The US and Iran are back where they were in 2012, a time when their foreign ministers still spoke by megaphone rather than telephone and Washington was trying to force Tehran to the nuclear negotiating table by inflicting as much economic pain as possible.
But although applying “maximum pressure’’ on Iran appeared to work in 2012 – resulting three years later in a controversial nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers – so much else has changed that the trick may prove difficult to repeat.
The Iranian economy is now, as it was then, in deep recession. Inflation hit 50% in June. Oil output is even lower today than the floor reached in 2013. Oil exports – key to supporting the government’s budget – are nearing zero. The current display of American financial power has been, if anything, more brutal and impressive than the last.
“We had a lot more orders, a lot more demand and in terms of transferring money and receiving payments, we had no problems’’ during the last bout of US pressure, said Nazanine Roshan, the 51-year-old owner of a Tehran marketing company. A still young and porous sanctions regime then allowed businesses like hers to survive. Now she can’t take payments from clients abroad at all. Business has all but dried up.
In one sense, those are signals that the maximum pressure policy is doing its job. Yet the Barack Obama administration’s strategy involved both that economic stick and a political carrot, namely to drop a previous US red line that Iran must scrap its nuclear fuel programme entirely.
That concession is no longer on offer – it was the central complaint critics had of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Instead, the US has made 12 additional demands for any new agreement, ranging from elimination of Iran’s ballistic missile programme, to withdrawal of its forces in Iraq and Syria and ending support for militias in Lebanon and Yemen.
At the same time, the leverage Iran had built up to force that 2015 US concession – a stockpile of enriched uranium large enough to bring Iran within months of a potential nuclear weapons “breakout’’ – no longer exists. It was bargained away as part of the nuclear deal. Iran is now rebuilding that leverage, and will soon exceed the stockpile limits set by the agreement. Surrounded by American military bases and US allies, it has little incentive to agree to talks until that’s done.
Then there’s the impact of the JCPoA itself on any future deal. When regime moderates advised Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2013 that the economic outlook was so dire he should engage with the US to fix it, Iran hadn’t already secured such a deal only to watch it fail, says Richard Dalton, the UK’s ambassador to Tehran from 2003 to 2006.
“I don’t think anyone in Tehran could make such a recommendation today. It would be seen as appeasement,’’ he says.
That became still more evident this week, after Washington said it would add Khamenei and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to its sanctions list. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani concluded on live television on Tuesday that it was now obvious that the Americans were “lying’’ about wanting talks. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman declared “the permanent closure of the path of diplomacy.’’
Yet John Bolton, the hawkish US national security adviser, insisted on Tuesday: “All Iran needs to do is walk through that open door.’’
It has become clear that a lasting deal on Iran’s nuclear fuel programme will not be reached without addressing wider issues, says Ali Ansari, professor of Middle East modern history at St Andrews University in Scotland. “We focused on one thing, the nuclear question, but in many ways it was other things, like Iranian actions in Syria that messed up the JCPoA,’’ he said.
From the US side, those broader concerns were mapped out by Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in May, when he listed the 12 US demands. Many concern issues that the Iranian regime sees as existential, creating a still more complex challenge for any new attempt at a settlement. Iran, facing well-armed adversaries, would for example, probably be willing to consider trading its ballistic missile programme only in a reciprocal deal with other regional powers, including Saudi Arabia.
“The big problem here is that the Americans don’t really seem to have a clear strategy, they don’t seem to be thinking about how you get the Iranians from A to B,’’ Ansari said. He noted the recent confusion over President Donald Trump’s decision to order and then halt proposed air strikes on Iran in retaliation for the shooting downing of a US surveillance drone.
Even without the latest round of sanctions, the public mood and political environment in Iran are today different – and less conducive to compromise – than in 2012.
Iran is in a different phase of an eight-year political cycle that tends to swing between pragmatists, more open to engagement with the West, and conservative ideologues. In 2012, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – a populist Iranians sometimes describe as their Trump-before-Trump – was in his final year in office. That allowed voters to hope for more pragmatic and less rigid rule to come.
This time it is a moderate, Rouhani, nearing the end of his presidency. There is a widespread expectation that elections next year will produce a more conservative and therefore insular Parliament, and in 2021 a more conservative president.
None of this means a new US-Iran deal can’t be struck. “It’s totally possible, if you look at how carefully curated Khamenei’s public statements are, you can see he never completely rules anything out,’’ says Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, a think tank.
Speaking from Washington, she said the last few years have taught a clear lesson about the power of the US to do Iran economic harm, with or without the backing of allies in Europe, or of Russia and China.
In the meantime, hope for international reconciliation among Tehran’s sophisticated middle class have all but evaporated. That could prove a significant factor in whether a reluctant Khamenei will eventually feel pressured to make the concessions required to resume negotiations with the US, or other global powers.
“At that time, we would think, well, if we can work well under Ahmadinejad just imagine how well we’ll do if Rouhani comes to power – it’ll be even better,’’ Roshan, the marketing entrepreneur, said of the last time Iran was isolated by sanctions. Now she sees instead an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
“It’s like they’ve all hit a wall,’’ Roshan said of Iran’s reformers, “a dead end.”
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