When Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the historic Iranian Nuclear Deal, known also as the JCPOA, the media downplayed the long-term ramifications of the decision far more than they played up the immediate effects. A “major promise” of the 2016 Trump Presidential Campaign had been addressed, and a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran was begun in earnest, but the long game was left well alone in this moment, for the most part at least.
Yet that is all changing now, because while Donald Trump is no longer the President of the United States, his actions still haunt this nation, its people, and its current leadership. While the administration of Joe Biden would very much like Iran to pretend as though the last four years did not happen, so as to come back into agreement upon the previous parameters hashed out nearly a decade ago, that is simply not possible, and to pretend that it should be is politically naive and unrealistic given the contemporary and historical circumstances at play here.
Iran is under no obligation to save Washington from a circumstance that it has previously created for itself, and for them to oblige the United States in this way would be far more generous than America has been to them over the last 40 years. While this currently means that the international negotiations might crumble, for Iran, this is less of a concern because Iran has already been stripped bare after signing the original JCPOA.
For Iran as well, in terms of what is known as RealPolitik, what they are doing is a no brainer; for Iran to capitulate now, after having been treated so poorly by the previous administration, would damage the regional prestige of Iran in real, potentially existential ways for one, and would create the domestic impression that Ebrahim Raisi is no more able to steer Iran through this than Hassan Rouhani was. While threats exist from Israel, Europe and the United States currently, again, that is nothing entirely new for this nation, and so cannot create anywhere near the same volition that it might have helped to create at some point in the recent past.
No, Iran must go about these negotiations in Vienna with determination and persistence, as there are real issues that the United States must address in this nuclear agreement that were not as pressing or relevant when the administration of Barack Obama was in power. While Iran does not want to go too far and blow any chance to reconstruct this deal, the world in 2021 is not anywhere near the same world of 2013 or 2015; how it is pushing back against America and its allies should be understood as a natural reaction to the treachery that was unleashed upon them, for no good reason mind you, in May of 2018.
Joe Biden and his entire team will have to figure out how to tactfully address these issues, as well as the demands of the Iranians, with and in good faith; his administration, and the administrations of the other world parties, must accept that it is not the past, and that serious innovations have occurred since then that will preclude any future deal from looking so similar to the previous one. Ultimately, to be sure, even with the posturing of both sides understood, it is in the interests of all parties for this new deal to be agreed to as quickly as possible.
“Politicians are not born; they are excreted.….” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
There are at least two, perhaps even three or four real, considerable problems that jump out right away when appraising the circumstances surrounding the negotiations this time, as opposed to last time. For one, the United States bailed on the previous multilateral deal while Iran was not in violation of the deal as it had been previously agreed. This should probably be considered the largest of the three to four issues, if for no other reason than because the other very large problems derive from that central condition; removing the US from the JCPOA was not only in poor taste in terms of diplomatic etiquette and precedence, but the shock move leaves a scar upon the American foreign policy body of work too, where previously the body had appeared, for the most part, clean as it were.
In the years that have passed since Donald Trump removed the United States from the JCPOA, external conditions have not only changed, but the direct consequences of that decision as it relates to America remains a central problem in resolving the current conundrum that the 45th President left the United States, as well as the greater world, to solve in his stead. The first issue that stems from the action of removing the United States from the JCPOA, therefore, is a basic problem of trust.
Before Donald Trump reneged America from its involvement in this multilateral endeavor, the United States had not, in quite a few decades at least, reneged from anything of that nature or scope in such a capricious manner. While some historically minded folks might point to incidents like the Geneva Conference, and eventual Accords, of 1954 regarding Viet Nam, or even the foundation of the League of Nations after the first world war, there are certain differences that do exist here, including the position of the United States vis-a-vis the rest of the world.
Regarding the League of Nations in the aftermath of the First World War, Woodrow Wilson was not ever able to get the American congress to agree to join this league before he had a stroke and fell incapacitated for the rest of his second Presidential term. To be sure, the international community was disappointed in the ultimate choice that the Americans made, but the United States was also not thought of as highly in the community of nations as it is thought of today; America did not leave the League of Nations, because it had never technically been in the League of Nations at all.
