By Javad Heirannia

Ayatollah Khamenei saw “important fault line” within JCPOA: George Washington University professor

December 14, 2020 - 16:26

TEHRAN – A professor of international business at the George Washington University says Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was right that he “was not enthusiastic” about the 2015 nuclear agreement because he noticed “its important fault line”.

In an important with the Tehran Times, Hossein Askari says the Leader “warned the president of Iran about U.S. duplicity and advised caution.”

Askari also says, “Iran must rely on its own defensive capabilities and support of its long-proven allies.”

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: Biden has introduced his foreign policy team. Antony Blinken has been named secretary of state and Jake Sullivan national security advisor. What is your assessment of this team?

A: These are people who have worked closely with Biden for a number of years. They are a known quantity to him. They are people with much experience. They are not controversial. By that I mean they are not people who have extreme views on anything that I know of. Because they have held important positions before, they are unlikely to have any skeleton in their closet. So they would pass their FBI background checks and would be confirmed by the Senate no matter who controls the Senate in January 2021.

Q: What will be the approach of Biden's foreign policy team toward West Asia (Middle East)?

“The Speaker of Iran’s parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, summed up Iran’s problem well. Namely, Iran’s fate rests in Pasteur (location of Iran’s President) and Bahrestan (location of Parliament).”

A: While Biden will continue America’s support for Israel as its closest ally in the region and almost in the entire world, I believe that Biden will not continue Trump’s over the top and blind support. Biden is more pragmatic. Yes, he wants the support of the Jewish lobby and their campaign donations but he does not want the U.S. foreign policy to be dictated by Israel. I believe that he sees the Pew Research polls about U.S. standing in the Middle East and realizes that this strategy that will not be the best long-term approach for the U.S. or Israel. Having said this, there is little he will do about the location of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem or the Palestinian land annexed by Israel during the Trump era.

When it comes to the Arab countries, there will be a very clear and noticeable shift in U.S. policy. Arab dictators—especially MBS and Sisi— will no longer get a free pass in what they do internally or in the region. U.S. support will be much more conditional. The wings of the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Abu Dhabi will be clipped. They will have to change course, more human rights at home and less brazen and costly human adventures in the region. I believe that Biden will be more sympathetic to Iraq’s needs. He will not send thousands of troops to Iraq but will support them with more advisors and more financial support but at the same time he will try put more distance between Iraq and Iran.

Leaving the details of the JCPOA aside for the moment, as I am sure you will get to it later, Biden will do all he can to improve relations with Iran. Yes, get the JCPOA back on track but much more—to establish diplomatic relations with Iran in his term of office. He will want to do this not only to cement Obama’s legacy but to achieve what six U.S. president have been unable to do since 1980. 

For peace in the Middle East, he will need a Palestinian homeland and an Iran that is welcomed by the U.S. and Europe and whose rights have been restored and respected.

Q: Blinken had spoken about Iran's commitment to the JCPOA but European countries did not fulfill their obligations. To what extent can his personality influence Biden's foreign policy toward Iran?

A: I think Biden has his own views. He is not like Trump to be led by the nose by Kushner and Netanyahu. He will listen to his advisors. Not just to one of them but if most support a position, he is likely to take their advice. But note the role of John Kerry. Yes, he is to be the Climate Tsar, but he will also influence Middle East policy more than you may think.

“With a strong economy, Iran could face external pressures much better and have more support at home.”Q: Barack Obama has told the Washington Post that Biden intends to join the nuclear deal soon after taking office. You opinion please?

A: Well, the restoration of the JCPOA is tough today and will become more difficult with the passage of time. Iran could enrich more uranium. Iran’s economy could deteriorate further and cause more pain for Iranians. Iran could be closer to nuclear breakout if it so chose. All these would make restoration of JCPOA more difficult than it already is.

Q: Will Biden simply go back to the agreement like, or have the conditions changed?

