Iran Must Negotiate with Trump Differently

Hooshang Amirahmadi, PhD
Professor, Rutgers University


The Trump administration wants to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the 5+1 group of countries (the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China), commonly called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Some say this demand suggests that Iran has had a winning negotiation and Trump does not like it to win. Others argue that Trump is motivated by scrapping any deal that has the signature of former President Barack Obama on it. Trump himself has said the deal is “bad,” but has never explained why.

In this article, I will argue that Trump’s opposition to the nuclear deal is neither because he sees Iran as a winner, nor because he dislikes an Obama legacy. Instead, Trump and his associates believe that, given how desperately and carelessly Iran negotiated the nuclear deal under the duress of sanctions and threats, they can make Iran lose even more in renegotiating the JCPOA and other matters of concern to the US. Iran, which initially celebrated the conclusion of the deal, now finds itself trapped by it without adequately realizing the much-anticipated sanctions relief or foreign investment.

I am convinced that Mr. Trump will bring Iran to renegotiate, and Tehran will, after a short period of resistance, accede, as it has no safer option. This is not necessarily a terrible development. On the contrary, I see this renegotiation an opportunity for the US and Iran to settle their disputes globally. The good news is that Mr. Trump is objecting to the JCPOA partly because it leaves other matters between the two countries unresolved. Iran must hold Mr. Trump to his words and insist that the coming negotiations be comprehensive. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s leader, has traditionally objected to an inclusive negotiation with the US. This time around, however, he can be convinced to go along as the JCPOA is in jeopardy and Iran has its best regional position in years. He also vastly trusts Iran’s current Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif.  So, if I was Dr. Zarif, I would have spent more time begging Mr. Khamenei change his mind than asking other in the 5+1 group to resist Mr. Trump.  

We know that Mr. Trump sees himself a “master” negotiator and believes he can gain a better deal from Iran than Mr. Obama got. Trump’s recent words, including his UN speech, suggests that he views his negotiating skills in terms of his ability to bring more coercion against Iran to the negotiation table than reason and foresight. What Mr. Trump fails to account for is the fact that coercing Iran into accepting a deal with unjust terms will not be in the best long-term interest of the US, and that such a deal may not be sustainable in the post-JCPOA political environment in Iran, where the “hardliners” are even pushing for Iran’s exit from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Concerned with these possible developments, I wish to insist that the parties negotiate well-informed and with due respect for each other’s rights and responsibilities. Negotiating under duress will not produce a deal that would serve American interests, and an unfair deal cannot be sustained. However, a reasonable deal can only emerge if Iran is, like the US, also well prepared and can avoid the blunders it committed in reaching the untenable JCPOA. On this basis, I think it is only fair and sensible that I outline Iran’s major JCPOA blunders and provide it with a recipe for a more robust renegotiation to reach a justifiable deal that addresses the concerns on both sides and which is maintainable. At stake is peace and partnership for development.    

The JCPOA: Goals, Spirit and Letter

The nuclear deal may be viewed as having a goal, a spirit and a letter. On the US side, the goal was to disarm Iran of its potential to build a nuclear bomb. This goal, from Trump’s perspective, has been partially achieved as the JCPOA has a sunset clause of 2025. Trump now wants to make that deadline indefinite and remove Iran’s nuclear potential permanently. Trump also thinks that he can partially disarm Iran of its ballistic missiles because Iran showed during the JCPOA negotiations that it will respond to coercive diplomacy including sanctions and threats against its crippled economy and the Islamic regime. Nowadays, the understanding that the Islamic Republic responds to force is a widely held dogma among conservatives in Washington, D.C.

Iran’s goal in accepting a less than perfect nuclear deal, and indeed agreeing to dismantle an industry that it had said was its national pride, was to gain sanctions relief and foreign investment. Iran also wanted to reduce the threat of war against its Islamic regime. These goals have only been partially and temporarily achieved.  The US has been preventing companies, particularly large banks, from transacting with Iran, and Tehran has not yet been able to fully access its frozen oil dollars, except through barter trades, because dollar movement in relation to Iran is still under US primary sanctions. From Trump’s UN speech, it also appears that the threat to the regime has not subsided. If anything, it may have even intensified now that Mr. Trump is alluding to regime change. 

Tehran and Washington also accuse each other of violating the spirit of the deal.  For Tehran, that spirit means confidence building and a diplomatic approach to resolving disputes. It also means that the US should have encouraged rather than discouraged businesses to transact with Iran. For the US, that spirit means a reduction of Iran’s interventions in Palestinian territories, in countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, as well as support for radical groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, and Houthis in Yemen. It also means a slowdown of Iranian ballistic missile testing and development, which Trump says, “threatens” the security of US Middle Eastern allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.   

