By Mahshad Badii*
Abstract: In her article, Mahshad Badii seeks to criticize the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy vis-à-vis Iran. She explores the tenants of the JCPOA and addresses the current US administration’s criticism and justifications for withdrawal. Because the Trump administration’s policy on Iran demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Iranian political thinking, she argues, it fails in its objectives to curtail Iranian influence. The current US policy erroneously frames American-Iranian relations as a zero-sum game, and therefore both feeds the Iranian siege mentality and strengthens hardliners at the expense of moderates.
The United States’ souring relationship with Iran is one of the core foreign policy issues facing the US today. From the 1980 Tehran embassy crisis to President Bush’s condemnation of Iran as a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’, American-Iranian relations have been tumultuous since the 1979 revolution. After seven years of on-and-off negotiations, the tide seemed to turn in 2015 as Iran and the P5+1 consolidated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which provided sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for nuclear restrictions and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Nevertheless, since taking office in 2017, the Trump administration has regularly rebuked the deal for its ineffectiveness and supposed financial bolstering of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism. The final nail in the coffin came on May 8, 2018, when the US withdrew from the JCPOA and re-imposed sanctions.
The American decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and pursue a ‘maximum pressure’ policy with Iran demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Iranian political thinking. To the Trump administration, economic pressure on Iran will force the state to curb its regional activities and force new, broader negotiations that address not only Iran’s nuclear program, but also its ballistic missile program and aid to Hizbollah and Houthi rebels. However, such an outlook ignores that Iran’s nuclear and security policies are not solely motivated by a desire for regional influence, but also by a fear for national security which stems from the Iran-Iraq War. The international community’s silence after Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion, usage of chemical weapons, and targeting of civilian centres have shaped the Iranian belief that protecting itself from future attacks necessitates a vigilant national defence apparatus. Thus began the development of its nuclear, ballistic missile, and drone programmes. The internalisation and instrumentalisation of this collective trauma is best expressed by chief-nuclear negotiator and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in a 2016 op-ed defending Iran’s recent ballistic missile test:
“Our people understand that we need to be prepared to prevent that illegal and absurd threat from ever becoming a reality […] It is against this backdrop that we develop and test our indigenous defensive capabilities.”
Over thirty years later, it is easy to dismiss the argument that wartime trauma drives Iran’s defence apparatus as outdated. However, an ongoing Iranian fear of attack is not without merit: a US congressional report on arms transfers to developing countries revealed that between 2008 and 2015 the Gulf Cooperation Council ordered over $162 billion USD worth of weapons, nearly 180 times Iran’s $900 million worth of arms imports over the same period . This difference in weapons quantity is exacerbated by a difference in quality. Current Iranian ballistic missile technology lacks precision-strike capability, increasing its vulnerability to air-delivered counterstrikes by Gulf and Israeli air forces equipped with precise long-range missiles. In addition to a massive disadvantage in arms, Iran is also inhibited by severely inferior airpower compared to its neighbors. As of 2018, Iran had no fully modern combat aircraft, compared to Israel’s 322 and Saudi Arabia’s 266. Considering the need and desire for Iranian self-sufficiency, rather than cornering Iran into negotiations, Washington’s strategy is more likely to result in Iran doubling down on military activities out of fear for national security.
In fact, an analysis of the past forty years of Iran’s behavior demonstrates that, regardless of economic pressure, Iran has always continued to pursue activities it deems necessary for its survival. While the US withdrawal from the JCPOA was intended to restrain the activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran’s IRGC budget has increased over the past three years, with a budget of 154 trillion rials for the fiscal year 2017-2018 to 254 trillion rials for the past fiscal year, 2018-2019. It is important to note that this continual increase in funding is offset by cuts to other items in the Iranian budget. The Ministry of Defence, for example, experienced a 51% budget cut over the last two years while the Artesh (Iranian Army) now receives less than half the funding of the IRGC. Even when one considers the impact of rampant inflation, the IRGC and its affiliates have consistently captured 50% of the official military budget over the past three years. Such official budgets fail to capture the IRGC’s other sources of funding; experts estimate that the IRGC controls somewhere between 20% to 40% of the Iranian economy via front companies in defence, oil, and construction. Ultimately, while sanctions have squeezed Iran and led to an overall decline in the defence budget, the Iranian government continues to prioritise and fund the very activities that US foreign policy aims to curb, calling into question the efficacy of sanctions in the first place.
