President Biden has offered the first hope in four years for Iran. There are early signs, though, that that hope could be threatened or illusory.
Biden’s secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, has made two recent statements that are of interest to Iran but also to Saudi Arabia. During his confirmation hearing, Blinken said that Biden “has made clear that we will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and I think we will work on that in very short order.” During his first press conference as secretary of state, he said, "President Biden has been very clear in saying that if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same thing."
The connection between the two statements is potentially ominous for Iran. Gareth Porter reports that during the negotiations of the JCPOA nuclear deal, Obama was hungry to assuage the Sunni states over the impending nuclear treaty with Iran and to win their silence and acceptance. What he gave them, it seems, was Syria. The trade, Porter reports, was that "the Gulf States stopped complaining about the Iran nuclear agreement," and "no one in the Obama administration said anything about Sunni coalition backing for al-Nusra."
Is it possible that the dangerous connection between Blinken’s two statements is that, as the price for Saudi acquiescence on the Iran deal was giving them a desired war, so the price for impeding a desired Saudi war is impeding the Iran deal?
Blinken’s policy statement on Iran is a response to Iran’s stated position. Iran has made three points clear. The first is that its increased nuclear activity is a response to the US breaking the agreement and maintaining sanctions and that that response is in compliance with the JCPOA because paragraph 36 of the agreement allows Iran to cease its commitments if another signatory ceases to honor its commitments. The second is that all of the increased nuclear activity can be reversed in an instant. The third is that the US must first return to compliance and remove sanctions as the condition of Iran returning to compliance. Since it is the US that violated the agreement, it is the US that must first show that they will return to it.
President Hassan Rouhani put the promise this way: “If they issue an order, they will see an order issued in Iran…. If they effectively implement their commitments, they must know there will be effective implementation of commitments on this side.” Foreign minister Javad Zarif similarly structured the conditional: “Biden can choose a better path by ending Trump’s failed policy of “maximum pressure” and returning to the deal his predecessor abandoned. If he does, Iran will likewise return to full implementation of our commitments under the nuclear deal.” He added the Biden administration must “unconditionally” remove “all sanctions,” and promised that Iran would then “reverse all the remedial measures it has taken in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.”
Blinken’s formulation that Biden has been clear that Iran must come back to compliance first is a rejection of Iran’s offer. It is a threat to diplomacy that dismisses international law, since it was the US who illegally broke the agreement and needs to show good faith and return. Iran never did break the agreement. It also seems unnecessary: both sides can promise to return to compliance simultaneously. It is a threat to diplomacy that was punctuated on January 27 by a military move that echoed the "maximum pressure" policy of the Trump administration when an American B-52 stratofortress flew into Iran’s region. The bomber was joined, pointedly – remember Yemen – by Saudi F-15SAs. US Central Command said the flight "demonstrates a unique ability to rapidly deploy on short notice" and "a global strike capability."
So, Iran has a contemporary reason for rejecting Blinken and Biden’s formulation based who broke the JCPOA agreement. Iran also has a historical reason.
History has painfully taught Iran that you cannot bargain with the US unless you have a bargaining chip. Bitter experience has taught Iran that the US will not negotiate honestly unless you bargain from a position of strength. You can’t just have something you need of the US. You must also have something the US needs.
History taught Iran this lesson twice. And they won’t repeat the mistake a third time. In 1989, Hashemi Rafsanjani became president of Iran. He wanted to reshape Iran’s position and break out of her international isolation, including improving relations with the US. He attempted to win American friendship by showing Iranian friendship while demanding nothing in return. Iran went to America with an offering of peace. He exerted Iran’s regional influence and intervened to help win the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon. President H.W. Bush promised that Iran’s help would “be long remembered” and that “goodwill begets goodwill.” But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. Iran did what it promised to do; America did not do what it promised to do. Instead, Bush betrayed Rafsanjani and did nothing in return: the Americans sent word that Rafsanjani should expect no American reciprocation.
Rafsanjani would try one more time. He would keep Iran officially neutral when Iraq invaded Kuwait. But the official neutrality was really siding with the US. While Iran rejected Iraqi pleas for help on the grounds of that neutrality, they allowed the US to use Iranian airspace. Once again, though, the US failed to return good will for good will. Though Rafsanjani had hoped to end Iran’s international isolation by helping the Americans, when the US convened the Israeli-Palestinian Madrid Conference, they invited nearly every affected nation while snubbing Iran and continuing its international isolation. Diplomacy with America failed when the hand Iran offered had nothing in it. You have to have something the US needs too.
The next Iranian president tried the same trusting approach. History dealt Iran its second lesson. Seyyed Mohammad Khatami rejected any sort of terrorism and was willing to accept a two state solution if that’s what the Palestinians wanted. In expressing that willingness, the President of Iran implicitly expressed the willingness to recognize the state of Israel. Despite these clear offers, America once again ignored Iran. When after 9/11, Iran aided the US in its fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, played what Iran expert Trita Parsi has called an absolutely crucial role in setting up Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government and arrested hundreds of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who escaped into its borders, President George W. Bush offered nothing but inclusion in the Axis of Evil back. Khatami was stunned. And the hardliners who opposed his efforts used this speech of Bush’s to argue that you can never deal with the US from a position of weakness.
Next time Iran would negotiate with America, they would have centrifuges spinning. The new approach won from experience worked in the JCPOA negotiations. While there were only so many targets the US could sanction, Iran could keep building centrifuges and keep enriching uranium. So, while the US strategy had an endpoint, the Iranian response did not: the US could run out of things to sanction; Iran could keep enriching. The US confronted a choice of war or negotiations. Having a negotiating chip this time forced the US to negotiate.
Iran has learned that you cannot trust America. You can’t just ask the US to end sanctions. You have to have centrifuges spinning. And you can’t stop spinning them until the US stops starving you.
So, the formulation offered by Blinken, that Iran has to come to the table without its bargaining chip, is a serious threat to the hope seemingly offered by Biden and a warning sign for Iran.