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Rejoining the Iran deal would be a 'victory' for Dems to tout in midterms

Biden should override the holdout hawks in his own party and clinch this one for the team.

Analysis | Middle East

The resolution of the year-long saga of restoring the Iran nuclear deal, known as JCPOA, now hinges on the avatars of U.S. domestic politics. The ruling Democrats have a key incentive to clinch the deal; it’s not only about securing the narrow goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. It’s also about enhancing their foreign policy credibility.

With much of the deal reportedly agreed, the removal of the State Department’s designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, as a foreign terrorist organization has emerged as a key obstacle to finalizing it. The designation itself is mostly symbolic. With an elaborate sanction architecture targeting IRGC put in place by the U.S. Treasury, the State Department designation amounts to not much more than name-calling. It was introduced deliberately by the Donald Trump’s administration with the explicit aim of tying the hands of any successor who might seek to re-enter the deal.

Removing the terrorist label from its official security force is a question of principle for Iran, as it would be for any country. It would also help the Ebrahim Raisi administration sell the deal domestically as it would enable his government to claim that it negotiated better terms than its more moderate predecessor.

Given the stakes, Iran has shown considerable flexibility. It reportedly conveyed a message to the United States via the EU negotiator Enrique Mora that it would consider a deal under which the IRGC as a whole would be removed, but its elite Al-Quds force would remain on the list. So far, Washington has not accepted the proffered compromise.

The main difficulty in doing so lies in the fear of antagonizing influential pro-Israel Democrats, notably Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez, particularly with the approach of November’s mid-term elections in which Democrats are widely expected to fare poorly and may even lose control of one or both houses of Congress.

Yet there is no reason to believe that any amount of hawk appeasement would be sufficient to gain their support for any deal short of Tehran’s unilateral surrender.

Instead, the Democrats should look at it differently — as a test case for their ability to deliver on foreign policy. If they prove unable to reverse the mess left behind by Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA and his “maximum pressure” policies, it will make it clear to the Iranians and others that the only deals worth pursuing are those with Republicans. If no deal with a Democrat can survive a Republican president, why waste time and political capital trying to secure one, instead of waiting for a Republican to win the White House?

Many in the Iranian establishment share this line of reasoning. Curiously enough, the perception of Republican solvency in foreign affairs is another sign of continuity between the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic. In the early 1970s, the Shah managed to forge a unique relationship with President Richard Nixon that maximized Iran’s power in the Persian Gulf. It also helped that Nixon, like other Republicans, did not bother much about human rights in Iran.

Some Iranian experts point to the Islamic Republic’s own dealings with the Republicans — with the Reagan administration on the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon in the early 1980s, and the de facto cooperation that prevailed during and immediately after George W. Bush’s invasion of in Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Yet, unlike the Shah’s relations with Washington, those dealings were not strategic, but rather transactional in nature, a product of necessities of crisis management. It is an open question whether the present-day Republican Party is at all agreement-capable with Iran.

Two constituencies within the GOP that potentially could usher in that direction are Sen. Rand Paul’s libertarians and the Pat Buchanan-Tucker Carlson populist wing of the party. However, libertarians are not, for now, influential on foreign policy, and Sen. Paul has always been more of an outlier. As to the populists, Donald Trump has been (and still is) their champion, yet his four-year stint as president took the United States to the brink of war on Iran, in part because he surrounded himself with Iran super hawks like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. The only two Trump officials who favored engagement with Iran — retired Col. Douglas MacGregor and Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad — never got a chance to put their views in practice.

Of the new generation of populists, Sen. Josh Hawley has appeared at times to favor restraint in foreign policy, as evidenced in his advocacy for caution on Ukraine’s NATO prospects. The Republican grassroots are increasingly skeptical of excessive U.S. entanglements overseas. Would that restraint extend to Iran though? That is doubtful as the GOP, whose base, particularly in the South and the Midwest, has grown ever more aligned with the views of Israeli Right over the last four decades.

So, Iranians would be unwise to bet on the Republicans. However, that should not lead to any complacency in Democratic ranks. The alternative to a no-deal with the Republicans is not a bad deal with the Democrats, but no deal at all, likely to be followed by Tehran’s expulsion of IAEA inspectors, its withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and, possibly, a war sooner rather than later.

The oft-repeated mantra that “time is running out for a deal” works both ways — not only for Iran, but also for the West. The Iranian parliament, dominated by hardliners, has set its own strict conditions for a return to the deal as a means of exerting pressure on Iranian negotiators. While that, in itself, won’t torpedo the talks, it signals a hardening mood in Tehran against any additional concessions.

That, in part, is the Biden administration’s own fault. It procrastinated in joining the talks on the JCPOA because it yielded to the mirage that Trump’s sanctions created additional leverage to extract more concessions from Iran — specifically regarding its regional policies and ballistic missile program. Predictably, it did not work, but precious time was squandered, and meanwhile a more hardline government emerged in Tehran.

Despite the remaining hurdles, a renewed deal remains possible. The political price that the Biden administration would pay for rejoining the JCPOA is not going to be any higher than one associated with a loss of foreign policy credibility for the Democrats. Failure would send a message that Democrats simply cannot deliver — not only to Iran, but also to Cuba, Venezuela and any other government that seeks improved relations with Washington. It could also make it much harder for future Democratic administrations to achieve foreign policy successes, such as President Obama’s initial Iran deal and his normalization of relations with Cuba. Stalling over a largely symbolic IRGC designation is not worth this long-lasting damage.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group or the European Parliament.  

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). Jan. 2019 (Photo: lev radin via shutterstock.com)
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