Furthermore, US abandonment of JCPOA in pursuit of a hard-line policy strengthens the position of Iranian hardliners at the expense of moderates. Since the election of President Rouhani in 2013, there has been an ongoing power struggle between the moderate Rouhani administration, including Zarif, and hardliners, including the IRGC and its elite Quds Force, led until recently by General Qasem Soleimani. With the rial losing nearly 70% of its value since the reimposition of US sanctions on Iran, much of the blame for the current economic crisis has been directed at the Rouhani administration. In October 2019, IranPoll found that Rouhani’s approval rate had fallen below 50% for the first time in his presidency, while Soleimani remained the most popular Iranian political figure among those surveyed. Soleimani’s almost cult-like status in Iran is especially important following his assassination by an American drone strike in Baghdad on January 3, 2020. With Soleimani as his martyr, Khamenei has been able to rally the nation around the flag, justify military actions abroad, and elect hardliners to office on the promise of protecting Iranians from American belligerence. This past February, Iranian parliamentary elections yielded a landslide victory for Iran’s conservatives, with a 76% increase in seats held. Meanwhile, as public approval falls for the moderates, the IRGC is predicted to profit and grow in power from the resulting expansion of the black market, which it dominates. By placing the formal Iranian economy in a chokehold, US foreign policy inadvertently strengthens the IRGC, the body responsible for much of the operations that concern the US, and fails to curtail Iranian influence.
Ultimately, if policymakers wish to limit Iran’s regional and nuclear activities, they must do so with a pragmatic outlook: it is unreasonable to expect Iran, whose foreign policy draws strongly from a survivalist mentality, to agree to any deal that curtails all military activities. Instead, policymakers should seek compromises acceptable to both sides. Herein lies the difference in how the Obama and Trump administrations each defined their relationship with Iran. The Obama administration, choosing to initiate nuclear negotiations without preconditions, framed the US-Iran relationship as an arena for win-win possibilities. The Trump administration, by contrast, views the Iran relationship as zero-sum: one side’s gains are the other’s losses, and therefore the only approach to Iran is one of maximum pressure.
But such a pessimistic outlook from the Trump administration overlooks that the US-Iran relationship has always been what administrations make of it. For example, in the aftermath of 9/11, Bush administration officials met discreetly with a group of Iranian diplomats to discuss attacks on their mutual enemy, the Taliban. The two countries cooperated extraordinarily well until January 2002, when President Bush included Iran in the ‘Axis of Evil.’ The impact was immediate: Soleimani blasted his American counterparts for the turn-around, reformers in the Iranian government were silenced, and the US-Iran relationship deteriorated even further. From this case we can draw a greater lesson on American-Iranian relations: to label and treat Iran as an international pariah is to feed the siege mentality and give a platform to hardliners. To address Iran as a state like any other is to invite negotiations, compromise, and a path forward.
The JCPOA can and should be renegotiated. In fact, despite hostile rhetoric from the Trump administration, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verified Iran’s JCPOA compliance on thirteen separate occasions since its ratification. Even with Iran’s January 5th announcement that it will no longer abide by the JCPOA’s uranium enrichment limitations, Iranian officials have emphasized that all rollbacks are reversible and that they will continue to cooperate fully with the IAEA. From the deal’s inception to the aftermath of the US withdrawal, Iran has demonstrated that it is willing to compromise.
Still, a new deal must also go beyond the scope of the pre-existing nuclear agreement. The JCPOA failed to tackle Iranian backing of terrorist groups and proxy groups, while American banking regulations under terrorism legislation have nullified much of the economic relief expected from the original deal. Iran’s influence in war-torn states like Syria and Yemen means any peace settlements will require Iranian cooperation to be sustainable Furthermore, Iran’s substantial level of influence over Iraqi affairs, meticulously cultivated through ties to Iraq’s foremost political officials, suggests recognition that any escalation of US-Iranian tensions will most likely play out in Iraq — whether in the form of more strikes or public protests by Iraqis against American and Iranian influence in their country. For the US, the next battle will include bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. However, any negotiations will be impossible as long as the international community, led by the United States, continues to isolate Iran.
*Mahshad Badii is about to conclude her B.A. in Political Science and Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley. After her graduation in May 2020, she will be pursuing Middle Eastern policy research in Washington, DC.
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