By Mehrdad Pahlavani, Asia analyst

What made diplomacy vulnerable in Iran: An inside-out perspective

March 15, 2021 - 13:17

Diplomacy, as an efficient art or an efficacious tool to resolve problems, has been undermined in the recent history of Iran's foreign relations. It has been done through creating many impediments and blockages for Iran in areas of diplomacy. This phenomenon to resort to hard politics is familiar to Iranians and its rivals. Confining, or even strangling, dialogue and diplomacy through expanding a wide spectrum of sanctions on Iran and cherishing military expenditure in West Asia is a well-known procedure. This abject slip is still underway. 

There is no doubt that Iran is the most sanctioned country in the world as just during Trump's incumbency in the White House, 3,800 sanctions were imposed on the country. Trump's crazy way of signing these sanctions was a designed to turn such an act into a spectacle. However, lifting sanctions is a tough and long way that almost no one is ready to undertake. Accumulated hard experiences affect foreign relations, and it is necessary to deliberate on Iranian people and diplomats' experience, mindset, and backgrounds to scrutinize the real genealogy of their concept on diplomatic flow.

As a result of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran's administrative section was reshuffled, and top diplomats of the Shah era were not an exception. New technocrats began their careers to work out national problems with a different approach. But several plots and labels from "Iran phobia" to "Islam phobia," from “crippling sanctions” to “maximum pressure” and “regime change”, blocked all efforts.

After a short term of a rosy picture of the JCPOA or the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, again sanctions and anti-Iran measures were renewed, and diplomacy was derailed. In this vein, the possibility of a plagued pessimistic approach against diplomacy is a strong spreading factor as far as diplomacy was paralyzed by Western countries' excessive demands, such as zero nuclear enrichment scenarios or 12 preconditions propounded by Secretary Pompeo. A comprehensive need for diplomacy has been repeatedly felt in Iran as a ray of hope, but it is suppressed due to following reasons:

- Track record in Iran shows that it does lack a rich background of diplomatic efforts offered by the West after 1979. Rumors always portrayed that, behind the scene, some diplomatic channels were activated, but results were not tangible. 

-During the last four decades, the U.S. sanctions, pressure, and isolation weighed more than diplomatic efforts. As the sanction graph has always been soaring since the Islamic revolution, which means that if a single administration in the U.S. tested the chance of diplomacy, simultaneously it imposed more sanctions and pressure. Maryland opinion surveys in Iran published in February 2021 show the depth of distrust; a majority of respondents would only agree to new negotiations after a few years of U.S. compliance with the JCPOA.

- Annoying memories of hidden or evident diplomacy have existed in the mind of the Iranian public. During the George W. Bush administration, cooperation on Afghanistan with Iran resulted in distrust as Iran was designated part of the so-called "axis of evil," and even after the 2015 nuclear deal hailed as a long-term diplomatic engagement, 3,800 kinds of sanctions were imposed. In this vein, some argue that the nuclear agreement is a trap for the country. The arguments are increasingly prominent in the Iranian media, think thanks and universities. The critics argue: “The deal will take more than it gives Iran. It will only restrict the nuclear and military capabilities without gaining any concrete economic benefits. The result will be a weakened Iran to the United States' true intentions, so as to bring down its political system.”

- The most tangible results of diplomatic endeavor for ordinary people will be to lift sanctions in order to create a situation to improve welfare and economic prosperity of the common man which, unfortunately, has never been materialized. Maryland opinion poll in Iran is a testimony to the fact; nearly half of the respondents say the U.S. sanctions have had a “great negative impact,” and over four in five say the sanctions have had a negative impact “on the lives of ordinary people.”  The history of foreign intervention in Iran has also intensified the negative feeling toward diplomacy.

- During recent decades, the importance of diplomacy and interconnection between diplomacy and foreign trade has increased and subsequently led to some sort of economic inter-dependency all across the world. It means countries like Iran grappled in a circle of pressure, sanctions and isolation. Foreign trade paths can only be opened through diplomatic channels. Iran’s huge economic capabilities and resources are not a secret, but diplomats will have to shoulder the burden for paving the way. As diplomatic channels didn't lead to easing of sanctions or opening foreign trade routes, nowadays, the diplomatic community in Iran is under pressure due to others' mistrust sitting at the other side of negotiation table. Despite limited economic opening during Obama's era, the tide changed, and Iranian diplomats were accused of defects and shortcomings: lack of financial transaction, hardships to import basic goods, and disability in selling oil were the sensible and outstanding examples of the defect.

A recent and new wave of media "Mea culpas" from those who formerly supported the nuclear deal well explains Iran's current mood, as is the ascendancy of those who framed the United States as an existential threat bent on Iran's destruction.

All the factors mentioned above indicate that Iranians are pushed to choose the path of resistance economy. The approach insists on internal capabilities that it doesn't fully block diplomacy but simultaneously doesn't only rely on diplomatic initiatives.

Economic resilience is somehow a self-reliance approach that is mostly concentrated on economy. It is hard to spill over this approach to political affairs, but if all-out blockages, as was experienced four decades ago, continue, Iran has to arrange to decrease tools of diplomatic pressure. Pressure for diplomatic success would be the worst option for the West, and it will impose more prestige cost on them, an evident matter which the West is oblivious.

Thus far, Biden's “hidden pressure” is in line with maximum pressure or crippling sanctions; even the administration's official position is aligned with his predecessors.

Several choices are on the table before President Biden. But whether the choices would cement Iranians’ negative view toward diplomacy, which is a revolting feel relied on recent history, or change the tide to fortify an affirmative approach, remains to be seen. Going forward with the current pace, the latter choice at best amounts to a loss of precious time and, at the worst, amounts to squandering the precious opportunity.

As the tide of American administration has changed from Trump's brinkmanship to a new course known somehow as statesmanship, it is expected to see more logical, doable, and practical policy on the 2015 nuclear deal as a basal measure to overcome tough ideas on diplomacy. The flip side is Iranian people and authorities, who face the current economic situation. They need diplomacy based on an equal and logical terms, not giving the upper hand to incumbents on the other side of the table.

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