By Sam Denver
Since 1979, despite all negotiations between Iran and US, Islamic Republic remained one of the most anti-western governments in the world. Via a short review of JCPOA negotiations this writing will reveal the ultimate objectives and modus operandi of the regime in Tehran and how it is using negotiations to continue the same old and revolutionary policies and even sharpen them. Finally, suggestions on possible solutions to avoid repeating previous mistakes to form a strong and grand bargain with Islamic Republic.
A little review; the formation of Iran nuclear deal
In June of 2013 a few days before the presidential election, Supreme Leader of Islamic Republic said: “It is possible that some people do not want to support the Islamic Republic for any reason, but in any way, they would like to support their country. Therefore, these people should go to ballot boxes as well. Everyone should go to ballot boxes and show their presence. If the person who will be elected – we do not know what divine destiny has determined for us – enjoys many votes, he will be better able to defend those votes and to stand up against the opponents of the country.” The crippling international sanctions led by the US in conjunction with deep public grievance due to corruption, mismanagement and popular waves of protests following the fraudulent 2009 presidential election, compelled the Islamic Republic to make concessions on their nuclear program and accept a so-called moderate figure as president. The Rouhani presidency gave enough time and resources to the regime to continue the same revolutionary policies. Several months after Rouhani’s victory in the presidential election Khamenei delivered a speech to the IRGC commanders that’s illuminating: “We are not against proper and reasonable moves, whether in the world of diplomacy or in the world of domestic policies. I believe in the idea which was referred to as “heroic flexibility”. Flexibility is necessary in many areas. It is very good and there is nothing wrong with it. But the wrestler who is wrestling against his opponent and who shows flexibility for technical reasons should not forget who his opponent is and what he is doing. This is the main condition. Our politicians too should know what they are doing, who they are faced with, who their opponent is and which area the opposing side wants to attack. They should pay attention to this point.” In December 2013 Iran and P5+1 reached an interim agreement in Geneva that would halt Iran’s most sensitive nuclear activities and increase international monitoring of its nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief that hurt Iran’s economy most. The sanctions relief provided a lifeline for the regime. During the negotiations Khamenei started a two-fold game of persistently criticizing the western governments while simultaneously supporting the Iranian nuclear team led by Javad Zarif. He consistently expressed skepticism regarding the final outcome of the negotiations but not in a way that could stop the whole process of negotiations. Illustrating this dual trac and his role as final arbiter Khamenei delivered a speech in June of 2015: “We are after reaching an agreement. If someone says that there is a person among the officials of the Islamic Republic who is not after reaching an agreement, they have said a wrong thing. Everyone should know this: all the officials of the Islamic Republic – me, the administration, the Majlis, the judiciary branch, different security and military organizations and the like – share the view that an agreement should be reached.”
The Islamic Republic desperately needed the nuclear deal to get rid of the most powerful sanctions. When Iran and P5+1 finalized the agreement, Khamenei changed his tone completely and started to cast doubt in the process of negotiations itself, a ploy to halt further negotiations related to, the ballistic missile program designed to deliver a nuclear payload. August 17, 2015 Khamenei broadcast his ruse and how The Islamic Republic operates: “They thought that they could use the nuclear negotiations to exert influence inside our country. Now, the fate of this nuclear agreement is not clear either in Iran or in America. It is not clear whether it will be approved or not in both countries. They wanted to use it as a means to exert influence in our country, but we blocked their path and we will definitely block their path in the future as well. We will not allow the Americans to have economic or political influence in our country, nor will we allow them to have a political presence and cultural influence in our country. We will confront them with all our power.” In a stark contrast to Khamenei’s public pronouncements about the patriotic duty to vote in the 2013 presidential elections, he said this in 20 January, 2016 regarding the parliamentarian election: “I have said and would like to say again that even those who do not believe in the Islamic Republic should participate in the elections and vote. This, however, does not mean that they should send someone to the Majlis who does not believe in the system.” In the wake of JCPOA’s implementation and its economic benefits Khamenei no longer needed high voter turnout to portray some semblance of legitimate elections for a Western audience. With this lifeline that was provided by the 2013 Geneva interim agreement, the Islamic Republic opened new fronts in the region. In March 2015 Iran-Backed Houthi rebels entered Sana the Capital city of Yemen and took over the government. In an unprecedented move, the regime showed its underground ballistic missile towns on state TV. In a span of 1-year it also tested its ballistic missiles, emblazoned with the anti-Semitic slogan of “Death to Israel”. In January 2016, the IRGC navy boarded and occupied a US ship floating in international waters detaining 10-American sailors that were used in propaganda reals.
