Settlement of Iranian Nuclear File: Risks and Fears

The attack on Salman Rushdie reflects Iran’s exploitation of US laxity in deterring its foes with hard power tools amid the challenges it is facing. Such an attack could happen anywhere in the world; but its occurrence on US territory is a challenge to Washington’s prestige as well as a humiliation.  Rushdie had lived for 30 years in the UK, but was never targeted by Iran or its loyalists, except for one failed attempt. 

This article does not seek to discuss Rushdie’s writings that led Khomeini to issue a fatwa against him, but instead aims to highlight Iran’s security breaches around the world, especially in the United States.  Such an attack does not merely reflect Iran’s targeting of a US citizen or retaliation against Rushdie himself nor the implementation of Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa. Iran had plotted to target US officials; former US National Security Advisor John Bolton was reportedly targeted in an assassination plot.   This is in addition to assassination threats against former US President Donald Trump, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in response to their involvement in the killing of the former Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani.  The new Quds Force Commander Esmail Qaani was tasked with spearheading  these assassination plots by the Iranian supreme leader. Moreover, there was a failed kidnapping attempt on the journalist Masih Alinejad in New York by a network affiliated with Iranian intelligence. Another interesting aspect is the hesitation of the US administration  to issue an official statement  against those involved in these assassination and kidnapping plots,  fearing that it would  impact the ongoing talks to  revive the nuclear deal — despite the fact that Washington  had warned Iran before the discovery of  the plot to assassinate Bolton that it would  face severe consequences if it attacked any US  officials. The aforementioned plot reveals Iran’s ruthless determination to export its policy of assassinations since the 1979 revolution to US territory; and it is likely to mount further assassination attempts in the future.

 US diplomacy to contain Iran while turning a blind eye to its belligerent behavior confirms the fact that Washington does not  understand  Tehran very well.  Since 1979, no US president has ever succeeded in reaching a stable understanding with the Iranian government. The latter has never shifted from its anti-US ideology; it has portrayed the United States as an everlasting enemy in the Iranian mindset to maintain its narrative of countering and resisting threats.  However, the US administration continues to appease Iran to return to the nuclear deal without securing guarantees or tackling the genuine security concerns of regional and global countries.   The United States appeased Iran to such an extent that it accepted Tehran’s condition to negotiate with it via a mediator.

If we look at the whole picture, the duality of US policy becomes apparent. Washington endeavors to mobilize countries to confront Russia’s invasion of Ukraine under the pretext that Moscow breached international law. At the same time, it works to revive the nuclear deal with Iran with the least possible guarantees/conditions despite Tehran supporting Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.  According to official US sources, Iran provided Russia with reconnaissance and attack drones and Russia launched an Iranian satellite to be used in the Ukrainian war theater.  Apparently, the US administration is powerless and unable to uphold the prestige of the United States as the most dominant power since the end of the Cold War. It seems that the United States does not possess a carefully crafted strategy to manage the current challenges it is facing in the international arena.  

Former US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster described the US foreign policy approach of seeing the world through its own lens as “strategic narcissism.”  In his New York Times article, Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, examined  how McMaster’s “strategic narcissism” reflected US policy toward Iran.  Sadjadpour argued that the United States has failed to understand Iran  and now it cannot change  its behavior through diplomacy because anti-Americanism has been the bedrock of  Tehran’s ideology and narrative for decades.  He highlighted the remarks of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami who said that Iran needs enmity with the United States   and the supreme leader said that “no problem can be resolved and negotiations with it [America] have nothing but economic and spiritual loss.”

Whether Iran returns to the nuclear deal or not, the United States is no longer able to uphold the negotiation track that it created; its sanctions on Iran have become ineffective as Tehran has managed to find different ways to sell its sanctioned oil through permanent UNSC member countries such as China.  Iran has gained access to the international arena which nullifies the effectiveness of US sanctions. It joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member and applied to join BRICS despite the fact that it continues to advance its nuclear program with new technology and limit IAEA monitoring of its nuclear sites.  

It is worth noting that the world has resorted to forming unconventional alliances because of the United States’ failure to uphold a clear foreign policy trajectory. Some countries are supporting Iran’s behavior only to challenge US unilateralism and its “strategic narcissism.”  

The United States has always been known for — and capable of — imposing its will through the use of hard power, starting from bringing the Japanese empire to its knees, to dissolving the former USSR through imposing a military and economic siege. But it has now abandoned its use of hard power, replacing it with diplomacy which stems from its belief that this approach will find global acceptance.  Everybody realizes that diplomacy per se is not the source of the United States’ strength. Therefore, the tendency to defy the will of the United States, led by Russia and China, has emerged. Iran sees such defiance as a viable option in the face of US retreat. 

This is not a call to go to war or a call to repeat the tragic invasion of Iraq. But everyone expects the country that sponsors the UN and UNSC to be a formidable player in world affairs and change Iranian behavior to conform to international principles. The US approach is riddled with paradoxes and duality thanks to its disregard of UN norms whenever it pleases while demanding adherence from other countries. This duality triggered some countries to rebel against US “bullying.”  

There is no doubt that Iran, which has incurred over $200 billion in losses according to some estimates, in its pursuit to build a military nuclear program, will not abandon its efforts to build such a program in light of US complacency and international divisions. As the Arab proverb goes, “He who gets away with his misbehavior will repeat it.” Abandoning this decades-long effort to build a nuclear program while enduring sanctions that have adversely impacted most of the resources of the Iranian people would be akin to the self-elimination of the Iranian establishment. Additionally, possessing a nuclear weapon is a dream that preoccupies the minds of Iran’s leadership to project power and make good on the promise to the Iranian people that Iran is capable of standing up to the United States (the “Great Satan”) and Israel. 

Everybody knows that Iran is a revisionist power that seeks to project its clout throughout the region through subversive activities that pose a threat to the areas that are of interest to the United States. The United States, on the other hand, is a world superpower whose hands are fettered. It is sponsoring another revisionist power, Israel. And here emerges the conundrum of resolving the nuclear issue. Iran will never make gratuitous concessions regarding  its nuclear program, nor will the United States and Israel accept it. The United States also has no willingness to engage militarily with Iran for the time being. But if such engagement happens, it will definitely be costly for other countries as well. 

To conclude, the ongoing back-and-forth nuclear talks are tilting toward producing a satisfactory approximation to reach a deal that is acceptable to Iran, the United States and Israel.  The region’s countries should realize that they are the scapegoats in  this settlement. They should not accept this, and they must make such a settlement costly for their adversaries. Furthermore, they should balance between avoiding any harm from the United States and forging parallel balanced relations with multiple partners in the future.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Retired Major General Ahmed bin Ali Almaimouni
Retired Major General Ahmed bin Ali Almaimouni
Director of the Military and Security Studies Unit at Rasanah