Khamenei’s Strategy for the JCPOA: No War, No Peace

By Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi
AIC Founder and President

The P5+1 reached a comprehensive nuclear deal, dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with Iran this July after almost two years of marathon negotiations. It is still too early to conclusively render judgement on the merits of the deal for either party, as it still awaits approval and implementation. While the US wanted to disarm Iran of its nuclear capability, Iran wanted to get relief from sanctions. Considering that the deal struck was a compromise, both sides have made gains as well as losses on paper. However, the winner or loser will be ultimately decided at the end of the implementation period, assuming approval and that no dispute will arise in the course of the next several years.

While the implementation outcome for the nuclear issue remains uncertain at this time, the impact of the deal on US-Iran relations and regional stability is even more uncertain. After all, the US and Iran have not yet discussed matters such as support for terrorism, the future of Iran’s opposition to Israel, and the abuse of human rights by the Islamic Republic. President Obama has openly said that these issues were not part of the deal and that he does not expect change in Iran’s behavior in these areas. Thus, the core question is this: can the nuclear dispute become “normalized” in the context of a relationship that remains abnormal? While I hope that the answer is ‘yes’, I, for one, have my doubts.

However, while these broader issues of US-Iran relations have not been included in the negotiations, the fact that the two sides have sat and talked face-to-face for so many months after so many years of non-communication is by itself a major breakthrough. Can the parties use this opening to move forward to a better relationship? For the time being, the US seems to be more prepared for this eventuality than Tehran. But Tehran may also dare to move forward on relations, given the more urgent issues of Iran’s crippled economy and the instability that is being caused by forces like the ISIS.

Yet, it will not be easy for Tehran to move fast on a better US-Iran relationship, as between Tehran and Washington still stands an anti-American Islamic Revolution. Besides, the Supreme Leader has for over a quarter of century made the US be perceived as a sworn enemy of the Islamic Republic; he will find it hard to change his discourse. For all through this time, the Supreme Leader has followed his favored policy of “no war, no peace” with the US and has tried to maintain a balance between the two extremes. Indeed the negotiated nuclear deal is a manifestation of this balancing-act policy.

Just before the secret negotiations were initiated in Oman in April 2012, US-Iran relations had hit its lowest point in decades. More significantly, sanctions on banking and oil had just began to cripple the Iranian economy and political relations were deteriorating by day, with the US threatening war if Iran’s nuclear program were not stopped.  Somehow, the Leader became convinced that the relations had moved too far away from the center and too close to war. It needed adjustment toward peace in the hope of maintaining the middle, that is, “no war no peace”. Thus, he authorized negotiations and then the deal.

However, as in the past, now that he has been able to stop the “war” and threat of further sanctions, he can rest and may not need to move further toward peace. He is afraid of the peace with the US as much as he is afraid of war with it. Neither serves his purpose of securing the theocratic Islamic system. He will surely lose a war with the US; he also will lose his regime in peace with the US, as diplomatic relations will open Tehran to “Washington’s intrigue and sabotage,” as he has constantly opined in the last quarter century.

The only real hope for further opening, therefore, is arms-length cooperation on regional matters, including the battle against ISIS. However, here the issues are often more divisive than cohesive. For example, the US and Iran diverge on the future of Bashar Assad, Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds, as well as Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. They also have divergent view of Hezbollah and groups in Afghanistan. Even more fundamental is their differing view of the role that Saudi Arabia is playing in regional matters such as Yemen and Bahrain.

While these problems stand, it is even possible that they may become further aggravated in the post-deal environment when the two sides will likely begin accusing one other of cheating and non-conformity with either the “spirit” or the “letter” of the deal. It is because of this possibility that the implementation of the deal is much more important than the negotiations that have led to the deal. Unless the parties make every effort to build trust and keep an open mind towards an improved ties, it is almost certain that complications will arise, making an already tense bilateral relationship much more dangerous.