Iran as a Litmus Test

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times May 2, 2019 21:09

Iran as a Litmus Test

By Akri Çipa

 As we approach the one-year anniversary of the withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, the debate about that decision is still ongoing. This debate has been fueled by the U.S. Administration that has continued its confrontational approach towards Iran, but without offering, so far, a real alternative to the previously stipulated deal. At the same time the debate has been regenerated also by the chorus of Democratic presidential hopefuls that have started to agree on the idea that the U.S. could and should rejoin the agreement. Although it is not being acknowledged though, this debate goes beyond the mere nuclear agreement with Iran. As it stands, U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran is greatly indicative about the envisioned future role of the United States in the world and in the evolving international system. It is thus worth analyzing the two visions that are being juxtaposed in this debate and that have the potential to be quite consequential.

The first one is the one fueling the actions of the current U.S. Administration and its “maximum pressure” strategy towards Iran. The U.S. Administration declared the past week that it would cancel the sanction waivers granted to a select group of countries to continue importing Iranian oil when the sanctions on Iran’s banking, energy, and shipping industries were reimposed. The waivers were per se issued to permit eight countries – that include China, India, Egypt, and Turkey – the possibility to curtail Iranian oil imports gradually.

The so-called “maximum pressure” strategy started in itself with the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, on the premises that it was a bad agreement – with sunset provisions that gave expiration dates for the restrictions on Iran’s enrichment program and that did not address at all Iran’s destabilizing activities in the wider Middle East region. Part of this strategy was also Trump’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization – the first time that a foreign government’s military is designated as such in the international stage.

The problem with the current strategy is that it does not offer a cohesive roadmap to a desired outcome – it is a strategy, but not a policy. Sometimes it has been suggested that a new deal, revised and perfected, from the U.S. perspective, with Iran would be welcome, while other times it is has been implied that the ultimate solution and end goal is regime change. Nevertheless, it is important to see that this is fundamentally an assertive positioning of the United States. Though not quite enriched in details and elevated with a roadmap to a well-designed policy, the “maximum pressure” strategy can be translated into a still dominant role in world affairs for the United States. On this premise, though it challenges and moves away from the norms of the international liberal system of post-1990s, with its unilateral decisions and freeriding, the United States is still able to influence developments all over the globe.

The other vision very much considers this ability already lost. A competing vision has started to be floated around, especially by some of the presidential hopefuls that are running to challenge President Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Almost all of them criticized the decision to abandon the Iran deal and now many of them have expressed readiness to reenter the deal if they win the presidency and if Iran continues abiding by the agreement. The premise behind this idea underlines a fundamentally different future role for the United States in the international system. Those that support reentering the JCPOA under the current circumstances, seem to believe that U.S. role in the world needs and will be recalibrated and its ability to influence world affairs and control adversaries scaled down in the near future.

If a Democrat wins the presidential election in 2020, he or she would face the inevitable reality of being only a few years away from the sunset provisions. And they would have to think about what happens after that. Secondly, but equally important, the rationale behind Obama’s administration for the Iran deal will not be applicable any more. The rationale was that by prohibiting Iran to continue its nuclear program and reintegrating it in the international system, one of two possible outcomes would occur. Either Iran’s regime would be lured to a cooperative stance due to not being considered an outcast and not being threatened anymore with regime change. Or regime change would happen organically when the highly educated Iranians, seeing the economic benefits and innumerable possibilities for prosperity and freedom, would consider the current regime outdated and inhibitory to realizing their potential. Through this scenario planning, the Obama administration played a bet based on what they considered to be a system ripe for intervention.

The situation that a U.S. President would face in 2021 is totally different and there is no indicator that those assumptions still hold. The current regime in Iran proved to be resilient. Despite the early 2018 protests in Iran, the government showed no cracks or signs of weakness. Despite the difficult economic conditions from the current sanctions, and the resulting high inflation and unemployment, and, of course, the decrease in oil exports, the regime has shown it still has its hold on power and internal regime change, despite all expectations, seems more like wishful thinking than a concrete possibility. Reentering the Iran deal now would mean accepting the realities in the ground as given, and not believing in the ability of the U.S. to reshape the playing field. This is the second vision that seems to be getting quite traction and that it outlines a pessimistic view of the limited capabilities and role of the U.S. in the international system.

The Democratic primary is still in its early stages and many of the candidates, including the presumed front-runner, former Vice-President Joe Biden, have yet to offer their policies and perspectives as concern Iran and other international challenges. There is still possibility for other visions and foreign policy doctrines to be elevated. But, as it stands, currently there are these two fundamentally different visions that have hijacked the discourse and that will potentially define not only the strategic stance towards Iran’s nuclear ambitions and activities in the Middle East, but, most importantly, the fundamental conceptualization of America’s future in world affairs.  

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times May 2, 2019 21:09