Bad peace is better than good war with Iran
If the United States continues to stick to its 13 demands, the prospects of a new treaty are doomed.
In the last few months, the US-Iran confrontation has been rapidly and steadily plunging the Middle East into an atmosphere of an impending armed conflict. The main stumbling block for Tehran and Washington is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the two states differed in their assessment of its terms.
Consequently, after many promises, the United States withdrew unilaterally from the JCPOA in 2018 and then resumed the regime of harsh sanctions against Iran.
From the point of view of the current US leadership, the JCPOA should be revised and re-negotiated to be concluded on terms that would be more advantageous for Washington. Naturally, this cannot possibly sit well with Tehran, which already believes itself to be the affected party.
Iran was quite satisfied with the JCPOA. Naturally, it had to make concessions to the West and restrict its nuclear programme, but in exchange, the harsh sanctions were lifted from Iran, which gave it new opportunities for trade and investment.
However, the change of power in the US laid bare a new obstacle in the way of Iran's politics: a new president in the United States means a new political course for the country.
It is clear that mere promises on the part of the United States will be insufficient to conclude an agreement, even if these promises take the form of the provisions of a new treaty. The new agreement should stipulate guarantees against the easy unilateral withdrawal by any of the parties from the treaty. This may inspire confidence in Tehran.
The Trump administration represented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a list of demands for Tehran which, once fulfilled, should lead to the sanctions being lifted. The list included 12 items (a 13th was added later on) calling upon Iran to withdraw its troops from Iraq and Syria; cease supporting such organisations as Hamas and Hezbollah and so on. Naturally, it is quite difficult to picture Iran complying with even half of these demands.
Clearly, the greatest threat coming from Iran is the prospect of it developing nuclear weapons. When it comes to the nuclear deterrence with regard to Iran, two factors are important for the United States: the possibility of verifying compliance on the part of Iran with its obligations and the term of the JCPOA's validity. At the same time, the demands of the United States concerning the provisions of the new treaty largely depend on the true intentions of the Trump administration. In that regard, at least two scenarios are possible.
Firstly, Trump will have to convince Iran to enter into talks again and draft a new deal in such a way as to 'save face'. He cannot just bring back the original JCPOA.
It would suffice to make certain cosmetic changes that would be presented as significant concessions on the part of Iran and a victory of the "maximum pressure" strategy.
Secondly the Trump administration continues to assert the effectiveness of the "maximum pressure" strategy and still hopes to force Tehran to engage in talks on Washington's terms. If the Trump administration continues to believe the "maximum pressure" strategy is a success, concluding a treaty will hinge on Iran making significant concessions. The question is what 'red lines' Washington will draw. If the United States continues to stick to its 13 demands, the prospects of a new treaty are doomed. In this case, the only solution is the use of military force against Tehran. Trump's readiness to start a new war in the Middle East is doubtful, especially since abstaining from needless conflicts is a key element of the politics of the current US president. Consequently, the only way out of the current predicament is to look for a compromise.
It is quite clear that the JCPOA if taken as an instrument of a comprehensive settlement of all threats coming from Iran, is far from perfect. Nevertheless, it did guarantee the main thing - that Tehran could not obtain nuclear weapons, the prospect of which far outweighs all other threats emanating from the country. Thus far, there is no alternative to this agreement, and no replacement appears to be in the offing. At the same time, Iran continues to hide aces up its sleeves. Sooner or later, the emerging situation will force the Trump Administration to make the difficult choice between the JCPOA and a new war in the Middle East. It is hard to say which is the preferred option for Washington, but it still seems that a bad peace is better than a good war.
- Russian International Affairs Council Pyotr Kortunov is Program Assistant at the
Russian International Affairs Council