On the Rocks; Interview With Daniel Roth
By Rafael Hoffman
The idea that President Joseph Biden’s administration would strike a deal to return to the Iran nuclear agreement was long taken as a given. The feeling was justified as the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a key foreign policy achievement of the Obama White House and President Biden made its revival a campaign point in 2020, touting it as the best way to stop Iran from attaining atomic weapons.
Talks in Vienna have been on and off for more than a year and, only this past summer, reports said that a deal was imminent.
Yet, negotiations have not happened now for months, and the Biden administration seems uninterested in restarting them. The initial stall was reportedly over frustrations about Iran’s unwillingness to compromise on certain points the White House deemed high priority. Since then, however, the situation has become far more complicated. In September, the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman allegedly killed by Iranian police for not wearing a hijab in public, sparked massive protests, which have not subsided. Moreover, aggressive government efforts to repress these demonstrations have elicited condemnation from the U.S. as well as from several European countries still party to the JCPOA.
Further chilling talks is Iran’s steady supply of weapons to Russia, aiding its war in Ukraine.
To gain a better understanding as to where prospects of a revived nuclear arrangement stand and where both Iran and the U.S. might be heading in a “no deal” scenario, Hamodia spoke with Daniel Roth, Research Director for United Against Nuclear Iran, a policy organization tracking events in Iran which it perceives as threats posed by the Islamic Republic.
The Biden administration has taken a very different line on Iran over the past few months and seemingly admitted that efforts to revive the JCPOA have failed. Do you think that is an admission that their hopes for reviving the deal are dead?
No, I don’t. I’ve been watching [State Department Spokesman] Ned Price and [U.S. Iran envoy] Rob Malley, the line they are using is that the deal is not their focus right now, that they have concerns about the process and so on. To me, that is not the same thing as saying that the deal is dead.
The reality seems to be that, at the moment, the talks and the deal itself are in a zombie state. But I think a good deal of that is what I would characterize as a “strategic pause.” Simply put, to strike a deal now would just look politically absurd for the U.S. and its partners.
Had the Iranians not killed Mahsa Amini and these protests not happened, I think the U.S. would be much closer to a deal. To strike a deal with a regime that is killing hundreds of protesters in the streets, arresting thousands more, is just too awkward for the U.S. to do.
Then you also have Iranian drones and missiles going to Russia, which makes returning to the deal politically toxic.
That doesn’t mean that if the groundwork shifts, they wouldn’t go back to the table.
Taking the administration at its word that it is not working to return to the JCPOA, what do you think the Biden team’s “no-deal” strategy will be with Iran?
I don’t think they have a long game. The Biden administration started off with an attitude of “Let’s revive the JCPOA by any means possible.” Joe Biden wrote an Op-Ed piece in 2020 laying out his arguments for a return to the deal and that was their plan.
But the Iranians were much more stubborn on some points than the administration anticipated. At the same time, a lot of former proponents of the JCPOA have come out to say that they don’t think it’s viable anymore. Iran’s development has come very far; and the sunset dates are fast approaching. With that in the background, even a lot of Democrats who were once supporters started saying that “2022 is not 2015,” and going back to the JCPOA doesn’t make sense anymore.
Then, as it seemed as if the gaps might be closed, the other unrelated political factors made a return unfeasible for the U.S. But, since the Biden plan was always to return to the deal, I tend to doubt that they have a real plan B.
I’m sure there are people in the State Department and the White House saying that we need to think about a new approach, but my assumption is that most of the decision-makers have not reached that point. I don’t think they’re ready to admit defeat yet.
Iran’s long been a supporter of international terrorism and of rogue regimes. That being the case, why do you think arms sales to Russia create such a stumbling block for the U.S.?
The U.S. took a very strong position on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine and they have to be consistent with that. Now, they’ve been pretty weak on the Ayatollah and Raisi in general, but now the two policies are in conflict. The fact that the European partners to the JCPOA are on board for everything anti-Putin right now helps the U.S. to take a harder stand on Iran as well.
Just recently, the EU and U.K. placed new sanctions on Iran over their weapons supplies to Russia. As long as the war in Ukraine continues, with Iran actively on Russia’s side, it will be very difficult for the U.S. to address Tehran’s nuclear ambitions diplomatically.
To the extent that sanction relief was important to Iran, they really miscalculated by providing drones and missiles to Russia, because it turned not only the U.S. but the Europeans against them.
Countries that took a soft line on Iran until now have turned and they’re ready for Iran without the Islamic Republic leading it. Germany, which is Iran’s largest European trade partner by far, said there will be no more business as usual. Rishi Sunak made some strong statements and even Macron seems to be ready to take a tougher stance.
