran campaign. Immediately after coming to power, Trump attempted to repair and strengthen the US alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia by adopting their tune and doubling down on economic pressure on Iran. To this end, Trump repeatedly described the JCPOA with Iran as the “worst agreement ever” and promised to “dismantle” it. Shortly after coming to the oval office, Trump has put Iran “on notice,” and has labeled Iran a “murderous regime,” and his administration introduced fresh sanctions on Iran in response to its ballistic missile tests.

With regard to the nuclear agreement, the Trump administration called for new demands, considered by many observers as unnecessary, unrealistic and outside the scope of the JCPOA. Trump said he wants a new accord to address four “critical components” including tying ballistic missiles to the nuclear program, taking out JCPOA sunset clauses, immediate access to Iran’s military sites and ensuring that Iran will never acquire nuclear weapons. In other words, Trump wants to simplify the complex procedure for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear inspectors to visit military sites which are not covered by the JCPOA. He insists on creating a new legislation that would effectively reshape the nuclear agreement which states that nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are inseparable. Moreover, Trump wants the reshaped accord to override the JCPOA provisions that will lift restrictions after the agreement expires. To achieve this goal, Trump announced that he will not certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement unless his demands are addressed.

Trump’s insistence on walking out of the nuclear agreement and reinstating sanctions on Iran signals the US’s return to Iran’s containment policy and pivoting back to the old US-Israel-Arab regional order, with which Iran is excluded and Israel and Saudi Arabia are key pillars. But this time around, the success of this policy is questionable because not only Washington has limited policy options, but it may lead to further instability in the region. Though as unpleasant as it might look, Iran is a key component of any viable regional order. Restoring the containment policy would only encourage Iran to invest more in its “forward defense,” which requires meddling in the region.

Equally important, Washington’s walking out of the nuclear agreement, and pressuring Iran may dangerously empower Moscow without weakening Iran’s influence in the Middle East. It will provide an incentive to hardliners in Tehran to push the “Pivot to the East” project and to become closer to Moscow. Tehran’s stepping forward to boost trade with and purchase advanced military hardware from Moscow to counter the growing military expenditure by the Saudis should be seen within this context. In the absence of the JCPOA and with re-emerging the containment policy, the possibility of closer military and intelligence cooperation with Moscow should not be ruled out.

The bottom line is that instead of ignoring Iran in the new arrangements of the region or creating a regional order designed to contain it, Washington can keep the deal as a foundation for trust-building, address Iran’s security concerns and promote a regional order that includes the Islamic Republic to preserve stability and regional security. This will be possible by convincing the Iranians that it would be in their interest to collaborate with Washington rather than pursuing their aggressive regional policies. To this end, Washington should rely less on force and more on diplomacy. However, it appears that the window of opportunity that the nuclear agreement opened for Tehran and Washington is almost closed.

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