U.S. Secretary of State Kerry with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif in Vienna, Austria, January 2016
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement in May 2018 with the express purpose of pressuring Iran into negotiating a deal more favorable to the United States. To that end, the United States has pursued a sanctions policy of “maximum pressure” that has inflicted extraordinary damage on Iranian society. Iran’s economy contracted by seven percent in 2019–20, and its currency has devalued to a record low. Washington recently imposed still more sanctions on Iran’s banking system.

Tehran has nevertheless refused to renegotiate the agreement, as it views conceding to U.S. demands as a total surrender. Instead, Iran has resumed some of its previously suspended nuclear-related activities; continued, if not expanded, its missile program; and deepened its regional influence.

Despite this dangerous escalation on both sides, many expect a new round of shuttle diplomacy between Tehran and Washington to follow the U.S. presidential election next month. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has said that if elected, he would return to the nuclear deal, which was negotiated while he was vice president. Meanwhile, President Trump has expressed confidence that he can cut a new deal with Iran within weeks if he is reelected.

Despite their differences, both opponents and proponents of the original nuclear deal believe that reimposing sanctions in the past two years has provided the United States with critical leverage to use against Iran. The two sides, however, differ on whether the United States should use this leverage to get a better deal for itself within the framework of that agreement or ratchet up the pressure still further to get more attractive concessions from Iran, including an end to its enrichment program. A Biden administration would offer sanctions relief in return for more restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities than the original deal required. A second Trump administration, on the other hand, would likely offer few incentives and increase the pressure on Iran to make concessions beyond the original framework. Both sides assume that Iran is desperate for new negotiations so that it can receive sanctions relief from the United States and salvage its economy.

The prevailing discourse about Iran within Washington’s foreign policy establishment misses a crucial point, however. Since the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, Iran’s political landscape has undergone a tectonic shift that has fundamentally altered the country’s calculus. Iran has new sources of strength, both domestic and international, and it looks to the United States for far less than Washington imagines.

A New Cohesion

Rarely in the history of the Islamic Republic has Iran’s foreign policy operated with the coherence that it now possesses. Throughout the three decades that separated the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989, and the U.S. assassination of Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, in January 2020, vicious factional politics sowed discord within the state’s bureaucracy, paralyzing its foreign policy. The president and foreign minister would be on the verge of a diplomatic breakthrough when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would undo their efforts with a statement, operation, or assassination. Similarly, the IRGC commanders continually worried that Iranian diplomats lacked belief in the country’s military capability and would make concessions that compromised national security.

The killing of Soleimani, combined with a U.S. sanctions campaign that Iran’s president has described as an “economic war,” has brought the country’s political factions into an unusually harmonious collaboration, with the IRGC in the driver’s seat. Since the last round of negotiations, Iran has shown it can and will shut down half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production, shoot down U.S. drones in the Persian Gulf, and launch ballistic missile attacks on American troops in Iraq. Unsurprisingly, the head of the IRGC is now urging Iranian diplomats to fear nothing and to walk away from the table if the U.S. negotiators threaten them again.  

Iran looks to the United States for far less than Washington imagines.

The factional coherence is evident in the recent actions of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The United Nations’ refusal, in September, to reimpose sanctions on Iran was a diplomatic victory for Zarif. The same foreign minister who negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, which many Iranians saw as a gateway to better relations with the United States, is now solidifying Iran’s ties with Russia and finalizing a 25-year strategic agreement with China.

In welcoming Moscow and Beijing to the Middle East to balance the United States, Tehran seeks to create a dollar-free zone with some of its neighbors plus Russia and China. Elite consensus has now coalesced behind Iran’s determined turn to the East after 30 years of debilitating internal disagreements over the country’s foreign policy direction. Domestic opposition to this shift has been relatively passive—another testament to the change in Iran’s internal state of affairs.

Iran now looks to the increasingly anti-American Russia and China for security and economic benefits. The change is dramatic, particularly considering that not long ago, during the period between 2002 and 2015, China and Russia often voted against Iran’s nuclear activities in order to curry favor with Washington. Those countries are not now Tehran’s strategic allies—but their shared animosity toward the United States has narrowed their previous divergence and created a coordinated front that Washington should not underestimate.

Rarely has Iran’s foreign policy operated with the coherence that it now possesses.

Not only does Iran have a new and more unified foreign policy but its leaders also perceive that the credibility and prestige of the United States as a competent, liberal, democratic state has declined among Iranians. Tehran seems confident that by violating the nuclear deal, mistreating minorities, immigrants, and Iranian nationals, and failing to stop the spread of COVID-19, Washington has undermined the positive image that the United States enjoyed for decades.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. observers were quick to blame Iran’s inability to control the outbreak on a combination of fanaticism and incompetence. A few months later, however, many Iranians saw that the world’s richest nation did not handle the pandemic spectacularly better than their own sanction-stricken state had done. Additionally, the United States imposed increasingly punitive measures on Iran during the pandemic, effectively vindicating Tehran’s claims that the United States does not wish the Iranian people well and that Washington’s opposition to the nuclear program is only a pretext to destroy the country.

Less for Less

American proponents of the nuclear deal argue that the United States should be prepared to give more if it wishes to gain more concessions from Iran. However, the abovementioned domestic and geostrategic factors will render Iran’s posture in any nuclear negotiations more formidable than before. Iran’s public statements further reveal the diplomatic hurdles ahead. In a recent conversation with Fareed Zakaria at the Council on Foreign Relations, Zarif stated that Iran would “absolutely not” renegotiate the nuclear deal. In fact, Iran is now asking for the United States to compensate it for violating an international agreement endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Some may dismiss these words as mere bargaining to demand more from Washington. But Iran’s position has come down to a bottom line that the nuclear deal did not guarantee: Iran must be able to sell its oil and use the proceeds to purchase what it needs. Before the United States withdrew from the deal, and despite Washington’s promises under former President Barack Obama, Iran faced many obstacles in making dollar transactions, because international financial institutions overcomplied with U.S. sanctions.

Now the Iranian leadership—much more confident and less divided than in 2015—no longer holds its breath for a major sanctions relief package from the United States, as many in Washington erroneously assume it does. Instead, Iran may set much smaller objectives, seeking only the relaxation of restrictions on other countries so that they can do business with Iran. The next round of negotiations will be arduously centered on specific, transactional, and swiftly reversible steps. Iran will expect and offer less.

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