Iran has formally rejected all Western efforts to at compromise during the current impasse over prospective restoration of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. President Trump pulled the US out of the deal in 2018 and began expanding US sanctions as part of a strategy of “maximum pressure.” Now the Biden administration appears interested in removing those sanctions and reversing that strategy. But fortunately it is not so commitment to that outcome that it was immediately willing to overlook Iran’s aggressive stance and grant the regime concessions for nothing.
Biden’s long-term strategy remains to be seen, but serious critics of the Iranian regime have at least some basis for hoping that the new administration will come to see value in building off of its predecessor’s policies, rather than contradicting them. Tehran, meanwhile, seems to be gambling on the notion that the US will capitulate to pressure and suspend all sanctions once again, even while the Islamic Republic remains in violation of all major provisions of the JCPOA. The regime’s overzealous efforts to force that outcome may ultimately be self-defeating, as long as its latest rejection of compromise is recognized as part of a larger pattern of deception with malign intent.
There are plenty of Western political figures and Iranian expatriate activists who have long recognized that pattern. In recent weeks, many of them have signed their names to statements urging the United States, the European Union, and other Western governments to adopt more assertive policies for dealing with the Islamic Republic.
In response to such developments as the February 4 guilty verdict for an Iranian diplomat accused of plotting terrorism in Europe, those statements recommended taking such steps as closing Iranian embassies and cultural institutions. This reflects an underlying belief that ordinary negotiations with the Iranian regime are more dangerous than they are beneficial, especially in situations where a veneer of international legitimacy allows the regime to hide its efforts at projecting force beyond its borders.
This was plainly the case with the diplomatic activities of Assadollah Assadi, the third counsellor at the Iranian embassy in Vienna who in 2018 attempted to oversee the bombing of an international gathering of Iranian expatriates just outside Paris. Assadi’s trial revealed that in addition to smuggling explosives into Europe for that operation, the so-called diplomat had been running a network of operatives that spanned at least 11 countries and most likely included other sleeper cells like that which he employed for the attempted attack.
Less obviously, the goal of concealing force-projection was also on display in the negotiations that resulted in the 2015 nuclear deal. The deal’s supporters sold the proceedings to the public as an effort to forestall Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon while also protecting the country’s supposed right to certain closely-related civilian activities. Originally, the goal among Western powers had been to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment altogether, but on the regime’s insistence, that goalpost soon moved to allow a limited stockpile of uranium, enriched to a specified low level.
There may have been some value in this revised aim if Iran had genuinely earned the trust of the international community. But having done nothing to demonstrate its own goodwill, the regime surely recognized this easy compromise as a sign of compromise on the Western side, and promptly set to work exploiting it. The resulting deal was understandably decried by serious critics of the Iranian regime who recognized that it allowed the Iran to continue working openly on certain aspects of its nuclear weapons program, while built-in limits on international inspections also provide the regime with opportunities to secretly pursue outcomes that were technically banned.
If there was any doubt about Iran’s propensity for this sort of deception, it should have been eliminated in 2019, when Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, started boasting to Iranian state media about the ways in which Tehran had manipulated its negotiating partners in order to turn the deal to its advantage.
In January of that year, Salehi revealed that the AEOI had orchestrated the feigned deactivation of the Arak heavy water plant, thereby keeping open a plutonium pathway to a nuclear weapon which was supposed to be closed by the JCPOA. And in November, Salehi explained that even while technically complying with limits on uranium enrichment and stockpiling, the Islamic Republic had designed “countermeasures” that devalued that compliance and allowed nuclear facilities to ramp up both the speed and the extent of their enrichment without delay.
By the time of this latter admission, the underlying phenomenon was already on display for all to see. In May 2019, the regime took its first official steps toward complete abandonment of the nuclear deal’s provisions. Soon thereafter, commentators began publicly marveling at the speed with which Iran’s nuclear material became both more abundant and more highly enriched. The National Council of Resistance of Iran and other high-profile critics of the Iranian regime were then able to cite this observations as clear evidence that Tehran’s commitment to compromise had been oversold since the beginning.
Now, with its rejection of a new Western offer of unofficial, open-ended dialogue, the regime itself has brightly underlined its true attitudes toward the idea of compromise. And it has done so in the wake of a stark reminder, from one of its own senior most officials, of the potential consequences for global security if such compromise fails.
On February 9, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi called attention to one of the most frequently-used justifications for Western efforts to negotiate restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program. But he did so for the express purpose of undermining that support and trying instead to shift the focus of dialogue toward forcing new concessions form the great powers in the West.
“The fatwa forbids the production of nuclear weapons,” Alavi said in reference to a religious edict with which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei supposedly declared that nuclear weapons are contrary to Islam and therefore not among Tehran’s foreign policy goals. Alavi then turned his attention to the US and its allies in order to suggest that the practical application of that fatwa depends on the conduct of Iran’s adversaries: “But if they push Iran in those directions, it is not Iran’s fault. Those who pushed Iran in that direction will be to blame.”
Such statements make it clear that to the extent Iran is even willing to engage in negotiations over such matters as nuclear weapons development, the goal is not to compromise with the West but rather to lift pressure through deception and ultimately attempt to force capitulation. This point is reinforced by the regime’s decision to reject Western offers of dialogue, but it still remains to be seen whether the point will be properly recognized by those who made the offer.
If the Biden administration and its allies recognize Iran’s obstinance in the proper light, they should also recognize that further attempts at compromise will be futile at best, and extremely self-destructive at worst. Once compromise has been rejected, pressure is the only viable strategy that remains. The US should stand by that strategy, and the nations of Europe should help it to truly achieve “maximum pressure” on Iran.