President Trump announced that the United States would abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. The JCPOA is the agreement that had been reached between China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States with Iran to curb its nuclear activities.
The JCPOA had modestly “extended the time” it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon according to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats’ February 13, 2018 testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. However, the agreement also had limitations. Among other things, it could never fully erase the knowledge Iran had gained from its nuclear activities. Instead, it temporarily froze things, with the hope that the passage of time would moderate Iran’s ambitions.
That assumption may have been doomed from the onset. Iran possesses a fundamental worldview in which it views itself as more than just another country. In some ways, Iran was Trump before Trump came along. Like the President on demography and economics, Iran looks backward to a past era of greatness. Like the President when it comes to dealing with dissenting voices, Iran’s theocratic leadership is all but tone-deaf.
The Iranian Revolution was essentially a revolt against modernity. Iran’s revolutionaries believed that a return to past greatness required a religious revival enforced by theocratic rule.
Iran’s central narrative features a cultural foundation that has survived the passage time. British scholar Nicholas Ostler observed that only the Hebrews and Iranians “have texts and cultural traditions that have survived to modern times.” Iran’s seeking to outlast the Jewish influence in the region is, in part, an element of a long-running historical and cultural rivalry that predates the Iranian Revolution.
That cultural foundation is the beating heart that has sustained the Iranian nation-state to the present. That foundation has allowed Iran to preserve a distinct identity even as the world around it has undergone episodes of large-scale and sometimes disruptive change. Robert D. Kaplan explained:
Iran has a far more venerable record as a nation-state and urbane civilization than most places in the Arab world and all the places in the Fertile Crescent, including Mesopotamia and Palestine. There is nothing artificial about Iran, in other words: the very competing power centers within its clerical regime indicate a greater level of institutionalization than almost anywhere in the region save for Israel and Turkey.
Kaplan added that even as Iran is smaller, both in terms of size and population than China or India, its geography gives it disproportionate geopolitical weight. Iran is “fundamental to global geopolitics” on account of its “possession of the key geography of the Middle East–in terms of location, population, and energy resources.”
Since its revolution, Iran has tried, with varying success, to reorient the Middle Eastern axis in its direction. It has deployed tactics ranging from diplomacy to proxy wars to reshape the Middle East. It is currently providing support to the Houthis in Yemen, the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon, and the Assad regime in Syria. It has arguably become the dominant external influence on Iraq.
More worrisome is the elemental nature of its worldview. Despite the Jewish people’s historic presence in the Middle East, Iran views Israel as an artificial and temporary construct that would no longer exist had it not been re-established following World War II. That the Jewish people fought four major wars for Israel’s survival is irrelevant in Iran’s eyes. Iran continues to seek a future without Israel.
It blames the United States for having backed the Shah of Iran and for having supported his modernization program that its theocratic regime believes was alien to Iran’s historic and cultural roots. Despite periodic hints of reconciliation with the United States, the basic rift between the two countries remains deep and wide. That the United States is a close ally of Israel has further exacerbated the divisions.
What all this means is that in a post-JCPOA world, American appeals and even warnings for Iranian restraint likely won’t register. Iran’s view of its place in the world is much too expansive to be curbed by words, alone. Its revolution and post-revolutionary activities provide powerful evidence of that reality. Therefore, Iran will exercise restraint only if it feels such restraint falls within its national interest.
That’s what makes a plan for going ahead so important. That’s what makes allied support and great power cooperation critical ingredients for the success of any such plan. The President’s expressing a willingness to negotiate a new deal at some time in the future, by itself, likely won’t lead to a better outcome.
The United States needs a comprehensive and broadly supported strategy. For now, no such strategy is in evidence.