Continuing from our Holes in the Story of the Iran Nuclear Deal. This is the second installment in “Spotlight on Central Asia”, an American Pigeon Foreign Affairs serial analysis of policy and events surrounding U.S. security issues, and human rights petitions, within Iran and Central Asia.
Iran nuclear talks continue. On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal writes that “differences splinter” the U.S. team negotiating with the Islamic Republic.
Recent reports state that Russia attempted to negotiate an “interim deal” that the IRGC eventually ruled out. Meanwhile, news analysts with The Jerusalem Post have pondered how much longer the United States and its Western allies will continue dragging out the talks. News analyst Lahav Harkov notes that the IRGC is “taking advantage” of these lengthy delays.
Protracted Negotiations Questioned
On January 19, Axios quoted a U.S. official as saying that the talks would “require faster diplomacy” or “slower nuclear advances.” The U.S. is indirectly participating in the talks that are currently staged between the IRGC, China, Germany, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. The U.S. officials quoted by Axios say that they are prepared to deal, but that they are also prepared for the JCPOA’s demise.
On Jan. 20, Reuters wrote that a “decisive” moment is looming, as Western powers see only weeks to revive the deal. President Biden said in a recent press conference that it is “not time to give up” on the deal. The Wall Street Journal writes that the negotiators are seeking to add “assurance” for the Iranian regime that they will not abort the deal a second time, including proposed letters from the U.S. Treasury Department. Arms Control Association writes that all negotiators are “giving their impression” that the deal is progressing as they want.
The White House Press Office escalates its public messaging surrounding Donald Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal as this critical moment nears. On January 20, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki continued to emphasize the administration’s perception of the error of Trump’s decision.
“There are realities, though, here of what we’re looking at because of the decision by the last president to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, which means Iran is much closer to developing the fissile materials they need. They are — we have no transparency or visibility as we had when we were in the deal. There have been more attacks around the world on our allies and partners,” said Psaki, see this White House Press Office transcript.
Public commentators analyze foreign and domestic political backlash as the decision approaches. From either end of partisan opinion, response to the JCPOA final outcome is expected to be controversial.
An example of this controversy can be observed in the recent announcement that author and former U.S. Deputy Special Envoy Richard Nephew, a member of the Iran deal negotiation team, has left the team. Nephew was appointed as a deputy envoy to the initial JCPOA’s negotiation table by Special Envoy Robert Malley, writes The Jerusalem Post.
The Post followed up Wall Street Journal’s reports that Malley left the negotiation table in December, citing differing opinions from the team, signaling a fracture among the negotiators. Nephew was one of two others who left the talks because they “want a harder negotiation stance,” writes The Jerusalem Post.
A U.S. State Department official informed The Jerusalem Post that Special Envoy Robert Malley continues to pursue talks alongside his deputy Jarret Blanc, and senior advisor and former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. Reuters likewise wrote that, as of Tuesday, Iran deal talks “intensified.”
JCPOA advocates argue “no-win” scenario; pro-democracy groups call critical review
Western officials continue to argue that the JCPOA is the only answer to imminent danger from Iran’s nuclear force. Yet, Iranian pro-democracy activists, former hostages of the IRGC regime, and Iranian diaspora pro-democracy policy educators warn that this may be too narrow a view.
A Clash of Policy Ideas
These groups argue that the Western negotiators do not understand the cultural context of the Ayatollah’s regime. Because of this cultural divide, these groups warn that the U.S. is gravely over-optimistic that the JCPOA deal will work.
They caution that the Ayatollah will not truly negotiate regardless of whether or not a deal is made because his regime’s theology requires him to lie when such lies serve his preceived interests of Islam.
These groups note that the IRGC has continued its nuclear program, and amplified it, even when the terms of a deal were in place.
What JCPOA Advocates Believe
Those in favor of the JCPOA maintain that the negotiations are dire and remain the only real solution toward the question of a nuclear Iran. Author and former diplomat Professor Dennis Coleman Jett was adamant that the JCPOA was, in his view, the only non-militarized solution to the issue of IRGC weapons development.
Critics Caution Against Pro-JCPOA Lobby, Citing Public Scandal
Jett is a career diplomat who wrote Why Peacekeeping Fails, and American Ambassadors. He has appeared as a guest speaker of the National Iranian American Council, a lobby group presenting American-Iranian legislation.
The NIAC’s views have been subjected to its opposition’s criticism, due to its members and affiliates associates with the Jack Abramoff scandal that surfaced in 2005-2006.
Abramoff was “the central figure” of the “biggest corruption scandal in generations,” wrote The Washington Post, Dec. 29, 2005.
Abramoff, along with former Congressman Bob Ney, created an elaborate “money for political favors” ring in the early 2000s era. NIAC has been under the opposition’s questioning as Ney and Abramoff were associates of the council’s founder, Trita Parsi, and his many lobbying efforts. A repository of public documents regarding the Abramoff scandal can be found at this wiki.
Professor Jett has previously spoken at meetings of the NIAC, see this press release from 2013. Criticism of the group, as well as the views of its members, was covered in this review by Tablet magazine.
Jett’s Views Are That a Deal Is Dire
When Jett was asked if there are alternative policies or processes to the current Iran talks advocating a return to the JCPOA agreement, he was adamant that none were feasible:
“Yes, we could bomb them or just ignore them. Neither solves the problem, and the former has lots of implications for wider military actions and would only set their program back temporarily. Unless we plan on continuing to bomb them indefinitely or launch a land invasion of a country with four times the land area and three times the population of Iraq,” said Jett.
What Iranian Citizens-Rights Advocates Believe
In a previous analysis, American Pigeon quoted U.S. security analyst Michael Pregent, a fellow of the Hudson Institute, who, in a guest appearance for the Institute for Voices of Liberty, reasons that the IRGC regime is near structural collapse. This imminent collapse has significant implications for the region.
Mr. Pregent argues that adopting a hardline policy against Iran would be an opportunity for the Biden administration to enforce American security interests in the Central Asian region.
(See “Biden Under Pressure Over Iran: Pro-Democracy Groups Seek Change” to learn more).
Pregent reasoned that the Biden administration has an opportunity to reclaim American presence in the eyes of rivals China and Russia.
Clash of Views
Pregent believes that the final episode of the American mission in Afghanistan left Central Asia open to strong interventionist policies of the Chinese Communist regime, in terms of economics, and the aggressive nature of Russia’s foreign policy.
Should Biden take a strong stance on the Ayatollah, he reasoned that this would send a message of American strength to the Chinese Communist regime and Russia, as well as prevent aggressive measures from the IRGC.
Despite the tactical advantages Pregent describes, Professor Dennis Coleman Jett, continues to argue a hopeless scenario if the deal is not reached:
“If a deal is negotiated that provides reasonable and verifiable assurance that Iran is not going nuclear then that is the best outcome since it avoids doing nothing or (avoids) doing something with military force. That is what we had with the original deal which Trump trashed. It did not provide 100%, gold plated, absolute assurance, but no deal would ever be able to do that,” said Jett.
Warnings About IRGC’s Threats Beyond the Deal
As American diplomats continue to argue the validity of the JCPOA, Iranian human rights activists warn it is far too late for such a deal to carry weight.
Institute for Voices of Liberty Iran, (iVOL), an Iranian pro-democracy think tank and previous guest of American Pigeon, wrote a letter to U.S. Senator Robert Menendez in November 2021 expressing this view.
“Dear Senator Menendez,
As the United States approaches the prospect of a seventh round of negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, we wish to express our concern regarding the implications of rapprochement with what we consider a terrorist and criminal regime,” IVOL wrote.
“It is our strong belief that negotiations—much less a deal with the Islamic Republic, no longer meets America’s national interests. Indeed, summary sanctions relief could threaten the security of our country and its people. There are facts that corroborate this perspective and we wish to bring them to your attention,” the letter continued.
iVOL then summarized a list of its research findings and correspondence with citizens within the Iranian regime. The letter highlighted that returning to the JCPOA would be futile:
“The Islamic Republic has grown its nuclear activities to a threshold at which a snapback return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is unrealistic, if not impossible, to address the proliferation concerns. The nuclear deal’s nonproliferation mandates are now unrecoverable without major changes to the accord,” the letter continued. iVOL then cited the International Atomic Energy Agency, which states that, as of September 2021, the IRGC had “quadrupled” its stockpile of 60 percent enriched uranium since May 2021.
iVOL also notes that the IRGC has started using advanced centrifuges, called IR9, which are “50 times more powerful” at producing enriched uranium than the centrifuges that are covered by JCPOA-conditional surveillance.
An analysis of Jett’s Statements
A former Pentagon specialist and analyst, who wishes to remain anonymous for security purposes, reviewed Jett’s statements. He concluded that his outlooks were precisely what the Islamic Republic’s propaganda arm wishes the Western world to conclude about the Iran nuclear deal.
While the analyst estimates that American academics typically echo the Islamic Republic “10-20%,” the Pentagon specialist analyses that “100% of Jett’s statements” are the exact message line of the Islamic regime.
The analyst explained that the bleakness of Jett’s assessment does not reflect the actual public representation of Iran’s citizens. While information regarding the ground-real status of Iran is difficult to come by, those familiar with the Iranian citizen community estimate that at least 80% of the population wants the Islamic Republic to dissolve. They have given up on the Islamic constitution in its entirety, according to Iranian civil rights activists. This demographic wishes to see Iran transition to a peaceful government, and many of them advocate a pro-democratic Parliament reformation.
These Iranian civil rights activists conclude that the people of Iran are “even ready to die,” and are choosing to stand up to the Islamic regime under threat of mass execution. Peaceful protests have been met with live ammunition. Yet, the Western world remains in the dark about the true nature of life inside the Islamic Republic, because of tactics of the regime’s media arm, says the Pentagon specialist.
“The Iranian Intelligence Services learned long ago that one of the best ways of swaying public opinion was to buy off American academics and reporters. The IRGC propaganda gets repeated by these academics and press people,” the Pentagon specialist explained.
Direct Response To Jett’s Pro-JCPOA Views
American Pigeon sought the direct response from Iranian pro-democracy advocates regarding Ambassador Jett’s statements. iVOL was approached directly. The institute’s response is that Jett has taken a stance of “leveraging uncertainty,” when making his pro-JCPOA assessments.
“Ambassador Jett capitalizes on the concept of uncertainty to rule out the prospect for a transition to a secular Democratic government in Iran. Instead of capitalizing on and leveraging the concept of uncertainty, why can’t the West “invest” in the possibility of change in Iran?” writes iVOL, corresponding with American Pigeon.
“Ambassador Jett’s view are “guaranteed” to strengthen the tyranny and terror of Islamic Republic. His line of thinking will result in increased cost of international security permanently. What if Ambassador Jett is wrong?
He also uses the military option as the only option while investing in the freedom movement in Iran is a much more practical and economical option. Why not invest in the will of freedom seeking Iranians who have said NO to this brutal regime?” iVOL added.
The Bomb Question
The nearness of the IRGC’s bomb acquisition was something that Professor Jett did not dispute. When asked what security implications for the West, NATO, and the world would be if the JCPOA diplomacy were to fail, Professor Jett notes the situation is critical:
“[The risk is] that we live with an Iran that is at best weeks away from a bomb, or that we are forced to take military action that will involve us in yet another war with unknown consequences, great costs, and is potentially unwinnable,” said Jett.
What Professor Jett argues against is that the U.S. and Western powers should hold out hope for a democratic transition. He reasons that the U.S. could not assist the implementation of a pro-democratic regime because foreign intervention would be an act of war.
The Question of Transition
Jett was asked to explain the logic behind the continued JCPOA negotiations, and why the West promotes negotiations with the Ayatollah above democratic promotion. He argued that a democratic transition had no guarantee:
“Because that transition is not assured and the more outside powers push for it the more the regime in power has an argument for staying in power and a justification for doing so,” said Jett.
Jett also reasons that the U.S. support of a pro-democratic Iran is not guaranteed to control the nuclear development issue. He says that a transition government in Iran may not be a nuclear-free one.
