Iran Wants Strong U.S. Guarantees, and Is Offering Little in Return

In return for its demands, the Islamic Republic is promising nothing but a vague willingness to roll back the significant nuclear advances it has made since 2019 following Trump's withdrawal from the JCPOA

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Iran's newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi speaks during his swearing in ceremony at the Iranian parliament in the capital Tehran on August 5, 2021.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during his swearing-in ceremony at the Iranian parliament in August.Credit: Atta Kenare / AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

The last senior Iranian I spoke with was Qassem, a jovial taxi driver in Washington. Qassem, who said he was a nuclear physicist by training (he probably wasn’t), fled the 1979 Islamic Revolution, fearing for his life.

He adamantly claimed that the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, rarely made a move on nuclear and international issues without consulting him and his brother Ali, also a nuclear physicist (he probably wasn’t). If you’re wondering about Ali’s fate, he's also driving a cab and is based in the Virginia suburb of Crystal City.

Qassem drove me from Georgetown to Capitol Hill in heavy traffic, so he managed to cover the issues spanning from Cyrus the Great’s Persian Empire to Iran’s enmity with the Arab world, regional hegemonic ambitions and the current nuclear talks.

I’m mentioning Qassem because he had valuable insights into Iranian thinking. It’s nothing you don’t know from reading about Iran’s unique mixture of history, theology, society and politics, and Qassem’s comments were no more astute than those by Iran scholars, analysts and seasoned intelligence officers. But this was simple and complex at the same time.

The United States’ decision to leave the nuclear accord was a catastrophe, Qassem commented on 19th Street, across from the White House. It played right into the Iranians’ hands. You know how volatile the region is? Where was the upside?

You know, I said, the former Israeli defense minister and the former army chief agree with you. Sure, Qassem nodded, but where were they in 2018?

You have to understand where the Iranians are coming from. Like Russia, in their heart and self-image they’re heirs to a grand and powerful empire. Iran perceives itself as a civilization. Both have inferiority complexes because America is bullying them, Qassem said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian during a visit to Russia in October.Credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev / AP

This should explain to you why they seem reluctant and stubborn. They just don’t believe America. They think in terms of decades or generations, not presidential elections every four years.

After the last – and seventh – round of talks in Vienna, the one that resumed and soon adjourned again Thursday, there seemed to be disappointment and a little anger among American, European and reportedly also Russian negotiators regarding the Iranians’ intransigence. They’re reneging on understandings while “pocketing the concessions,” one European diplomat was quoted as bitterly remarking.

Just ask the CIA

Why this confounded and surprised anyone is unclear. As early as June, skepticism was brewing in Washington about the Iranians’ real intentions. Are they serious? Are they just stalling to consolidate their status as a “nuclear threshold state” and then hoping to renegotiate in about a year?

Do they genuinely want a return to the nuclear accord? Do they understand and are they willing to accept the conditions and do what’s necessary to facilitate that? Do they realize the potential repercussions if they don’t?

The answer to all that is “yes they do,” but on their terms and not before they take us through a long, tedious and exasperating negotiating process. “It’s how we do things,” both in the bazaar and in international politics, Qassem said laughing.

As vile and dangerous a threat as Iran may pose, it’s important to understand how they see things.

Mohammad Eslami, the new head of Iran's nuclear agency, left, and Iran's governor to the IAEA, Kazem Gharib Abadi, in Vienna this year. Credit: Lisa Leutner / AP

From the outset, Iran has said something very simple: We adhered to the 2015 agreement, we complied with monitoring, we respected inspection and we made no advances in our nuclear program. The United States unilaterally withdrew in May 2018 without cause or justification and used the pretext of “it was a bad agreement, you violated it, your regional policies are unacceptable.” Then it reimposed harsh sanctions on the Iranian people.

First, the Iranians argue, bad or good, you signed the agreement. Second, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, we didn’t violate the agreement. The supposed proof that Israel came up with in 2017 and 2018 relates to pre-2015 data. In fact, since 2003 we’ve curtailed our nuclear military development. Your CIA says that, if you don’t believe us.

Third, our regional policies are no different from other countries’ pursuit of their interests. And anyway, the nuclear agreement is limited to the nuclear issue, not what we do or don’t do in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. So if you want a return to a modified agreement, the natural prerequisite is that you lift the sanctions, allow us access to $100 billion of our money and assets, and then we can start negotiating.

1,200 sanctions

In return, Iran is offering essentially nothing. Had President Joe Biden rushed to an agreement, as he was falsely accused of both in Israel and the United States, he would have lifted some sanctions as a confidence-building measure and then entered negotiations. But apparently, Iran contends, this isn’t an American priority, so why should we compromise at this stage?

Furthermore, many of the more than 1,200 sanctions imposed on Iran after May 2018 stem from anti-terror laws, which means Congress needs to lift them rather than a presidential executive order. The president won’t mire himself in an unnecessary confrontation in Congress. This just isn’t a prime priority, and Iran knows that.

So what are Iran’s requests now? Aside from lifting sanctions and a return to the 2017 status quo ante, Iran wants assurances that a different administration in, say 2025, won’t reimpose sanctions. This is especially critical in Iran’s oil sector, where contracts are long-term and require predictability. The same applies to foreign investment: It won’t arrive if the specter of renewed sanctions in the next few years lingers.

Iran is essentially asking for predictability and guarantees. It wants $20 billion to $30 billion to be unfrozen. In return, Iran is promising nothing at this stage but a vague willingness to roll back the significant nuclear advances made since it began violating the agreement in June 2019.

A strategic calculus also underlines the Iranians’ posture. They believe that a favorable asymmetry has emerged: The United States can’t really exert more economic pressure than it already has. First, Iran has withstood the pressure. But even if more U.S. sanctions are implemented, some of this, Tehran hopes, will be compensated for in a “strategic partnership” with China. The Iranians may be very wrong about this and may be dangerously exaggerating their sense of power, but their demeanor suggests that this is what they think.

On the other side of the equation, the Iranians are capable of applying more pressure via further progress in the nuclear program, extended use of IR-6 and IR-8 centrifuges and more enriched uranium. Israel believes they’re making the necessary preparations – though without concrete actions – for producing military-grade uranium enriched to 90 percent. All this can be done without crossing the nuclear threshold. This, Iran believes, will exact more compromises from the United States.

Vienna isn’t binary. Failure to reach an agreement doesn’t mean an inevitable military conflagration, neither with the United States nor, despite explicit and implicit threats, with Israel. Deep down, Israel is ambivalent and not entirely against an agreement. Arguably, an agreement that Israel will vociferously oppose is a better outcome than no agreement at all.

On Monday, CIA Director William Burns told The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council gathering that there is no evidence Iran has decided to weaponize its nuclear capability. This exposes the perception gap between the United States and Israel: The United States can live with a “threshold state” Iran, while Israel claims it can’t but may be forced to. It’s a vexing dilemma that requires Israel to revisit policy, and it’s also a part of Iran’s negotiating tactics.

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