INTERVIEW: Band-Aid Diplomacy

By Reuvain Borchardt

A machine gun’s muzzle on an Iranian Revolutionary Guard speedboat is seen as the boat moves near USS Bataan at the Strait of Hormuz, in the mouth of the Persian Gulf, Aug. 20. (Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

Alex Vatanka discusses Iran’s recent agreement to transfer American citizens in its prisons to house arrest.

Vatanka was born in Tehran, and left Iran for Europe in 1986, then came to the U.S. in 2006. He is the founding director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute. He is also a senior fellow in Middle East Studies at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School at Hurlburt Field and teaches as an adjunct professor at DISAS at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Vatanka is the author of two books on Iran and has written chapters for a number of books in international affairs.

He holds a BA in Political Science (Sheffield University, U.K.) and an MA in International Relations (Essex University, U.K.).

The deal reached regarding the release of American citizens in Iranian prisons also involves the unfreezing of $6 billion. The Biden administration insists that safeguards are going to be in place to ensure that the money will be used only for humanitarian causes. How reliable is that?

We’ve heard that the money will be put into accounts in Qatar, and that only transactions involving humanitarian service purchases will be allowed. Whether that will happen in practice or not, it’s impossible for any of us right now to be able to judge.

This is an age-old question: Doesn’t paying money to release hostages encourage Iran to arrest more innocent Americans and hold them for ransom?

That is a valid concern. They’ve done it for a long time; this is something that has become an industry of sorts for this Iranian regime. On the other hand, not only the Biden administration does this. American presidents going back to Ronald Reagan have in one way or another engaged in this practice of getting  American citizens released in return for cash or other concessions given to the Iranians. It’s not a Democrat or Republican issue.

The “problem,” if you can call it a problem, is that the value that American governments put on the well-being of American citizens is such that we’re willing to go here. You can criticize it. But on the other hand, you can say it is to be commended that the U.S. government, both Democrats and Republicans going back 40 years, have attached so much value to the well-being of American citizens.

But does it encourage this sort of behavior by the Iranian regime? That’s a very valid question to ask.

Alex Vatanka (Middle East Institute)

Do you believe this might pave the way for another nuclear deal? Or is it totally separate?

What is very clear is that the two sides have decided that instead of having one meeting around the table and signing a piece of paper saying this is what we’re going to do — which doesn’t seem to work for Biden or the Iranians — they’ve decided to go down the path of informal agreements in the sense that, if you avoid doing certain things, we will reciprocate in kind. And basically, the big issue here is, Iran shouldn’t enrich up to 90% in terms of its nuclear program. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that Iran has slowed its uranium enrichment. That is not part of an agreement as such; it’s been done voluntarily on the Iranian side, but in return, the United States is clearly not enforcing sanctions on Iran the way it could, which has resulted in Iran now reaching new heights in terms of exporting oil to China. Again, that isn’t part of an agreement, either. So it’s been done informally, this unspoken agreement, and partly it’s because of the fact that if there is any concrete written deal signed by both sides, Biden will face a lot of pushback domestically, and he doesn’t want to deal with that politically.

Do you feel that the sanctions are having an effect?

The issue of sanctions has always been: what do you try to achieve? If you are trying to weaken Iran, clearly that’s happened. Their economy is suffering. But is it going to bring the regime down? No. And that was the big sin of the Trump administration. They put maximum pressure on Iran and then President Trump said at the same time, we won’t go to war with Iran over anything. And that gave the Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards the idea that the worst thing we’d do is sanctions, and that they’d find a way to go around it.

They give discounts to the Chinese, they have middlemen around the world facilitating trade, they get their cut. Iran loses billions of dollars in circumventing the sanctions, but they’re getting enough to survive. Of course, surviving is not the same as being in a good place. When you look at Iran today, when you look at countries like UAE, Saudi Arabia, even Iraq, Turkey, everybody’s on a different level in terms of where they are going, how fast they’re going toward economic development plans that they have. Iran basically has its begging bowl in hand trying to just survive another day. And they don’t really have any solid friends out there, when it comes to their economy. Even the Chinese are not investing in Iran, the Russians are not investing in Iran, so who’s left?

So yes, the sanctions are hurting them, but sanctions alone were never going to bring this regime down. And right now in this country, nobody’s going to talk about going to war with Iran. So what’s left?

The critics of the Biden administration’s approach to Iran, these informal agreements, don’t really have a credible alternative. If you hear it, please let me know. I don’t see it. They talk about enforcing the sanctions more. Well, let’s just say if sanctions are enforced, the best enforcement that happened was probably sometime in 2019. The Iranian oil exports came down to 300,000 barrels; today it’s 1.6 million. Yes, that makes a big difference. But never forget, in 2019, that’s when they were doing some of the worst things they’ve ever done. They attacked the Saudi oil facilities.

Saudi oil company Aramco’s damaged oil separator after a
Sept. 14, 2019 drone attack from Yemen by the Iranian-backed Houthi movement. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

So ultimately, what do you feel is the solution? If you were president, would you just enact punishing sanctions? Or would you put on the table going to war?

You’re putting me on the spot; I’m just an analyst!

