On Iran – Negotiations and Reliability

The negotiations attempting to implement a full return of Iran and the United States to the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) are ongoing and it remains to be seen if an agreement will be reached. Although both parties are interested in a return to the JCPOA, disagreements remain regarding the sequencing of such a return and the extent of sanctions relief, while domestic pressure in both the United States and Iran complicate a negotiated settlement. This month Iranians will likely “elect” (if you can call this sham process an election) Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner with a repressive human rights record who is close to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Although Khamenei retains all power over final decisions, the ascension of hardline politicians in both Iran’s parliament and presidency will undoubtedly make the concessions required for a settlement with the United States less palatable.

Whether an agreement can be attained is a good if technical question. Whether such an agreement is desirable is an even better, and more strategic question. Much ink has been spilled on the subject, with some (including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) advocating a continuation of the “maximum pressure” embarked on by Trump a means of denying Iran funds and to pressure it to negotiate on favorable terms. Others claim that maximum pressure has only accelerated Iran’s nuclear program and that it is preferable to “contain” (even if temporarily) the nuclear threat first before addressing the other challenges Iran presents (ballistic missiles, human rights, regional activity etc.).

One fundamental question that I do not see being asked in the discourse is quite simply – is Iran a reliable negotiating partner? I would argue that the answer to that question is no. Numerous historical and contemporary examples exist to back this claim. As far back as 1983, Iran was suspected[1] of providing support for Hezbollah in carrying out the infamous Marine Barracks Bombing. More recently, prior to the death of Qassem Soleimani, the latter was accused of being responsible[2] for hundreds of American and allied deaths. Since the inauguration of president Joe Biden, Iran has tested his administration’s resolve multiple times with harassment of the U.S. navy and rocket and drone fire at U.S. forces in Iraq.

These are but examples of the broader system of regional proxies that Iran has established, from the Houthis in Yemen, to paramilitary militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Each of these terror organizations has sowed death and destruction wherever they go. Iran even paid bounties to the Taliban to target US troops in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Iran has been caught time and time again lying about the extent and existence of its nuclear programs, from its clandestine nuclear weapons program (codenamed “project Amad”) to its inability to explain traces of nuclear material in undeclared sites, as recently reported in an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report .

All of this does not necessarily mean the pursuit of the JCPOA is not desirable policy. The main argument I’ve heard for a return to the JCPOA is that such a return would give the West the ability (even if imperfect, even if temporary) to have the Iran nuclear issue contained (“in the box” as U.S Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently put it), and thus allow the global community to focus resources on confronting Iran’s problematic missile and regional activity. Presumably, this focused attention would be enough to counteract the billions in funds Iran (and therefore its proxies) are expected to receive from sanctions relief.

It is true that we make peace (or in this case, interim accords) with our enemies, not our friends, and it is also true that continued tensions run the risk of escalation to the point of a devastating regional conflict. So, while there is a case to be made for diplomacy, the actions of the Iranians belie their foreign minister’s smooth talk. Their activities, which are duplicitous, aggressive, and immoral, have convinced me that they cannot be trusted as negotiating partners. I remain convinced that just like the North Koreans, Iran will take advantage of cashflows from the West while continuing to thumb their nose at the international rule-based order. This would have unacceptable consequences for Israel, the Gulf States, and indeed America and the Middle East.

When I see officials like Robert Malley, U.S. special envoy to Iran, and others like him, make statements extolling progress in negotiations and engaging with Iran as if they were a reliable partner, my question becomes – what do they know that I don’t? If there is information that underscores Iran’s reliability, American officials have a duty to share it with the public, a public which rightfully mistrusts Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions, despite their best efforts to whitewash it. And if there is no contradictory information, then Iran should be treated like the unreliable country that it is – with policy options developed to reflect this reality (a withdrawal from negotiations, or at the very least a firm demand for more safeguards and verifiable assurances).

The Biden Administration must convince and assure us beyond the shadow of a doubt of either their ability to contain Iran or their reasons to trust him. They owe Israelis this much since it is they who live under the shadow of Iran’s proxies’ missiles and they are the ones for whom a nuclear armed Iran represents an existential threat, a threat to which the world said, “never again”. Robert Malley has a responsibility to convince us. He has his work cut out for him.

[1] There remains doubt and controversy surrounding the exact responsibility for the bombing (at least in open-sourced material)

[2] The exact figures and responsibility vary, and were unfortunately subject to the politicization of information that defined the Trump presidency

About the Author
Originally from the United States, Natan came to Israel in 2010. He served in the IDF, and has worked in a variety of analytical positions, which is his attempt to contribute to the country that he loves. He has an insatiable curiosity, and he enjoys passionate but civil discourse. He is a devoted husband and father, and everything he does is for them. Follow him at @KohnNatan.
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