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The danger of (mis)perceptions after the Iran deal

- August 3, 2015

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, center, shakes hands with an official upon arrival at the Mehrabad airport in Tehran on July 15. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
Perceptions of the recent nuclear deal within Iran sharply differ from those of other players, particularly the United States, Israel and the Persian Gulf Arab states. This wide cognitive gap in what the deal entails could undermine both the agreement and regional security in the coming months. Misperceptions, as Columbia University’s Robert Jervis taught us four decades ago, can unintentionally push states into war.
Much of the ongoing nuclear debate outside of Iran is based on the conclusion that Tehran is the big winner of the agreement. From Washington to Tel Aviv to Riyadh, critics call the agreement the worst in the history of U.S. diplomacy, the deal of the century for Iran and as disastrous for the world as the crucifixion of Jesus. They contend that Tehran has “bamboozled” Washington and claim that the sanctions relief will only embolden Iran and fund its activities in the region and beyond.
By contrast, an existential fear of the post-deal environment has penetrated the powerful conservative circles in Iran. They see the agreement as a prelude to containment, regional confrontation and regime change from within. The deal may bring about an economic boom, but it may also come with a security bust.
Although Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly praised the “sincerity” of Iran’s negotiators, his hesitation to laud the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) itself reflects his skepticism of the deal and its aftermath. The influential Revolutionary Guard Corps and other conservative factions and commentators have expressed concern that the deal will permanently limit and restructure Iran’s nuclear program without offering much sanction relief.
These conservative critics argue that only 13 percent of all sanctions tied to the nuclear issue will be suspended (not removed), all of which could be reimposed at any time under murky interpretations, devious mechanisms and ceaseless accusations of Iranian violations of the deal. Moreover, Iran will lose 98 percent of its 12,000-kilogram stockpile of enriched uranium and cut down two thirds of its 19,000 centrifuges, leaving only “enough to make carrot juice.” Additionally, under an unusual snapback provision, Iran’s Russian and Chinese “friends” in the U.N. Security Council cannot use their veto power to block the return of sanctions. The deal is so devastating, claims a conservative member of the Iranian parliament, that even Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s atomic agency who participated in the negotiations with the P5+1, has asked others to “pray” for its collapse.
But what is worse, from their standpoint, is that the scope of the agreement far exceeds Iran’s nuclear challenge. As Mehdi Mohammadi, a former nuclear negotiator, recently warned, both the JCPOA and the Security Council Resolution 2231 have gone “kilometers beyond the Additional Protocol and open a monitoring umbrella over Iran whose outcome will be to control all national security-related scientific, research, and development activities.” Mohammadi has presaged that the actual objective of the deal is not ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful but rather the “long-term strategic containment” of the country.
According to this narrative, the United States is now moving to further weaken Iran’s conventional military capability by imposing bans on arms imports and ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, Washington is strengthening its presence in the Persian Gulf and promising even more modern weapons to its allies, all of whom already enjoy the American security umbrella.
Moreover, citing Obama’s latest interview with the New York Times, Iranian conservatives believe that the White House intends to empower Iran’s “moderates” through this deal. They view the support of moderates as a Trojan horse for reformists, ultimately resulting in regime change. For them, these nightmare scenarios are all empirically backed by the Soviet, Iraqi and Libyan experiences of the past three decades. In none of these cases, Iranian conservatives argue, did a nuclear agreement or lack of weapons of mass destruction prevent the United States from pursuing its regime change policy by sponsoring revolution or war. The ultra-conservative daily Kayhan newspaper, with close ties to the Supreme Leader, summarized the deal in a headline Saturday: “The Vienna Agreement is a [Firing] Shot aimed at Iran’s Security.” Its managing editor, appointed by Khamenei, declared today (Monday) that the accord’s final objective is to overthrow the Iranian government.
Now contrast this threat perception to the widely held opinion outside of Iran, particularly in the Arab world, that the deal is a major victory for Iran and demonstrates a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy in Tehran’s favor at the expense of American regional allies. The Saudis, in particular, are panicking and acting more aggressively regionally. Rejecting several overtures from the pragmatists in Tehran, they are nervously pushing back against “expansionist” and “hegemonic” Iran. According to diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks, the Saudi government’s obsession with Iran has led them to follow Tehran’s activities beyond the region and into Africa, Asia and Europe. They have also threatened to shift away from the United States towards China and Russia, while promising to get rid of the “Iranian disease.” Their bombing of Yemen can be seen as a direct reaction to the nuclear negotiations.
In this classic security dilemma, actors risk misreading one another’s intentions; one side’s defensive act may be interpreted as offensive by the other. Iran’s claim of dominating four Arab capitals (Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Sanaa), for example, is often construed by regional observers as tantamount to the rise of a new Persian empire, ignoring that these are four disastrously failed states, to put it mildly.
Thus, the nuclear agreement may inadvertently inject a tremendous amount of uncertainty into the region. President Obama and Secretary John F. Kerry should be urgently advised to now move beyond the deal and translate its initial success into more compartmentalized confidence-building measures and agreements between Iran and other regional powers with the same tenacity they showed during the last two years of nuclear negotiations.
On the other hand, Iran’s pragmatist president and foreign minister will be better off resisting the popular urge to hastily improve relations with the United States. At this point, such a move would only create more anxieties among their domestic conservative rivals, Saudi neighbors, Israeli foes and Russian friends, and the U.S. Congress does not seem to be in any particular rush to get back in bed with those Iranian “liars” anyway. Instead, Rouhani should rechannel the nuclear momentum into other grave regional issues, most critically an agreement on Syria.
If not managed through vigorous U.S.-initiated mediations, the aforementioned (mis)perceptions of the deal may become a recipe for more conflict in an already combustible region.
Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar is a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an assistant professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. He is also a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.