The role the Ukraine war plays in the talks breaking down is not only about arms sales. Russia was serving as the main intermediary in talks. Since the U.S. left the deal, they were not even allowed into the negotiation room in Vienna. So, the invasion obviously put a chill into that arrangement even before Iran’s weapons started falling on Ukraine.
The fact that Russia would be the main facilitator makes the idea of talks even more ridiculous, since they are obviously not seen as a trustworthy partner as they were in 2015. When Iran agreed to export its enriched uranium then, Russia was the one that took it. Now, there’s no one in the West saying, “Russia is a neutral party, they can store whatever uranium Iran has.” So, there’s bipartisan agreement in the U.S. that there is no real path back now, if for no other reason than the fact that the role Russia would have to play is a non-starter.
What policies would be helpful vis-à-vis Iran with talks perhaps permanently stalled?
The deal continuing in this zombie state helps Iran but doesn’t do much for the U.S. While the U.S. has a lot of sanctions in place, Iran is benefiting from lack of enforcement to the tune of billions. As of a year ago, Iran had sold $20 billion in oil to China, but that number is now up to $38 billion.
If the West is serious about keeping a handle on Iran, the Europeans have a huge role to play. Only the U.S. unilaterally sanctions Iranian oil. The EU only sanctions sales to Syria. If they would adopt the U.S.’ policy, that would make a huge difference.
The European partners could help a great deal by going back to all the pre-JCPOA United Nations sanctions. That would restore the arms embargo and block the missile embargo from expiring. Iran has been in open violation of the deal since 2018, so there is no lack of justification for doing this even among the countries still party to it.
Whether they want to develop strategy for a no-deal reality or to pressure Iran to make the concessions or to strike a new deal, they’ll have to use every tool in their belt which includes a credible military threat. Part of that could be increasing Israel’s military capabilities and giving them the hardware they need to act as a deterrent.
Iran’s oil sales to China and Russia violate U.S. sanctions, but as neither of those nations are on good terms now with America, what actions could be taken to stem the flow of energy revenue to Tehran?
There are a lot of creative solutions that the U.S. has at its disposal.
China has dozens of small oil refineries, called teapots — where they process Iran’s oil — which are all essentially state owned. If the U.S. wants, it could sanction all of them tomorrow. Another effective strategy would be to sanction Chinese banks. Even with the sanctions and tensions that exist now between China and the U.S., there is massive interplay between Chinese banks and America’s financial system. Threatening to cut them off from that could yield results. It’s a good target and it was done under the Obama administration when they were trying to pressure Iran in 2012. There are also more aggressive and, I suppose, risky strategies like using the U.S. Navy to intercept ships and stop the deliveries from happening. You might not want to use that as a first option, but if additional financial steps don’t work, it should be considered.
There’s been a lot of talk of quiet diplomacy by the U.S. to try to stop China from buying Iranian oil; whether that’s true or not, it’s had zero effect. U.S. sanctions now call for zero export and Iran is selling close to 1 billion barrels a day.
What do you expect Iran to do while talks remain stalled? Do you think they would actually develop a weapon?
As long as things remain in the zombie state, I think that Iran will continue to ramp up enrichment and keep spinning their advanced centrifuges walking up to the threshold. What they want now is to be a threshold nuclear state and then they can weigh the pros and cons of going full-blown nuclear.
Remaining as a threshold state is strategically valuable for Iran. They can threaten the world and at the same time continue illicitly exporting their oil and using foreign banks. If they developed an actual bomb, it’s likely that it would cross the line even for China and Russia, who also don’t want to see a nuclear Iran.
Iran has been racked by large-scale protests for over a month, but there have been several such waves over the decades. Do you have reason to believe these demonstrations represent a more serious challenge to the regime than those in the past?
I get the impression that these protests are substantively, qualitatively different. There is a unity across the country that we haven’t seen in previous iterations and the regime has totally failed in its efforts to blame the Kurds, the Balochis, “the Zionists,” the CIA … as they typically do when there is internal unrest. In these protests, you see that Iran’s younger people have lost their respect and fear of this repressive Islamic theocracy. You see it in all the videos of people knocking turbans off clerics’ heads and the like. They don’t want their money going to Gaza and Lebanon to fight for causes they don’t care about. This is a new generation that did not experience the Revolution in 1979 or the war with Iraq in the 1980s. They don’t have hatred of America — it’s hatred of the regime.
It’s a different generation and that is eventually going to precipitate change. It’s hard to know what the timeline would be — realistically you’d have to think years, given that the regime is set on its own survival above all else — but it seems it will eventually have to make massive changes or be changed. The Islamic Republic has not shown itself capable of reform in over four decades, so in the long run, the latter outcome seems the more likely.
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