It is not yet time to sign the death warrant of the Iran nuclear deal—for Iran at least. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the watchdog charged with inspections of the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), confirmed last week that Iran continues to abide by its terms. This may arguably be a show of good faith and Iran’s positive intentions towards the West. But what lies at the root of this compliant image is another battle over reputation and public image that rages between the Islamic Republic and the United States, a battle that Iran is currently winning.
Secretary Mike Pompeo’s 12 demands for a remolded Iran received mixed reviews from analysts and policymakers in the US and Europe. Critics highlight Pompeo’s lack of artful delivery and vision. He presented a set of faraway destinations without a roadmap and struggled to answer questions over the practicalities of a “Plan B” for the deal he and others had worked long to abandon. As a result, European and Iranian confidence in the diplomatic savoir faire of the United States plummeted.
This plays perfectly into Iranian hands, of course. Long since filled with a sense of foreboding about Trump’s exit from the deal, Iranian officials have been broadcasting a mix of threatening and conciliatory messages on the subject. But the onus was on Trump to move first. Now that the president has decertified the deal and failed to supply a replacement, he has placed Iranian politicians in the same camp as the deal’s American defenders and EU politicians. In effect, he has ceded the political high ground to Iran.
In the wake of Pompeo’s demands, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued his own. Khamenei’s demands, spoken boldly, addressed only the EU. They included protection of oil and trade with Iran and a stop to demands for negotiation on Iranian regional activities. In painting the United States as the erratic and “theatrical” party, the religious leader found himself firmly on the front foot. Iran went from a shadowy belligerent to a justly aggrieved party on the international stage, and it was Trump’s doing.
Meeting in Vienna the day after the IAEA’s announcement of Iranian compliance, Iran clearly held many of the cards. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi was visibly confident. To him, the negotiations rested on whether Europe “can provide us with a package” suitable to Iran. Having complied with the nuclear deal, Iran is emboldened to negotiate more forcefully.
Europe, in contrast to the cocksure and hawkish team inthe White House, fears the future nuclear Iran more than the present belligerent in Syria and Yemen. It has no appetite for conflict in the short or long term. Its relations with Iran are more personable and buttressed by (albeit diminishing) economic ties. Iran is attempting to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies in order to secure gains whatever the outcome of current negotiations over the JCPOA and firmly under the aegis of Trump’s foreign policy
And none of this could come at a better time. Flip-flopping on the North Korea talks, Trump has become the subject of redoubled criticism for his unpredictability. In this context, the Iranian narrative resonated better than ever with those willing to listen. Every discrediting of the president’s diplomatic prowess is another point for Iran. As these stack up, Syria and Yemen float further away from the policy agenda as Iran appears wide-eyed and well-wishing.
The Twitter president clearly has a sense of the importance of public relations and a show confidence. But without a meaningful message on Iran—one that is implementable, inclusive, and detailed—he will only continue to embolden his enemy and alienate his allies.
Daniel Amir is a graduate of Oxford University in Persian Studies and an MSc candidate in Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics. He has extensive experience in counter-terrorism and foreign policy research in Jerusalem, London, and Washington. @Daniel_Amir1.