Playing with Fire & Devils
Even in Iraq’s Shi’a south, the local Arabs mock the Persians across the Shatt al-Arab waterway for worshipping fire. It’s a little pre-Muslim dig at Zoroastrianism’s central symbol. To the frustration of Iran’s mullahs, old habits die hard - Zoroastrian style wedding ceremonies involving prayers around a fire are so popular in Iran that they were banned in 2019. Still, given the way that Tehran is carrying on about re-entering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) which President Trump walked away from in 2018, you could argue that the government still worships fire from above.
In an article in Foreign Affairs last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif argued that if the US were to re-enter the deal as it was negotiated then so would Iran. If, however, the Biden administration seeks to extract further concessions to re-enter the agreed upon deal, then the opportunity for a non-nuclear Iran will be lost. Zarif makes a persuasive argument, and I’ll admit it, I’ve always liked the guy. On the other hand, not trusting people further than you can throw them is no real reason not to like someone. I have plenty of friends I won’t play poker with. So straightforward is Zarif’s argument, and so clear the willingness to return to the deal, that is raises the question: Why?
The short answer, and it lays in a blind-spot the foreign minister is deliberately notseeing, is that the atomic situation on the ground has changed considerably since the United States unilaterally walked away from the deal in 2018. True, the deal was naive and overly optimistic in an Obama sort of way, but Trump’s walk-out for his “maximum pressure” campaign only made things worse. It left Iran with the legal freedom to double down on its nuclear research at the exact moment the situation was needlessly escalating.
Since the U.S. exited from the deal, Iran has drastically increased its nuclear capabilities – including centrifuge research technology that has significantly shortened it’s break-out time for a nuclear weapon - increasing Tehran’s leverage while reducing Washington’s. Iran is now looking to take advantage of a certain post-Trump sheepishness in US foreign policy to re-enter a deal that, while better than nothing, failed is its wider objectives: to blunt Iran’s hardliners in favor of its moderate middle class.
Simply returning to the old JCPA plan, however, isn’t an option. It was hammered out for an Iran much further from going nuclear that it is today. And with the looming sunset provisions of the deal looming only a few years down the road, Iran has affectively run through the opening that Trump’s gambit created. Any hope of achieving those wider objectives now lies in the fact that a nuclear weapon was never really the end game. Muammar Gaddafi’s rush to a nuclear weapon for Libya was always just a bargaining chip – a dangerous weapon to give up in return for what he really wanted. Like the Libyan Sun King, preservation of the of the Iranian regime was always the end game for the regime, not – rhetoric aside - a deep desire to turn Israel into a patch of glass. The Islamic republic would not exist after using a nuclear weapon, and Tehran knows it.
The rulers of Persia have been using the threat of cleansing fire of the divine since Darius the Great declared himself the agent of Ahura Mazda twenty-six centuries ago. In light of the greater Middle East’s rapprochement with Israel it’s a threat Iran is making simply because they know it causes a panic in the rest of the world. The Supreme Leader and the mullahs running the country are holding the proverbial wolf by the ears – they need an outside devil to draw focus abroad, rather than at the rot at home. Saddam Hussein, who never quite figured out to rule Iraq as a peacetime society – he had to keep invading somewhere for the same reason.
Forced regime change in Iran won’t happen: Politically, neither the American voter nor the rest of the world would stand for it, and practically a destabilized Iran is in no one’s best interest. The United States needs to re-enter some deal that gets us back to the international table in order to de-escalate a situation that is dangerously close to nuclear break-out. We can’t really control Iran, so we need to think harder about simple denial. What the regime actually wants – and is perfectly willing to trade nuclear capabilities for – are the benefits from trade and investment with the wider world.
If we can admit that we played a bad hand and lost both the legal and moral high ground, our next hand should be get it back by tying sanctions to human rights. Iran’s moderate center – which ironically includes the largest Jewish population of the Muslim world – wants to engage in with the West in both trade and scientific exchange. We should support that faction by making it costly for Tehran to silence them, and tie that to access to the wider markets. There is where the aims of Iran, the United States and the rest of the world converge – in a stabilized Iran that doesn’t need an army of foreign devils to justify its existence.