The so-called analysts close to the regime’s network of influence in the West predicted the regime was looking for sanctions’ relief, particularly petroleum and banking sanctions, and this would moderate their activities in the region. Instead, it was about acquiring financial resources to reenforce its foundational revolutionary policies with records indicating Tehran’s malign behavior continued unabetted at home and abroad even during the JCPOA negotiations. In January 2016 Iranian protestors backed by IRGC Basij militias occupied the Saudi embassy in Tehran. In September of 2015 the regime teamed up with Russia to prop-up Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. The West would be better served if they read Khamenei’s speech delivered July 18, 2015, during negotiations on sanctions relief tied to the nuclear deal: “We will not abandon our regional friends: the oppressed people of Palestine, the oppressed people of Yemen, the people and government of Syria and Iraq, the oppressed people of Bahrain and the sincere mujahids of the Resistance in Lebanon. These people will always enjoy our support. The next point is that our policy towards the arrogant government of America will not change in any way despite these negotiations and the document that has been prepared. As we have said many times, we have no negotiations with America on different global and regional issues. We have no bilateral negotiations with America. Sometimes, we have negotiated with them in exceptional cases such as the nuclear issue and we have done so because of our interests. The American policies in the region are 180 degrees the opposite of the policies of the Islamic Republic.” But the most significant point is that even if US abandons sanctions and pressure, the Islamic Republic will not moderate its behavior due to domestic concerns. Moreover, the regime needs America as an enemy, it is a central pillar of the government established by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and used to mobilize the public and deflect blame for all the country’s hardships. Hence, what the regime is looking for is not rapprochement with the US, but rather
A Way Forward
One might ask what is the path forward? It is essential for the Biden administration to listen to bipartisan voices in congress regarding the preservation and enforcement of the current sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The regime had enough time to negotiate with US from 2015 to 2018. If Biden returns to the JCPOA, all leverage gained by the US from 2016-2020 to pressure the regime on other issues such as regional aggression, ballistic missile, and human rights violation will evaporate, and Islamic Republic will have no incentives for follow-up negotiations on these issues. The Biden Administration falsely believes that if they resolve the “nuclear file” it will pave the path to address Tehran’s other malign activities when all evidence points to the contrary. So, unlike the interim agreement of Geneva in 2013 which provided the regime with a functional lifeline, any kind of sanctions relief must be the result of negotiations and not a precondition for talks. One must ask what is US long-term policy toward Islamic Republic? Is it the true purpose for US to promote the rise of the regime to a legitimate reginal power status? Should US become the artificers of a potential regional power which American grandchildren may have to contend with? Will they be grateful if US help to make regime more powerful than it would be in the natural way of things by returning to inherently defected and already sunsetting deal? One thinks not. There is no necessity for US to play the Iran Card, instead US should play the America card, mustering more of its own strength for its own purposes. It is of little use for US to resist one form of terrorism by helping another to stabilize the Middle-East. Even Obama in 2013 admitted that the Reagan approach is functional against Islamic Republic. “If we can negotiate on the nuclear program in the same way that Ronald Reagan was able to negotiate with the Soviet Union even as we were still contesting them around the world, that removes one more threat and a critical, existential threat takes it out of their arsenal. And it allows us then to ultimately, I think win them defeat some of their agenda throughout the region without worrying that somehow, it’s going to escalate or trigger a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world.” But as the JCPOA showed us Obama did not follow Raegan’s path when dealing with the Islamic Republic. The attractiveness of applying to Islamic Republic a similar set of policies that caused the relatively peaceful dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s, often called the Victory Strategy, is evident. The strategy produced the most favorable and feasible end to the Cold War, and a major victory for the US and its allies without a major direct conflict with the Soviet Union. Similarities between Islamic Republic and the USSR make it sensible to assess that applying a similar set of strategies would yield a similar outcome.
That evaluation might indeed be precise, and several policies are surely the right strategy to implement against Iran today. However, important structural, ideological, experiential, personal factors and the situation today strongly differ the from those in the early 1990s. These discrepancies may end in the failure of a Victory Strategy; this will almost surely mean that even the successful implementation of the strategy will follow a very different and most likely a much bloodier path. However, these variations do not mean that the US must not adopt a properly updated version of the Victory Strategy. That strategy will have positive effects in most areas of concern to US policy even if it does not obtain the overall goal of causing a peaceful transition from the Islamic Republic. So, one needs to temper expectations of likely outcomes and propose methods of adjusting its execution to amend effects against this special adversary.  Arguably, the Biden administration needs to abandon the prevalent goal in US-Iran relations, i.e. containing Iran‘s power and turn to a comprehensive objective of rolling Iran‘s power back to its territorial boundaries. Roll-Back can be seen as a wise choice between inaction or appeasement on one hand and unnecessary or endless devastating armed conflict on the other. It is active and comprehensive, but most importantly requires American resolve and steadfastness. In a similar vein, the roll-back strategy pursues three goals at three main levels. In the short-term, it aims to achieve the “Maximum Degradation” of the Islamic Republic by depriving it of much-needed funds and resources to pursue its nuclear, military and regional strategy in the Middle East. In the mid-term, it seeks to change the strategic behavior of the Islamic Republic through a comprehensive treaty that will address the ballistic missiles, nuclear program and regional policy which would be ratified by the US Senate to guarantee its endurance under different US administrations in the future. In reality this long-term strategy is aimed to change the Iranian regime through weakening the Islamic Republic security apparatus and giving material support for opposition voices and protestors inside Iran. But with the use of “Selective Ambiguity” tactics, the US can overtly call for regime change as an official policy as the US congress and the administration have not ruled out the possibility of talks with Tehran. A long-term approach would concentrate on forming a consensus among US allies to successfully execute the Victory Strategy. Accordingly, the US would dissuade China and Russia from stepping in to keep the Iranian regime alive. It would interrupt the supply-chain of strategic materials the regime needs to promote its nuclear and military capabilities. The US would also compel the Islamic Republic to fight hard to preserve its influence in the Middle East and simultaneously pressing the Iranian economy with every feasible method. Such a strategy would almost certainly induce the Islamic Republic close in on itself, cease and reverse its march toward regional dominance, deepen divisions within the regime leadership and between the people and the state, and potentially, over time, and in a uniquely Iranian way, lead to a change in the nature of the regime. If the US decides to designate the Roll-Back Strategy as the “Constant Roll-Back Strategy”, it is likely that the policy can bear its intended results in the mid to long terms, particularly given the fact that Islamic Republic does not hold any proportional advantage over the US in almost every metric and element of power.