Geneva in 1954 on the other hand, might genuinely be the best example prior to the recent Trumpian example of Iran. In that instance, the Eisenhower administration disregarded an agreement that all parties had signed onto, to hold free elections across Viet Nam that would unite an unofficially separated nation by democratic means. When the Eisenhower administration realized that Ho Chi Mihn was going to win in a landslide in both the designated northern and southern portions, no election was allowed to be held.
Yet here, while there were internationally disappointed parties, there was not the bulwark of international agreement that exists even in this circumstance. On the contrary, France was still aggravated that they lost their hold in the nation, while the United Kingdom was simply happy that the United States was getting involved in this colonial issue that they saw as having greater geopolitical implications regarding capitalism and communism.
In this modern case, however, the United States pulled out of the JCPOA while literally every other involved nation begged for Donald Trump to keep the US in it, including the likes of China, Russia, the United Nations as an institution, as well as the traditional European allies of America. Yet he chose not to listen to them, breaking a long spell of confidence that many other nations had in the United States in regards to that nation’s reliability vis-a-vis deals that it makes with other countries.
To put it another way, before Trump broke the JCPOA, a US foreign policy agreement with the United States was pretty well trusted by most of the world, even those that do not particularly like us very much. But after this blunder, there is a really fresh memory available for all nations to draw from, of the United States demonstrating in an open setting its untrustworthiness in this way. Iran has, therefore, demanded that the United States make assurances that it can back up that no future administration will unilaterally withdraw American cooperation in this deal without real, actual, and verifiable fault by Iran.
This is an entirely reasonable request, and one that has not had to be addressed within this context, simply because no nation had ever experienced this type of behavior from the Americans; after all, even Viet Nam, for better and worse, gets along well with the United States now. And so, the United States must prove itself and assure that it can be trusted in this setting and in negotiations with Iran, of which the rest of the world waits with bated breath for. While these are unfortunate innovations that will have to be addressed in regards to not only Iran, but the rest of the world as well, recognizing them leads still further into greater issues that threaten to make reconciliation more difficult than it was when last it was attempted.
“When the final result is expected to be a compromise, it is often prudent to start from an extreme position.” – John Maynard Keynes
It was previously acknowledged in the earlier portions of this essay that while Joe Biden might want for Iran to treat him as though it was still 2015, he knows that is not possible. And so, with this understood and acknowledged once again, he must stop acting as though Iran is behaving out of bad faith when they use the leverage that they have cultivated across the diplomatic landscape to try to secure a better deal for their nation and people.
It was always understood that the search for a better deal from the Trump administration, like that search for the holy grail or el dorado, was never possible because, in the way that the administration went about attempting for a better deal, no better deal was ever actually possible. In the way that Donald Trump went about the entire Iran circumstance, he could never do anything but create the foundation for a deal that is much worse for the United States than the previous one was.
With this noted, when Donald Trump made his decision, it freed Iran to act as a nation that was not treated in good faith. They are clean in regards to this, as they did not break the agreement, which has been noted by all parties, even as Washington now wishes to act with incredulity that Iran has flouted the terms of a deal that ceased to function because of American choices, not Iranian choices. They have developed their nuclear capabilities much further than they had in the lead up to the first JCPOA, signed by Barack Obama during his time in office, and with the leverage gained by this advancement, as well as the other global circumstances that have unfurled in the years since, demand better than they had once demanded in return for their amiability and cooperation.
Iran would like to sell more oil than it has been able to since before the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, on top of the guarantees from the Biden administration that no funny business will be pulled by a Republican President in the years to come. They would like sincere help and recognition with their COVID-19 and refugee crises, as well as their longstanding economic and opiate crises too. While the Biden administration has said that they will not repeal sanctions reinstated by the last American President that has made all of these horrors more extreme, Iran has said that it will not consider returning to any type of deal, the same, similar, or reconceived, unless sanctions are once again removed as they had previously been.
The sanctions, to me anyway, were and remain an avoidable error by the Biden administration that they likely have maintained as a way to demonstrate strength or consistency across two, opposing Presidential administrations; right now, they continue to breed more distrust than do they create positives in the entire matter. Yet those bits regarding diplomatic protection and economic cooperation should be what one might consider “happy problems” for Joe Biden, as they are those that can be worked on and configured in ways that leave all sides in a positive light.