I think it’s a real tragedy that in this country, an issue that’s been a pain in the neck for 44 years is still an issue where the Democrats and Republicans don’t see eye to eye. I don’t understand why on an issue like Iran’s nuclear program, there is such a stark difference. It would have been nice for Congress to put the tribal politics aside when it comes to the issue of Iran and have a long-term strategy. And that long-term strategy would be one of, first thing you have to do is make a decision: Do we learn to live with this regime, and just hit it hard and force it to change its way including in the region? Do we, for example, change their cost-benefit analysis by hitting them 10 times harder in Syria? What do we need to do to get their attention to get them to fear the U.S. again? Because right now the argument could be made that they don’t fear the United States. At least not enough. And that shouldn’t be a Democratic or Republican issue.

Or you can say, this regime will never adjust its policies, let’s go out there and make the case to the American people that we need to think about regime change — but it’s not going to be Iraq 2003. We’re going to do everything we can think of creatively to help the Iranian opposition.

If you ask the average Iranian activist inside of Iran and outside of Iran today, “What is the United States doing for you?” they’ll say, “Zero.”

You need to make a decision as to what your policy is: Do you negotiate with this Iranian regime seriously, or do you decide there is no point in negotiations? Do you stop pretending that these informal temporary agreements like freeing hostages for $6 billion are a solution to the problem? Or do you accept a temporary reduction in uranium enrichment, knowing that there will be a problem down the road?

Some would argue that it seems the Biden administration is practically begging Iran to come back to the table and Tehran is not interested. Do you agree with that?

I would say there is definitely an element of truth to that. I wouldn’t necessarily say begging. But look, when was the last time Biden made a big Iran speech?

This mullah regime has been in power since 1979. Every few years, you have had a crisis of sorts. And they are the only ones right now, with a few exceptions like the Venezuelas of the world, that have turned anti-Americanism into their ideological commitment.

They’ve given us good grounds to want to focus on this issue and be committed to it and not play politics with it. It’s a tragedy that you have Republicans and Democrats looking into the same issue, and you would think they’re dealing with two different issues. It just makes you wonder if the U.S. is serious about having any policy here.

If you go to Saudi Arabia or other places in the region, there’s a borderline conspiracy theory that the U.S. just wants to leave Iran around to be a troublemaker, because it’s good for U.S. business. That the U.S. needs a bad actor in the region to get everybody else excited and fearful and all the rest of it. That’s how bad it’s become. The perception that the United States doesn’t have an Iran policy is the reason the Saudis are turning to the likes of China to help them keep the Iranian danger at bay.

Trump was supposed to be the guy who would come in and fix everything for them. The Saudis welcomed him with so much hope. And then what happened when the Saudi facilities were hit in 2019 and the Saudis said, is Trump going to come to our aid? Nothing.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) during official nuclear talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) in Geneva, Switzerland, May 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool)

What do you think of Obama’s nuclear deal, and of Trump’s pulling out of it?

I supported Obama’s deal for the simple reason that if you look at the long list of issues that the U.S. was concerned about, the nuclear program was the most pressing one.

Iran was willing to talk about one thing: the nuclear issue, which happened to be the most important one for the United States. The U.S. sat down and cut a deal. There has been lots of disinformation and misinformation over the years, that Obama gave them billions of dollars of U.S. tax money, all that nonsense that people have been publishing.

I’m not defending the Obama administration, because I think if they actually had any inkling that they could talk about the region or push them on reducing the range of their missiles, I don’t see why Obama wouldn’t have gone there. But I think they felt that was the best thing they could come up with under the circumstances, though ideally, they could have pushed more.

But the Trump administration never had a genuine Iran policy. I mean, the guy comes in, in his first week in office, when your biggest tool in the toolbox is the anger of Iranian public opinion — you want to get those Iranians in Iran to love Trump, to do anything Trump wants them to do. So what does he do? He enacts the “Muslim travel ban,” which includes Iran. That had nothing to do with Iran policy — that was part of his political domestic agenda. So it was disjointed from the get-go.

He puts the most severe sanctions on Iran, but he upsets the Europeans, the biggest allies the United States have, and the Europeans spend three years being angry at the United States, which undermines his entire sanctions policy on Iran.

Again, the biggest sin of the Trump administration was to say from the get-go, we will only put sanctions on Iran. When he put John Bolton as his National Security Adviser, he famously said, John, you can do anything but no war with Iran. So he took away the biggest stick. And that disjointed policy was the reason the Iranians decided the best thing they could do — and then ended up doing — was to buy time. They knew Trump would go away, whether it would be in two years or six.

Well, they might get Trump back before long!

Anyway, my final question is, where do you see us being five or 10 years down the line? Will Iran have a nuclear weapon? Will we be at war? Or will we still be where we are now, with threats and sanctions and no real resolution?

Iran has a supreme leader who is 84. He will eventually die. And the folks who are waiting in the wings know that if they want to stay in power long-term, they need to fix that economy and they need to make concessions to their own people on a whole host of levels.

So they cannot just have a nuclear bomb and ignore everything else and expect to survive. That’s too much of a gamble. So I think they might decide that they’re better off being a nuclear-threshold state but not actually getting the bomb, and opening up as much as they can to the global economy, because they need that economy to work again. They don’t want to become another Egypt 2011. They don’t want another revolution. Also, it is more likely that the United States is going to accept nuclear ambiguity on the part of this Iranian regime that has the capacity to become a nuclear weapons state, but doesn’t do it openly or declare it, and the United States is willing to just live with that. That’s more likely than the United States going to war to prevent it.

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