A: Unfortunately not. Trump and his allies, both in the U.S., in Israel and in Arab countries, have raised new conditions and muddied the waters. Namely, Iran’s defensive missile program, Iran’s support of its allies in the region and Iran’s domestic conditions. These new conditions are basically intended to leave Iran defenseless and encroach on its sovereignty. These are all the result of Israel and Saudi Arabia’s pressures on the U.S. So basically Biden’s opening gambit will be for Iran to go back to the JCPOA and give up any enriched uranium since the U.S. withdrawal, withdraw its support for its allies in the region, give up its missile and other military programs and to do what it is told to do like the Arab countries of the PGCC. Needless to say, Iran will not accept this opening offer and will bargain hard and this time will be ready to walk away from a bad deal.

U.S. policymakers don’t appreciate the mindset of the Iranian mindset, especially of those who determine Iran’s foreign policy.

Q: Will Iran go back to the agreement or have the conditions changed for Iran?

A: Absolutely not. If what I know about Iran’s policymakers is that they cannot forget what Iran had to suffer after Saddam Hussein’s invasion. The world, including Iran’s Arab neighbors, supported the invader. Iran was defenseless. Iran cannot afford to be in such a position ever again. Guarantees by the US for Iran’s security are not worth anything as its withdrawal from the JCPOA has shown. Iran must rely on its own defensive capabilities and support of its long-proven allies.

“Sanctions have had an effect but much more damage has come from mismanagement.”Don’t forget, U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA has caused Iran much harm—both economic losses and in human lives. Moreover, the U.S. assassinated General Soleimani. Iran must seek appropriate compensation for these in the negotiations and so state right from the start. Some have suggested Iran should approach the U.S. first. In my opinion, absolutely not as this would be a sign of weakness.

Q: Looking back on the agreement and what has transpired since, what advice do you have to offer to Iran?

A: Let’s be honest. Ayatollah Khamenei was right. He was not enthusiastic about the JCPOA. He saw its important fault line. He warned the president of Iran about U.S. duplicity and advised caution. But Rouhani and Zarif wanted economic relief. So they signed on. They did not take economic positions that would benefit Iran no matter what happened in the future. They were more concerned with the immediate result. And most important, it was an asymmetric deal. Iran undertook irreversible positions such as giving up the bulk of its enriched uranium and pouring concrete into its heavy water reactor while the U.S. gave some measured sanction relief that could be easily reversed, or snapped back, if it chose to do so. It was not a balanced deal. Iran’s negotiators did not have sufficient appreciation of economics and finance and relied heavily on U.S. assurances and the multilateral nature of the deal. But in international affairs, words and pieces of paper mean little and it is raw power that dictates. 

Q: Looking to the future, what should Iran be doing in order to be in a better position in the future?

A: The Speaker of Iran’s parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, summed up Iran’s problem well. Namely, Iran’s fate rests in Pasteur (location of Iran’s President) and Bahrestan (location of Parliament). Iran’s economy has been mismanaged ever since the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Yes, sanctions have had an effect but much more damage has come from mismanagement. I have said the same for 30 years. Just look at South Korea. Its economy was a fraction of Iran’s in 1979 and today it is four times that of Iran’s. Policies matter.

Iran cannot blame all its problems on sanctions. It would have been much easier for Iran if it had started much-needed reforms in 1989. Sadly, it never did. But it is never too late. With a strong economy, Iran could face external pressures much better and have more support at home.

Q: Israel’s Netanyahu recently visited Saudi Arabia and met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, although Riyadh has denied the visit. What is MBS’s goal in warming up to Israel?

A: Saudi Arabia has had a free hand with Trump. Knowing how the Al-Sauds operate, I would bet that MBS has given or pledged much financial reward to Trump-Kushner. So Trump has gone along with his excesses—murdering Jamal Khashoggi, indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen, mass arrests in Saudi Arabia and more. But MBS sees that this party is over. So how can he keep Washington’s support? Through Israel. That’s his new approach. It is plan B. So he told Bahrain and the UAE to warm up to Israel to pave the way. Now he wants to at least have a personal, if not public, agreement with Israel to keep his Washington support intact.