Working more closely with Iran can help to recreate some of the trust that has been severed in recent years, and the United States must certainly think of the Iranian population for once and look to relieve them, as they remain, thanks to the international community as well as their own government, woefully mistreated and endangered; years of mistreatment, after all, does have consequences, internally, as well as externally.
“A diplomat who says “yes” means “maybe”, a diplomat who says “maybe” means “no”, and a diplomat who says “no” is no diplomat.” – Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord
Which brings us to one of the inevitable consequences of all three of the previous problems, that being that Iran grew tired of waiting for moderate reform, as so often happens when change does not visit a society fast enough. And, thanks in large part to the will of the Ayatollah and his Guardian Council, different change has been delivered to the nation, as a recourse to the observed and perceived failures of the Rouhanni years. This evolving landscape is different from the one that Donald Trump walked into over four years ago, and is, at least partially, a result of his malevolent efforts.
With the election of Ebrahim Raisi, as well as the gaggle of Principlist politicians over the last several years, Iran is more difficult to negotiate with than ever before; if Obama was lucky to have Rouhani after initially breaking through with his mercurial predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then Joe Biden should be considered profoundly unlucky that Donald Trump not only set the stage for this diplomatic nightmare, but for Ebrahim Raisi to be that leader with which Biden will have to figure out and reconcile this entire situation with.
This will be no easy task, for while Hassan Rouhani was a legendary intellectual and diplomatic figure within Iran, as well as a competent politician, Ebrahim Raisi is not necessarily considered any of those things, even in his own nation. During the election cycle, it was mentioned that Raisi was perhaps not the most brilliant of candidates, and he has had to deal with the questions over his intellectual and religious merits in the past as well.
While Raisi will wish to help his own legacy by reconstructing the old JCPOA in ways that will bring it back to life while benefiting Iran better than the old one did, especially in his hopes to one day ascend to the position that Ali Khamenei currently holds, he will have to contend with an American President who has been put, by seemingly every one of significance in this conversation, into a real proverbial pickle of sorts.
Joe Biden has to simultaneously get a new JCPOA worked out, which all parties wish for, including a majority of American and Iranian civilians, while dealing with a reactionary leader of Iran, leading a largely reactionary government, while American reactionaries continue to threaten, cajole, and do everything in their own power to stop any new deal from happening. These reactionaries, aligned with the reactionaries in Israel and, somehow even Iran, will continue to rage that Iran will be given the nuclear weapons if a new JCPOA is signed, even as Iran has developed nuclear capabilities much faster in the time since the previous nuclear agreement was torn up.
Yet Joe Biden needs to assure Iran that these people will not destroy any deal that he looks to cement, as they did last time, otherwise no deal can ever be realized anyway. The 46th American President has to weigh the options of taking flak at home for signing the new agreement, flak at home for not remaking the past agreement, as well as flak from the international community who also will be affected by whatever comes to occur, even as they routinely receive minimal consideration by American media and diplomatic analysts.
This is what Joe Biden and his administration are up against currently, and what they will have to fight through should they wish to go down in history in the same or similar light as his Democratic predecessor has since in regards to this particular area. It will not be an easy success, should success be found or conjured up, and, to be sure, Iran has absolutely no obligation to make this any easier than it will end up being; Iran has to look out for Iran, and as evidence demonstrates, they can be held at fault for things that there is not even any real evidence for.
Therefore, they cannot act with the same niceties that they may have once acted with, because there is little evidence, as there once was, actually, that acting in these amiable ways will produce any greater or more positive effect than this tougher posturing might. But for American conservatives, reactionaries and citizens of this nation in general, there will be little need, after a new JCPOA has been somehow realized, to lament the state of the new deal as a shortcoming of the President or his administration.
The blame will rest squarely on Donald Trump and his administration, not those of Joe Biden, Ebrahim Raisi, or even Hassan Rouhani, and the people of America, this time at least, should understand that in ways which they did not in previous years. If Joe Biden can fix the mess that Trump left the world in, however, there is a real chance that he will receive not any blame for having done the right thing in regards to Iran and their fate within the international community of nations, but credit from all parties for having held the line towards accomplishing a major innovation of foreign policy with Iran, for the second time in less than a decade.