International relations, National security | The World

21 April 2016

Despite Ayatollah Khamenei’s rhetoric, the future of the nuclear deal is secure, so long as Iran and the US abandon their mutual distrust of each other,Siniša Vuković writes.

The election of reformist forces in Iran has been praised in the West as an implicit voter approval of the recent nuclear deal. Yet on 30 March Iran’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated that “anyone who thinks negotiations are more important than building a missile system are traitors”. This may seem as if Iran is split on the issue of the nuclear deal, however a closer look reveals that Khamenei’s warning could be just a carefully executed tactical move intended to improve Iran’s bargaining position with the West.

The agreement is a true accomplishment. This is especially true for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a landmark settlement between Iran and world powers, which paved the way for a new era of cooperation. Yet the negotiation process does not end with the official signing of an agreement. The true challenge is to make it stick, so it does not become yet another scrap of paper.

Given the high levels of suspicion, mistrust and uncertainty that have defined US-Iran relations for more than three decades, the implementation process may be more tenuous than the actual bargaining was.

Implementation represents the true measure of cooperation and rapprochement between the parties. While an agreement may indicate that the parties have realised their current relationship has drawbacks, committing to an agreement shows the degree to which the parties are willing to change their relationships. In the case of Iran and the US, despite the signing of JCPOA, there is still a high degree of uncertainty about each other’s intentions. As a result, on occasions their relations tend to relapse into antagonism.

In fact, since the signing of JCPOA, the US and Iran have never fully trusted each other, and have maintained their pre-JCPOA belligerent rhetoric. A highly recalcitrant US Congress, committed to undermining any agreement with Iran, has induced the Obama administration to preserve its patriotic credentials through rhetoric that still depicts Iran as a potential security threat. This echoes US policies of the past, when Washington officials saw scaling back on punishment (i.e. reducing the imposed sanctions) as the only inducement for Iran to begin cooperating.

Despite the White House, State Department and Capitol Hill’s claims that the main driver for JCPOA was an effective sanctions regime, the truth is it was more a product of regime transformation in both countries – the reformulation of the US’ position of no nuclear program at all, to accepting a peaceful and monitored nuclear program for Iran, and most importantly offering incentives for Iranian cooperation (especially with Europe) that go beyond the nuances of the nuclear deal.

More on this: Sanctions, strategy, and Iran’s nuclear deal | Ramesh Thakur

Tehran’s behaviour shows it has the same attitude as the US, and Khamenei’s statement is just an illustration of it. Iran’s decision to double down on its missile system can be seen both as a reaction to and a source of US’ decision to still treat Iran as a serious security threat. As long as the two sides continue securitizing one another (and in the case of Iran, Israel as well), uncertainty and mistrust will persist. Both sides will not shy away from resorting to accusatory rhetoric and promoting deterrence – the Iranian missile system parallels the already-installed NATO defence missile system in Europe – as they signal that they still have the means to react with aggression.

Although it takes time to reduce mistrust and promote cooperation, JCPOA has certainly shown that it can be done. The election of reformist forces in Iran may be a signal that Rouhani’s government has done a solid job selling the benefits of wider cooperation with the West to his people.

This may have been prompted by Europe signalling a strong commitment to resetting its relations with Iran, in order to produce mutually beneficial results in trade, energy, and security (especially in the light of the recent migrant crisis).

While this may be an enticing opportunity for the Iranian government and Europe, the US still needs to be convinced. A crucial step toward the much-anticipated cooperation from all sides will be in the unhindered implementation of JCPOA.

However, full transformation of their relationships will only be possible if they trickle down this cooperation onto other spheres of their socio-economic affairs. Since the implementation of the JCPOA is still in its embryonic stage, sporadic calls for deterrence measures are to be expected. With an implemented JCPOA this rhetoric will become just a distant memory.

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Vuković, S. (2016). Iran’s elections and the nuclear deal - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: