JCPOA may be flat-lining, but there's still hope for reviving US-Iranian ties

JCPOA may be flat-lining, but there's still hope for reviving US-Iranian ties
As US-Iranian relations continue to be antagonistic post-Trump, any path towards reconciliation should involve the US administration engaging directly with and listening to the Iranian public-at-large, writes Kourosh Ziabari.
6 min read
18 Feb, 2022
A portrait of US President Joe Biden is pasted on a balloon during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the seizure of the US embassy in downtown Tehran, 4 November 2021. [Getty]

Withdrawing from the internationally-celebrated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, extolled by every major democratic leader in the world at the time it was signed, was not only a foreign policy blunder on behalf of the former US President Donald Trump but a catastrophic betrayal of years of painstaking efforts to resolve one of the intractable dilemmas of international relations and the instigation of a critical nuclear proliferation risk.

When the JCPOA was agreed, the EU high commissioner for foreign policy Federica Mogherini said it could "open the way to a new chapter in international relations." Trump wreaked havoc on that opening.

But instead of filling the void ensuing that misstep by inducting a plan B for dealing with Iran, Trump embarked on escalation and it soon dawned on the international community that he was intent on shutting the door at diplomacy altogether. Although he avoided war with the Islamic Republic down to the wire, he surrounded himself by hawks whose bidding for regime change and unvarnished confrontation with Iran dragged the world into serious trouble. Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton and Brian Hook could not be the sort of advisors to steer the United States and Iran out of crisis and simplify the riddles that have been marring their relations.

As Trump's era is now a bygone world and the policy shifts promised by his successor Joe Biden have presaged transition to normalcy in international relations, it is imperative that the two adversaries take the steps needed to mend fences, and however laggardly, and dismantle this formidable wall of mistrust built and reinforced since 1979.

"As Trump's era is now a bygone world and the policy shifts promised by his successor Joe Biden have presaged transition to normalcy in international relations, it is imperative that the two adversaries take the steps needed to mend fences"

The fact that diplomats from Iran and six world powers have been commuting to Vienna for several weeks now to take a stab at resurrecting the JCPOA is promising, and this would not have been possible without President Biden's commitment to renewed diplomacy and driving home that his Middle East strategy does not smack of the idiosyncrasies of Trump.

Yet the fate of the nuclear deal remains bleak because there is still no indication that Tehran is willing to make the compromises that are foundational to the restoration of the accord, as the hardline discourse in Iran remains fixated on "no negotiations with the United States" - a tactic which does not seem to be conducive in reversing Iran's misfortunes.

The ultra-conservatives in the Islamic Republic - who consolidated power following the June 2021 presidential election and no longer can complain about a "liberal," "Westoxified" Rouhani messing things up -  should come clean with themselves that they want to reap the benefits of the full implementation of the JCPOA. To do so is contingent upon talking to the United States directly. If they do not recognize this, every revamping of the deal will be half-baked and short-lived.

But if one tends to err on the side of optimism and anticipate a rehaul of Iran-US ties, there is a spectrum of policy options available to redeem the relations between the two countries from the current state of misanthropy and antagonism.

The options the Biden administration has at its disposal to try détente are more diverse, and its resources more extensive. The United States has scarcely been in a position of vulnerability in its dealings with Iran. It prescribes economic sanctions on Iran with zero effects in return on its own economy, while immeasurable burdens fall on Iran and its partners too.

Moreover, the contemporary history of Iran-US interactions shows that for the theocratic Middle East nation, approaching normalization voluntarily means entering uncharted waters, imbued with risks of losing face and legitimacy after years of propagating a hardwired anti-US ideology.


If the Biden administration can be reasonably expected to take the initial reconciliatory steps, it should be by engaging the Iranian people directly, hearing their voices instead of notorious far-right action groups or pro-war think tanks, and making an effort to grasp the realities of a sophisticated nation, with its long history and its meaningful aspirations.

Iranians are by and large outward-looking and open to dialogue with the West. Of course, the government pushes its US-bashing publicity indefatigably. But this is not the worldview shared by the youth, the students, academics, netizens and the younger generation of the "revolution".

By procuring opportunities for engagement with authentic voices inside Iran and supplanting Trump's opprobrious immigration artefact, the Muslim Ban, with regular people-to-people exchanges and track II diplomacy, President Biden can deepen ties that will remain impervious to future shocks, surviving the ebbs and flows of relations in the years to come.

Additionally, Biden should rely on the sizable community of Iranian-Americans, comprising a dynamic cohort of university professors, technology geeks, physicians, painters and photographers, musicians, writers, public intellectuals and scholars, NASA scientists and Silicon Valley geniuses, to usher in a new era after decades of bitterness.

"Iran is not a monolith, and these nuances need to be discovered"

The presence of Iranians in the United States, notwithstanding the missing nexus of diplomatic ties and absence of embassies, the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended international travelling and the hangovers of Trump's years of warlike pugnacity, is remarkable. Nearly 12,000 Iranian students are enrolled in US universities, and the US Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey of 2018 reveals 467,000 citizens in the United States are of Iranian descent.

This unique presence is a utility for every US administration to bolster its relations with Iran. The most immediate Iranian connections of Trump were the members of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization, an ill-famed terror group that even in the diasporic community suffers from a dearth of credibility. MEK and other regime-change dreamers are too out of sync with the realities of modern Iran to help a US president comprehend this complex society pragmatically.

By initiating bonds with Iranians of all stripes, empowering Iranian civil society that has been shrinking in size and influence daily due to no support, and adopting a language of respect and inclusion, it is possible to expect a new beginning.

Hardliners in Iran may continue to resist and insist on their favourite "Death to America" slogan, but the US government and its security apparatus need to understand this anti-US mentality, nurtured by a vocal minority does not represent the plurality of Iranian society. Iran is not a monolith, and these nuances need to be discovered. 

Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the Iran correspondent of Fair Observer and Asia Times. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford Fellowship.

Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari

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