Then there is the issue of the deal’s letter, that is its essential contents, which outlines what each party gave up and gained. On Iran’s side, the JCPOA led to the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program, including a two-third reduction in running centrifuges, destruction of the heavy water reactor in Irak, shipment of over 10 tons of enriched uranium to outside the country, and shutdown of the Fardo enrichment plant. Iran also submitted to the most intrusive monitoring regime that the IAEA has ever implemented in any nuclear enriching nation. For the US, the JCPOA meant to lift, not remove, its nuclear-related secondary sanctions and accept a symbolic enrichment activity on Iranian soil, a right already recognized by the NPT. The US also took many Iranian firms and individuals off its sanctions list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN).

This letter of the deal is, thus, heavily biased against Iran. Yet, Mr. Trump believes that he could force Iran to make even more concessions on its remaining nuclear program and other issues of concern. Specifically, Mr. Trump wants to eliminate Iran’s enrichment industry or, alternatively, make the JCPOA a permanent deal, meaning reducing Iran’s nuclear program to a symbolic existence indefinitely. But he also thinks that by renegotiating the deal, he can force Iran to make further concessions on its ballistic missile programs and in its interventionist “misdeeds” in the Middle East and elsewhere.  Trump believes or hopes, too, that the negotiations will help weaken Iran and ultimately change its Islamic regime.

The Iranian Blunders

To understand why Trump is so confident that he can make Iran accept said concessions, one must take a closer look at the way Iran negotiated the JCPOA. Let me list only the most glaring mistakes of the Iranian negotiation strategy. I will elaborate on these blunders and provide an alternative perspective that Iran might adopt for the prospective negotiations with Mr. Trump. 

  1. Iran entered the negotiation under duress of sanctions and threat of war. Worst yet, Iran acknowledged that it was suffering from such US coercive measures; that is, Iran negotiated from a position of weakness.
  2.  Iran negotiated under a self-imposed timetable, originally 6 months, then a year and so on. President Rouhani was rushing the process because of a promise he had made to the Iranian people during his election. The US saw in Iran a desperate negotiator.
  3. Iran erred when it accepted to isolate the nuclear dispute from the rest of its problems with the US. Incidentally, it isolated the nuclear matter, over which Iran had its strongest leverage and which it could have used to settle other matters with the US. But Iran did not do so and therefore lost the only meaningful leverage it had built against the US. Today, it has none.
  4. Iran blundered when it accepted to negotiate with some in the 5+1 group of nations, while isolating its neighbors. For example, while Germany had no business sitting at the negotiation table, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey, among others, had every right and reason to be present. Iran paid for this exclusion after the JCPOA was implemented. Now, the first two countries are the deal’s main enemies and the ones who have instigated Trump’s opposition.
  5. Iran stumbled when it propagated misinformation regarding a so-called fetva (religious decree) that supposedly the Leader Ali Khamenei had issued saying that nuclear bomb is forbidden in Islam (are Pakistanis then infidel?). This reduced the American fear of an Iranian bomb and depressed the power of Iran’s negotiators in using a prospective nuclear bomb as a leverage in the negotiations. In contrast, Americans skillfully used the dichotomy of “a deal or war” to force Iran into accepting a bad deal.
  6. Iran negotiated with a strict strategy of “any deal is better than no deal.” This was a huge mistake as it indicated to the other side that Iran was desperate for a deal and that it will take any. Under this condition, the US did not have to make serious concessions.
  7. From the beginning of the deal, the Rouhani government treated individuals and groups concerned with the way negotiations were going, the so-called hardliners, as ignorant, and ridiculed them. The government also excluded these critics and would not accept their advice or use them in the negotiation as “bad cops.”  In contrast, the Obama administration heard the deal’s opponents and used them as bad cops while itself playing “good cop.” This helped Obama to extract even more concessions from Iran.   
  8. Iran carried on the JCPOA negotiations behind the backs of the Iranian people as well as its experts. Only a small group of confidants were involved, and they had to negotiate against an army of policy makers, experts and scientists on the other side. On the Iranian side only 40 people were involved; on the US side alone, 2,000 people were supporting the negotiations.  The US used Iran’s fear of publicity to extract more concessions.
  9. Iran had no prior preparation for the negotiation. It did not go into the process with a set final goal, it did not adopt an incremental strategy of gains and losses, and it did not involve professional negotiators in the process. It solely relied on its diplomats, mistaking diplomacy for negotiation and diplomats for negotiators. The US encouraged this Iranian misunderstanding by aggrandizing the Iranian diplomats as great negotiators!
  10. The diplomats involved were also too proud to even prepare for specific meetings. In most cases during the negotiations, the negotiators on the US side entered meetings with piles of paperwork in hands, while the Iranian side would enter with no such paperwork, relying merely on their memory and arguments. This led to a negotiated text (the JCPOA) that has many loopholes and is ignorant of the complex nature of US sanctions. One glaring omission is the role of the US dollar in the American sanctions regime.
  11. Iran rushed into implementation even before the other side had given any indication that it was prepared to deliver on its commitment; that is, there was no simultaneity in mutual implementations. Indeed, Iran disarmed itself even before the ceasefire had been declared. This level of trust was foolish even at a theoretical level. Iran should have recalled the dictum, “trust but verify,” a phrase Ronald Reagan used in December 1987 after the signing of the INF Treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev.
  12. Iran negotiated believing that Mr. Obama and his Foreign Mister John Kerry were friendly, and that the Republicans were inimical to Tehran and the deal. They missed the good-cop bad-cop game that was being played in Washington. Tehran too thought that just because the UN was behind the deal and the deal was a multilateral one, its full implementation was guaranteed. Only recently they have begun acknowledging that those assumptions may have been wrong. As a defensive posture, then, the negotiators and advocates in Iran are nowadays speaking the undiplomatic phrase that “the US cannot be trusted.”
  13. Iran erred when it celebrated the JCPOA as a national achievement to cover up the significant concessions it had made to the “Great Satan.” These celebrations were a two-edged sword. At home, it raised expectations that the regime was not able to deliver. In the US, it angered conservatives and made them criticize the Democrats for a deal that Iran can celebrate. President Trump’s view might have been partly influenced by this unwarranted clamor in Tehran.    

