Zachary Keck

Why Tehran Loves Iran Hawks

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Zachary Keck

Why Tehran Loves Iran Hawks

However well-intentioned, Iran hawks in the U.S. threaten to advance Tehran’s nuclear agenda.

Why Tehran Loves Iran Hawks
Credit: Flickr/State Department

Last week I had the pleasure of writing a piece for Fareed Zakaria’s GPS blog, which argued that the U.S. should agree to an extension of the P5+1-Iran talks over the latter’s nuclear program.

In the piece, I danced around a point that deserves to be expounded upon; namely, that Iranian leaders love Iran hawks in the U.S., West and Arab world.

Foreign Policy’s John Hudson has been the go-to source as of late on Congressional Iran hawks’ efforts to disrupt the current negotiations. These efforts appear to be as misguided as they are well-intentioned. That is, while I generally believe U.S. Iran hawks want to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, their actions work at cross-purposes with that goal.

A case in point is Hudson’s reporting on a plan floating around Capitol Hill that was written by Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Richard Goldberg, the former senior foreign-policy advisor to Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk. As Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is quoted as saying in the Foreign Policy article: “This plan will elicit a lot of support on the Hill…. They [Dubowitz and Goldberg] have an enormous amount of sway on the Hill on the issue of sanctions, both because of their expertise and their energetic efforts to advance their case.”

Hudson reports that, in essence, the plan urges “Congress to oppose the lifting of financial sanctions on Iran until it proves that its entire financial sector, including the Central Bank of Iran, has sworn off support for terrorism, money-laundering, and proliferation.”

This first of all is completely at odds with the entire sanctions strategy. The U.S. nuclear sanctions against Iran are a coercive strategy. As such, its success depends on America’s credibility in threatening to maintain or even strengthen the sanctions against Iran for its continued non-compliance on the nuclear front, as well as credibly promising to lift the sanctions if Iran begins complying with its nuclear demands. The second part is just as essential to the strategy’s success as the first. Thus, although Dubowitz and Goldberg were influential players in advancing America’s sanctions strategy against Iran, they are apparently now seeking to sabotage its success.

More importantly, however, it’s hard to imagine the plan looking much different if Iranian hardliners had been the ones writing it. The U.S. failing to lift nuclear sanctions after a deal is reached because of possible money-laundering would be an ideal situation for Iran. On the one hand, it would enable Iran to restart advancing its nuclear program without any real restrictions in place. On the other hand, America sabotaging a deal would provide Iran with financial relief as the sanctions regime it currently faces begins unraveling.

This points to a crucial point that seems to be lost on many people inside the Beltway. Namely, since its inception, the Iran nuclear crisis has in large part been a battle between Tehran and Washington over who is to blame for the crisis.

As Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the spokesperson for Iran’s negotiating team between 2003 and 2005, details in his memoirs, when Iran’s nuclear program was first unveiled to the world in 2002, few in power in Tehran were concerned. Then, Iranian policymakers realized that the issue had resonance outside of Washington and Tel Aviv, and they began panicking because they realized it was an issue the U.S. could use to rally international support for America’s pressure campaign against Iran (Most Iranian leaders have always maintained that the U.S. isn’t actually concerned about Iran building a bomb. Rather, they argue that the U.S. just finds the nuclear issue to be useful in gaining international support for a pressure campaign they have mounted against Iran since the Iranian hostage crisis.)

This, according to Mousavian, was a crucial reason why Iran entered into diplomatic negotiations with the EU+3 (France, the UK, and Germany) between 2003 and 2005, and generally began engaging the international community on the nuclear issue. They also made overtures to the U.S. during this time. Of course, during the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. refused to seriously negotiate with Iran unless Tehran agreed to dismantle most of its nuclear program before talks began. As a result, the global perception was that the U.S. was at least as guilty as Iran for the continuation of crisis. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration found little international support for serious sanctions.

The Obama administration changed this with its unprecedented overtures to Iran upon entering into office. Equally important, the domestic political crisis that followed the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election left Tehran unable to agree to what was widely viewed as the quite reasonable fuel swap proposal in late 2009 and early 2010. Iran’s refusal to agree to the deal caused it to be seen as the party at fault for the continuation of the nuclear crisis. This in turn created concern around the world that Iran’s nuclear program actually might have sinister purposes.

Consequentially, the UN Security Council (with some American arm-twisting) agreed to serious sanctions for the first time. In addition, the European Union agreed to a full embargo on Iranian oil as well as on sanctions on its shipping companies. Finally, the world largely acquiesced to the U.S. financial sanctions which black list any third party that conducts financial transactions with sanctioned Iranian individuals and entities.

This has proved disastrous for Iran and is what Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are hoping to change. Both men are almost certainly willing to sign a final nuclear agreement. However, they also realize that pressure from Capitol Hill and Middle Eastern allies may prevent the Obama administration from lifting U.S. sanctions (at least permanently). Their goal throughout the talks has therefore been to be excessively reasonable and accommodating in addressing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. They have also sought to change the perception of Iran through the force of their own personalities and willingness to engage Western media (both traditional and social).

In the best case scenario, this allows them to ink a nuclear agreement that: recognizes Iran’s right to enrich, removes the sanctions and eases or eliminates Iran’s diplomatic isolation. This would be a major win for Iran, and thus for Rouhani and Zarif politically. In the worst case scenario, the U.S. is unable to reciprocate Iran’s overtures and thus the international perception shifts back to the U.S. being at fault for the crisis. In addition, Iran’s willingness to agree to substantive restrictions on its nuclear program significantly reduces concern that it is seeking a nuclear weapon.

In this scenario, as noted above, Iran can resume its nuclear work inhibited. In addition, the EU will begin rolling back its own sanctions against Iran and the international community will collectively begin devising mechanisms to get around U.S. financial sanctions. Too many countries have too many interests in Iran for them to continue snubbing Tehran simply because the U.S. doesn’t like it. Thus, even in the worst case scenario, Rouhani and Zarif can still make the case at home that its engagement strategy was in Iran’s interest because it substantially eased sanctions without Iran having to make any concessions.

This is an important point for Iran’s domestic debates. To oversimplify greatly, in recent years there have been two foreign policy camps inside Tehran. One camp, led by reformists and especially moderates and pragmatists, argues that Iran can best advance its regional and global interests through engagement, which weakens Israeli, Arab, and American efforts to isolate the country. The other camp, formerly led by individuals like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and current speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani, argues that confrontation is the best approach. This camp contends that by demonstrating strength and resolve, Iran can raise the costs of Israeli, Arab and American efforts to isolate it. At some point, they argue, these costs will become too high and the other parties will have to seek to accommodate Iran. When they do, Iran will be able to negotiate from a position of strength.

Rouhani and Zarif have long been members of the engagement camp. Thus, by demonstrating success in the nuclear talks, Rouhani and Zarif can score a huge victory for their foreign policy approach (especially given that confrontation, at least by the end of Ahmadinejad’s time in office, carried unbearable costs). This is likely one of the reasons why some Iranian hardliners have joined their American counterparts in trying to scuttle the talks. However, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has given the Iranian administration enough leeway to continue to present Iran’s nuclear position as completely reasonable.

Consequentially, Iran appears set to gain from the P5+1 talks no matter their outcome. The U.S. may still emerge victorious as well by securing substantial restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program that greatly reduce the possibility of an Iranian bomb. However, Iran hawks in Washington and the Middle East appear bent on preventing that outcome. Although not the hawks’ intention, their own success would substantially advance Iran’s nuclear agenda (not unlike how the Iran hawks during the George W. Bush administration inadvertently strengthened Iran’s position in the Middle East).