“It remains to be seen if the opposition can succeed, and a Democratic Iran may not be a non nuclear Iran any more than India and Pakistan are,” said Jett. He also addressed the possibility that a new government in Iran “may not be an improvement” to the current regime of the Ayatollah.
Pro-democracy transitions groups such as IVOL, however, argue that the West should be willing to hear the voice of the Iranian people.
Rather than direct foreign intervention, these think tank groups advocate education and a platform to encourage Iranians to develop a new constitution, and democratic elections. IVOL argues that the Iranian people want a true democracy to replace the current situation.
There remains the issue of defining clear competing parties within the regime opposition. IVOL holds that the West could support transition by supporting the education and accessibility of pro-democratic institutions to Iranian people.
Supporting Views of IVOL’s Analysis
The Investigative Project on Terrorism shares views that reflect the same conclusions as IVOL’s analysis in the letter to Senator Menendez. In “New Nuclear Deal Would Empower the Iranian Regime” (July ’21), IPT writes that the JCPOA deal will harm the West. This is due to sanction relief considerations, including those the Biden administration considered “symbolic” sanctions on the Ayatollah.
IPT argues that Iran has only “ratcheted up” its violent activity toward the United States since the deal was reached in 2015. Their research finds that IRGC forces haved fired on U.S. troops in Syria in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes on IRGC-backed militias.
The IRGC has likewise issued threats to Saudi Arabia to “halt interference” in the Yemeni civil war with the IRGC-backed al-Houthi rebellion. Saudi Arabia considers the al-Houthi hostile takeover of Yemen as a major security threat to its border. IPT explains that the al-Houthis can access the King Khalid air base and Aramco oil from their proximity.
Security Threats From Sanction Relief to Middle East, IPT Warns
IPT explained, further, that the Biden administration has highly prioritized the JCPOA discussions since mid-2021. The administration attempted and failed to implement the deal before hardliner President Ebrahim Raisi, a famous executioner of the 1979 Revolution era, took the presidential seat in mid-2021.
IPT argued that the Biden administration “has no tangible plan” regarding the security crisis caused by the Ayatollah’s regime in the Middle East. Rather, the priority focuses largely on the relief of oil exports that the deal would provide, IPT reasoned.
A Bigger Issue Than Iran’s Current Government
“It remains to be seen if the opposition can succeed, and a Democratic Iran may not be a non nuclear Iran any more than India and Pakistan are,” said Jett. He also said that a new government in Iran “may not be an improvement” to the current regime of the Ayatollah.
iVOL believes that the JCPOA deal will have no effect on the Ayatollah, and that it is not in the United States’ best interests to continue attempting to reason with his leadership.
“Re-entering the JCPOA by the United States would be harmful to America’s nonproliferation objectives. Negotiations with a deceptive regime whose raison d’être is hostility and malice towards America and its allies is futile, irrespective of the outcome,” iVOL wrote, continuing its letter to Senator Menendez.
Looking for a Realistic Solution
Political pressures aside, the security situation of Central Asia faces a critical moment as deliberations move forward. The United States Foreign Affairs Committee has long held that Iran, which borders seven other nations, has a significant impact on the security status of all of Central Asia.
Western policymakers continue to drill forward with the deal which, in their view, is the only viable solution to the future peace of the region. Yet, Iran’s civil liberties activists warn that this deal will bring greater harm than help.
Both sides agree that the situation within Iran is dire, as the nuclear program continues alongside a collapsing IRGC institution. Western policymakers, however, remain adamantly committed to negotiations of a deal that the pro-transition movement believes is brain dead. War is the only scenario these policymakers see as an alternative.
“Plan B” solutions remain uncertain as the partisan divide regarding the Iran deal is expected to increase, with public messaging targeting the flaws of the Trump era’s decisioning logic behind JCPOA withdrawal.
In further installments of this series, American Pigeon seeks to understand the contrasting viewpoints of Central Asia policy, the current events in Central Asia, and realistic solutions deliberators could reach for a more stable future.
American Pigeon also continues to report how the foreign and domestic debate of these events and policies will reflect on the Western public. Analysis seeks to understand what safety precautions can be taken to lessen the impact of this eclipse of polar worldviews on everyday people.