A Corrective Proposal

It is almost certain that the Trump administration will not rest until it makes Iran accept regnegotiation toward strengthening the JCPOA. In my view, Iran should not fear such a negotiation but must be well prepared this time around. Following a cause and effect logic, and if my diagnosis of Iran’s negotiation blunders for the JCPOA are reasonably accurate, then, Iran’s new negotiation strategy should consider the following advice.

  1. Iran should not fear sanctions or war threats and resist them when it is involved in the negotiation. Giving into coercion is a recipe for a terrible outcome.
  2. Iran must refuse to set or accept deadlines for the conclusion of a deal, and be prepared for a lengthy negotiation.
  3. Iran must insist on a comprehensive negotiation for a global settlement of all negotiable issues that stand between the US and Iran, and it should not accept a final agreement on any issue until all issues on both sides are resolved.
  4. Iran must insist that its key neighbors be brought to the negotiation as direct or indirect observers, and that they must also consent to the agreements reached.
  5. The fake fetva propagated in the name of Ayatollah Khamenei that nuclear bomb is forbidden in Islam must be withdrawn.  This false fetva is counter-reproductive and was never believed by the US and its allies anyway.  
  6. Iran must come to the negotiation with the determination that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”  Iran must observe its own redlines as a sovereign nation.
  7. Iran must unite the nation behind the negotiation and involve experts and critics as well as diplomats and professional negotiators. No one should be excluded from directly or indirectly contributing.
  8. Iran must be transparent in negotiations with its people and the international community. No issue should be secretly discussed and no agreement reached behind doors.  
  9. The Trump administration is the government of generals and businessmen. Hardly any diplomat serves at ranking levels. Those involved in negotiations for Iran must also include people who match the US side in terms of background, expertise and professional standing.
  10. Just like the American negotiators, Iranian negotiators must also be fully prepared. They must appear in meetings with notes and outlines as well as information and analysis. They must fully understand the US laws and regulations in every respect so that no surprises develop after the deal is reached.
  11. Iran must not rush to implementation this time and follow the “trust but verify” dictum. Often, international agreements are implemented based on the concept of simultaneity.
  12. Iran must understand that it cannot divide the US and win a better deal. Iran must negotiate with the nation, not just a party or a faction in power. Otherwise, the sustainability of the deal reached will not be guaranteed.
  13. Iran must take a victim position and publicly argue that the negotiations have been forced on it and that the results cannot be fair. Iran must also prepare its people to reject through mass protests, demands for concessions that are unreasonable from Iran’s national defense interests. Only full transparency with the public can gain the government this kind of support.

In conclusion, let us hope that the next US-Iran negotiation episode takes place in an environment of mutual respect, and consideration for the national rights and interests of all involved. Negotiation under duress, and concessions extracted by coercive means, will not be just, cannot create partnership, and will not be implemented with due trustworthiness and integrity.  The Iranian people expect of the democratic America to observe its own democratic principles in negotiation with Tehran.