Iran and the nuclear deal: the politics of procrastination
Over a decade ago I attended a meeting in London with senior Iranian foreign ministry officials discussing prospects for a resolution of the burgeoning crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme. Despite concerted diplomatic efforts by the Europeans, the absence of the United States undermined the negotiations and ensured that any progress was now stalled. I pleaded with the Iranians to reach a resolution with the Europeans, to compromise where necessary, and avoid the impasse turning into a confrontation that would fester and poison relations for some time to come. With characteristic nonchalance, the lead Iranian delegate pronounced that ‘the leadership’ had concluded that they would not need to make a decision on the programme for another ten years.
I came away from that meeting somewhat dispirited by the response, even if on the face it, his prediction of ‘ten years’ appeared to be quite prescient. It did indeed take a decade for a resolution to be reached. Strategic patience, it could be argued, had yielded results. Yet my frustration related to something deeper within the wider foreign policy establishment, the willingness to defer problems, and to ‘manage’ issues rather than resolve them. Procrastination has been elevated in some circles to an art and few do procrastination as well as the Iranians. They have in many ways, taken a bureaucratic vice and transformed it into an ill conceived virtue. Time and the tedium associated with it, it is argued, ensures that any agreement finally reached is truly valued. But it also breeds a dangerous complacency with missed opportunities that may undermine and weaken any resolution.
Iran’s nuclear programme remains a valuable case in point. Iranian officials take some satisfaction from the knowledge that their patience was repaid with a formal acceptance of the country’s ‘right’ to enrich uranium. But this satisfaction came at a considerable cost to the country, not only in economic terms but in terms of political and human capital. A decade of isolation comes at a price, not only the extensive costs of the programme itself but of the opportunity costs incurred from the loss of business and economic growth and in the political price paid by a society whose ‘rights’ were subsumed under that of the state’s. Iran finally entered negotiations in a political and economic situation that was considerably weaker than that which it found itself in 2003. Not least because in its decade of isolation it failed to appreciate just how far the global economy, to say nothing of economic practices, had changed around them.
The negotiations themselves began in secret in Oman in 2012 as American and Iranian officials began to thrash out the framework for a resolution in the aftermath of the imposition of the most severe sanctions ever imposed on the country. So much had been achieved that President-elect Rouhani was confounded when faced with the news in 2013 and as the formal process started, there was much conjecture that a resolution could be reached much quicker than anyone expected. Yet the talks dragged on, towards the first of many deadlines, in this case the US mid term elections which would see control of Congress pass to the Republicans. Seen as critical at the time, it was soon dismissed as unimportant even though this meant that any hope the agreement might be ratified as a Treaty firmly anchored within US law, had now been dashed. Obama would now have to handle this as an Executive ‘agreement’ with no legal bearing and dependent on the President to regularly waive sanctions. By the following year in the summer of 2015 as the American’s urged resolution before their Presidential election cycle began in earnest, the time left to effectively ‘bed down’ the agreement had been critically reduced.
This might explain why President Rouhani moved with unaccustomed alacrity to adhere to the terms of the agreement by restricting aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme in return for much needed sanction relief. Meanwhile, his domestic opponents went out of their way to be as provocative as they could towards the United States, arresting dual nationals, boasting of their missile technology (with frequent launches), and massively escalating their involvement in Syria, as well as other regional hotspots. The consequence of all this was that the political mood soured much more quickly than anticipated leaving many outstanding issues unresolved as Obama’s tenure wound down and the prospect of a Trump Presidency became a reality. The three main areas of disagreement – missile technology, the ‘sunset’ clauses and perhaps most immediately, the paucity of the sanctions relief – were thus left to fester and further undermine a trust that was meant to be reinforced in this crucial period. Indeed once Trump became President, the agreement was already heading towards life support.
But these wasted opportunities, the consequences of an embedded politics of procrastination were as nothing as compared to the costs of ten years of self inflicted isolation. As Iran’s negotiators re-entered the fray on earnest in 2013 they proved as over-confident as they were under-prepared for the economic realities they faced. They failed to appreciate the changes that had impacted the financial markets since 2008, the importance of the digital economy and the further advances in globalisation this engendered. They failed to properly appreciate the scale of the sanctions regime that had been constructed against them, or the systematic means it could be unwound.
Above all, the real failure on both sides however was to see the nuclear crisis as a cause rather than a symptom of the wider malaise in US-Iranian relations; to regard a solution to the nuclear crisis as the key by which all other outstanding matters would naturally resolve themselves almost as an effortless consequence of the Nuclear Agreement. In failing to see the (extensive) wood for the ‘tree’, both sides chose to defer rather than deal with the wider issues that were essential for the sustenance and ultimate success of the agreement. In failing to see the agreement fundamentally as a process that needed to be energetically supported and cemented, they fatally undermined any progress that was achieved. Dithering and deferral may have its diplomatic uses, but it should never be regarded as a virtue.
Ali M Ansari is chair of Middle East Studies at the University of St Andrews and President of the British Institute of Persian Studies. He is the author of many books including Confronting Iran: the Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Roots of Mistrust (C Hurst & Co), Iran: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press) and The Politics of Nationalism in Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press).